There have been protests around Belarus as President Aleksandr Lukashenko won another landslide election amid accusations of voter suppression and criticisms of his leadership.
There were scenes of protest that turned violent after a government crackdown in Minsk following an exit poll that was released with voting still ongoing showing a 79.7% share of the vote for Lukashenko, and only a measly 6.8% for his most direct rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. The eventual result showed an even stronger 80% for Lukashenko.
In what has been called Europe’s last dictatorship, Aleksandr Lukashenko has been ‘elected’ for the last five elections that have been characterised by jailed opponents and dubious polling information. This election appears to have been different.
After barring those who stood against him, the wives of Lukashenko’s opponents and campaign manager had united in opposition to him in what was considered to be the first serious challenge to his leadership. Coupled with a decrease in popular support following a poor response to the coronavirus, there was hope for the first time in a long while in Belarus that actual change may be possible.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova are the wives of presidential candidates and a campaign manager barred from running. They had united behind Ms. Tikhanoskaya, who had pledged to release political prisoners and hold free and fair elections within six months if elected.
This led to a feminist challenge to an openly misogynist leader. In the days leading up to the vote, he referred to Ms. Tikhanovskaya as “a poor little girl” that was being manipulated by “foreign puppet masters”.
Svetlana and Maria’s husbands were jailed during the campaign, while Veronika’s husband fled to Moscow with their two sons after learning he was likely next. Valery fled on Sunday night. On the eve of the election, Ms. Tikhanovskaya herself went into hiding after 9 campaign staffers were arrested late Saturday night.
Lukashenko had faced intense criticism over his handling of COVID-19. Initially, he had denied its existence, advocating vodka as treatment as his people became infected. He recently then admitted he had caught the virus himself. This, along with a crippled economy, had led to never before seen crowds of up to 60,000 people a day to see Ms. Tikhanovskaya speak.
Nerves over the potential of the outcome were evident in the more than 2,000 people who were detained in the run up to the election. Press credentials were refused access to international media. A Russian outlet was reportedly handcuffed midway through the day. Internet monitoring group ‘NetBlocks’ said connectivity had been "significantly disrupted", with the situation worsening throughout the day and creating an "information vacuum".
Lukashenko was quoted as saying his rivals were not even “worthy” of repression. Realistically a challenge to his leadership was always likely to falter. The threat to the position of elites within the country, and the real threat upon families of poll station staffers meant real reporting of data was never likely. A record 40% of votes cast were before the election day, with long queues and ballots running out suggesting multiple polling stations with over 100% turnout.
While Lukashenko may have survived this election as he has many before, there is the feeling that now is when the real criticism begins.