MINSK, Belarus — Tensions were high in Belarus as the country held a presidential election Sunday. Eight staff members for the main challenger to the authoritarian president were reportedly detained by police and one of the campaign’s leading figures fled the country.
The election pits President Alexander Lukashenko, who has held an iron grip on the ex-Soviet nation since 1994, against four others in an atmosphere charged with wide public dismay over the country’s deteriorating economy, political repression and Lukashenko’s brushoff of the coronavirus threat.
Opposition supporters suspect that election officials will manipulate results to give the 65-year-old Lukashenko a sixth term in office. Protests are expected once the polls close Sunday — and Lukashenko has made it clear he won’t hesitate to quash any demonstrations.
“If you provoke, you will get the same answer,” he said after casting his ballot. “Do you want to try to overthrow the government, break something, wound, offend, and expect me or someone to kneel in front of you and kiss them and the sand onto which you wandered? This will not happen.”
Although there are four candidates other than Lukashenko on the ballot, the opposition has coalesced around one: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of a jailed opposition blogger.
Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign has attracted highly visible support, a very unusual development in a country where opposition voices are generally suppressed. One of her rallies in the capital of Minsk was attended by an estimated 60,000 people.
Mindful of Belarus’ long history of violent crackdowns on dissent — protesters were beaten after the 2010 election and six rival candidates arrested, three of whom were imprisoned for years — Tsikhanouskaya has called for calm.
“I hope that everything will be peaceful and that the police will not use force,” she said Sunday after voting.
Tsikhanouskaya emerged as Lukashenko’s main opponent after two other prominent opposition aspirants were denied places on the ballot. One was jailed for charges that he calls political and the other, an entrepreneur and former ambassador to the United States Valery Tsepkalo, fled to Russia after warnings that he would be arrested and his children taken away.
Tsepkalo’s wife Veronika became a top member of Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign, but she, too, has now left the country, campaign spokeswoman Anna Krasulina said Sunday.
Eight members of Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign staff were arrested Sunday and the campaign chief was arrested a day earlier.
Some voters were defiant in the face of Lukashenko’s vow not to tolerate protests.
“There is no more fear. Belarusians will not be silent and will protest loudly,” 24-year-old Tatiana Protasevich said at a Minsk polling place Sunday.
As polls opened, the country’s central elections commission said more than 40% of the electorate had cast ballots in early voting, a figure likely to heighten concerns about the results’ legitimacy because of the potential for manipulation.
“For five nights nobody has guarded the ballot boxes, which gives the authorities a wide field for maneuverings,” Veronika Tsepkalo told The Associated Press on Sunday, a few hours before leaving Belarus.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose assessments of elections are widely regarded as authoritative, was not invited to send observers to the vote.
Tsikhanouskaya had crisscrossed the country, tapping into public frustration with Lukashenko’s swaggering response to the pandemic and the country’s stagnating Soviet-style economy.
Belarus, a country of 9.5 million people, has reported more than 68,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and 580 deaths but critics have accused authorities of manipulating the figures to downplay the death toll.
Lukashenko has dismissed the virus as “psychosis” and declined to order restrictions to block its spread. He announced last month that he had been infected but had no symptoms and recovered quickly, allegedly thanks to doing sports. He has defended his handling of the outbreak, saying that a lockdown would have doomed the nation’s weakened economy.
Belarus has sustained a severe economic blow after its leading exports customer, Russia, went into a pandemic-induced recession and other foreign markets shrank. Before the coronavirus, the country’s state-controlled economy already had been stalled for years, stoking public frustration.
Yet for some voters, Lukashenko’s long, hardline rule is in his favor.
“He is an experienced politician, not a housewife who appeared out of nowhere and muddied the waters,” retiree Igor Rozhov said Sunday. “We need a strong hand that will not allow riots and color revolutions,” a reference to uprisings that forced out leaders in Georgia and Ukraine.
Belarusian authorities last week arrested 33 Russian military contractors and charged them with plans to stage “mass riots.” The political opposition and many independent observers saw the arrests as an attempt to shore up Lukashenko’s sagging public support.
The arrest of the Russians marked an unprecedented spike in tensions between Belarus and Russia, which often have acrimonious disputes despite their close ties.
When Russia and Belarus signed a union agreement in 1996, Lukashenko hoped to use it as a vehicle to eventually lead a unified state as the successor to Russia’s ailing president, Boris Yeltsin. The tables turned after Vladimir Putin became Russian president in 2000, and the Belarusian leader began resisting what he saw as a Kremlin push for control over Belarus.