Belarus holds election as street protests rattle long-ruling president

MINSK (Reuters) – Belarus voted in an election on Sunday pitting President Alexander Lukashenko against a former teacher who emerged from obscurity to lead the biggest challenge in years against the man who has ruled the country for a quarter of century.

The 65-year-old Lukashenko is almost certain to win a sixth consecutive term but could face a new wave of protests amid anger over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and his human rights record.

A crackdown on the opposition could hurt Lukashenko’s attempts to mend fences with the West amid fraying ties with traditional ally Russia, which has tried to press Belarus into closer economic and political union.

A former Soviet collective farm manager, Lukashenko has ruled since 1994.

He faces a surprise rival in Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, a former English teacher who entered the race after her husband, an anti-government blogger who intended to run, was jailed.

Her rallies have drawn some of the biggest crowds since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and on Sunday she arrived at a polling station with hundreds of supporters chanting her name.

She expressed hope for a free election.

Human rights groups say more than 1,300 people have been detained in the crackdown, including independent election observers and members of Tikhanouskaya’s campaign team.

After casting his vote, Lukashenko denied imposing repressive measures as “fake news or far-fetched accusations” and said he did not regard Tikhanouskaya’s camp as a threat.

“They are not worth enough to carry out any repression against them,” he said.

‘POWER AT ANY COST’

Foreign observers have not judged an election to be free and fair in Belarus for a quarter of a century and Lukashenko has warned protesters against taking to the streets after the vote.

In possible anticipation of unrest, local media reported squares being blocked off by the authorities in Minsk and the presence of some soldiers on the capital’s outskirts.

Social media networks experienced disruption.

Queues also formed outside the Belarusian embassies in Moscow and Kyiv for voters casting their ballot abroad.

“It is unbearable to have him in power for so many years. The man should understand himself that he must just leave,” said Yuri Kanifatov in Moscow, who voted against Lukashenko.

Portraying himself as a guarantor of stability but criticised by the West as dictatorial, Lukashenko says the opposition protesters are in cahoots with foreign backers to destabilise the country.

“Lukashenko a priori made it clear that he intends to retain his power at any cost. The question remains what the price will be,” said political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky.

Wedded to a Soviet-style economic model, Lukashenko has struggled to raise incomes and living standards in recent years. He also faced anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which he dismissed as a “psychosis” while suggesting drinking vodka and playing ice hockey as remedies.

Ignoring jibes about a woman’s fitness to run for office, Tikhanouskaya launched her campaign with the support of the wives of two other candidates, Viktor Babariko, who was jailed, and Valery Tsepkalo, who had fled abroad fearing arrest.

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