Riot police clashed with protesters in Belarus overnight after a government exit poll predicted Sunday President Aleksander Lukashenko, an authoritarian who has ruled the Eastern European country since 1994, had overwhelmingly defeated a pro-democracy opposition candidate.
Why it matters: It’s a precarious moment for the former Soviet republic, where decades of repression and a complete disregard for the coronavirus pandemic threaten to topple “Europe’s last dictator.” Rights groups said at least one protester was killed and dozens more wounded in a “police crackdown,”
Election officials in Belarus said Monday that President Alexander Lukashenko has won his sixth consecutive term with over 80% of the vote after facing his strongest challenge in 26 years and protests over his cavalier brushoff of the coronavirus, political repression and the country’s deteriorating economy.
Thousands of people took to the streets in a number of Belarusian cities and towns on Sunday night, protesting the early count that indicated Lukashenko’s landslide victory. Opposition supporters said they believe the election results were rigged and planned to gather in Minsk for more protests on Monday evening.
“We don’t recognize these results,” opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, 37, said Monday. The Central Election Commission of Belarus gave the former teacher and political novice 9.9% of the vote to the 65-year-old incumbent’s 80.23%. Tsikhanouskaya said her team was conducting its own ballot count.
“According to the data we receive from precincts, we won, and this corresponds with what we saw at polling stations,” she said. “People stood in lines at polling stations in order to vote for Tsikhanouskaya. I believe my own eyes rather than the data of the Central Election Commission.”
Lukashenko called the election “a festive occasion” and accused the opposition of trying to ruin it.
“We won’t allow (them) to tear the country apart,” he said.
The protesters expressing anger over the outcome of Sunday’s election faced rows of riot police who moved quickly to disperse them, firing flash-bang grenades and beating the demonstrators with truncheons. Human rights groups said one person was killed – which the authorities denied – and dozens were injured.
According to the Viasna human rights group, more than 200 protesters were detained. The crackdown followed a tense campaign that saw massive rallies against Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation with an iron fist since 1994.
The Interior Ministry said Monday no one was killed during the protests and called reports about a fatality “an absolute fake.” According to officials, 89 people were injured during the protests, including 39 law enforcement officers, and some 3,000 people were detained.
The Investigative Committee of Belarus opened a criminal probe Monday into mass riots and violence toward police officers.
European officials urged Belarusian authorities to adhere to standards of democracy and respect the people’s civil rights on Sunday.