Voting is drawing to a close in Belarus, where long-time President Alexander Lukashenko is facing his toughest challenge in years from a political novice.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, 37, entered in place of her jailed husband, becoming the leading opposition candidate.
But an exit poll, reported by state TV, has predicted a huge victory for Mr Lukashenko, as in previous elections.
Tensions are high, with opposition supporters expected to protest.
Squares and streets in the capital Minsk are being sealed off by police. Mr Lukashenko earlier vowed that the situation would remain “under control”.
The lead-up to the election saw a crackdown on activists and journalists amid the country’s biggest opposition demonstrations in years.
After voting on Sunday, Mr Lukashenko said he did not see Ms Tikhanovskaya as a threat, and denied imposing repressive measures on the opposition.
“They are not worth enough to carry out any repression against them,” he said.
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Ms Tikhanovskaya was greeted by an excited crowd chanting her name when she cast her ballot in Minsk.
“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,” she said.
While voting has now ended in most of the country, the election commission said it had been extended at some polling stations due to long queues.
The exit poll, which was conducted by a pro-government youth organisation, showed Mr Lukashenko winning 79.7% of the vote and Ms Tikhanovskaya receiving just 6.8%.
What’s the context?
Sometimes referred to as Europe’s last dictator, President Lukashenko, 65, was first elected in 1994.
In the last vote in 2015, he was declared winner with 83.5% of the vote. There were no serious challengers and election observers reported problems in the counting and tabulation of votes.
But this year’s election has been closely watched amid growing signs of frustration at his leadership.
The campaign saw the rise of Ms Tikhanovskaya, a former teacher who became a stay-at-home mother until she was thrust into the political spotlight.
After her husband was arrested and blocked from registering for the vote, she stepped in to take his place.
In the lead-up to the election she told the BBC that people in Belarus did not believe the election would be run fairly.
“But I still believe that our president will understand that his time is over. People don’t want him anymore,” she said.
President Lukashenko has dismissed Ms Tikhanovskaya as a “poor little girl”, manipulated by foreign “puppet masters”.
Tens of thousands defied an escalating crackdown on the opposition last month to attend a protest in the capital Minsk, the largest such demonstration in a decade.
Since the start of the election campaign in May, more than 2,000 people have been detained, according to Human Rights Centre Viasna.
On the eve of the vote Ms Tikhanovskaya’s team said her campaign manager had been arrested and would not be released until Monday.
And on Sunday, as people voted, internet service was “significantly disrupted”, said online monitor NetBlocks. Opposition supporters say this makes it harder for evidence of election fraud to be collected and shared.
Is anyone else running?
There are three other candidates:
- Anna Kanopatskaya, a former MP who won a rare seat for the opposition in parliamentary elections in 2016
- Sergei Cherechen, the leader of the Social Democrat party
- Andrei Dmitriyev, the co-chair of the Tell the Truth movement, a campaign group which has been raided by the authorities
Two key opposition figures were barred from running and threw their weight behind Ms Tikhanovskaya’s campaign.
One of them, Valery Tsepkalo, fled Belarus ahead of the contest, fearing arrest. His wife Veronika stayed behind, becoming a key campaigner for Ms Tikhanovskaya.
It emerged on Sunday that Ms Tsepkalo had also now left Belarus for Moscow, for “safety” reasons.
Anger towards Mr Lukashenko’s government has been in part fuelled by the response to coronavirus.
The president has downplayed the outbreak, advising citizens to drink vodka and use saunas to fight the disease.
Belarus, which has a population of 9.5 million, has had nearly 70,000 confirmed cases and 600 deaths.
Article source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-53707011