Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has emerged as the main opponent of the Belarusian president in the August 9 vote.
Belarus is voting in an election pitting President Alexander Lukashenko against a former teacher who emerged from obscurity to lead the biggest challenge in years against the man once dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”.
As he cast his ballot in the election, Lukashenko on Sunday said he would make sure there is no civil-war-like
situation in Belarus, calling the situation “stable”. “I guarantee it,” he said.
Lukashenko, 65, is almost certain to win a sixth consecutive term, but could face a new wave of protests amid anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, and his human rights record.
A former Soviet collective farm manager, Lukashenko has ruled the country of 9.5 million since 1994.
An ongoing 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 a closer economic and political union.
He faces a surprise rival in Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher who entered the race after her husband, an anti-government blogger who intended to run, was jailed.
“I really want the election to be honest, because if the authorities have nothing to fear, if all the people are for Alexander Grigoryevich [Lukashenko], then we will agree with that,” Tikhanovskaya said as she cast her ballot in the capital, Minsk.
Her rallies have drawn some of the biggest crowds since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Human rights groups say more than 1,300 people have been detained in a widening crackdown.
Authorities barred her husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, from running and then jailed him.
Tikhanovskaya’s campaign office on Sunday said one of her key allies, Veronika Tsepkalo, had left the country for Russia out of concern for her safety.
Tsepkalo, whose ex-diplomat husband Valery Tsepkalo was barred from standing in the election, had backed Tikhanovskaya in the campaign and her husband had already fled to Moscow fearing arrest.
Foreign observers have not judged an election to be free and fair in Belarus for a quarter of a century.
Despite an election commission ban on the opposition holding an alternative vote count, Tikhanouskaya urged her supporters to monitor polling stations.
“We are in the majority, and we don’t need blood on the city streets,” she said on Saturday. “Let’s defend our right to choose together.”
Portraying himself as a guarantor of stability, Lukashenko says the opposition protesters are in cahoots with foreign backers, including a group of 33 suspected Russian mercenaries detained in July and accused of plotting “acts of terrorism”.
Analysts said their detention could be used as a pretext for a sharper crackdown after the vote.
“Lukashenko [had] 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.