Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is set for an overwhelming victory in a presidential election, an official exit poll said, after a political newcomer mounted an historic challenge to the strongman leader.
The exit poll for state television on Sunday gave Lukashenko 79.7 percent of the vote, with his main challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya coming second with 6.8 percent.
The opposition had said it expected the results to be rigged and some were already calling for protests on Sunday night. The atmosphere in the capital, Minsk, was tense, with police and special forces on the streets and a Soviet-era protest song blasting from car radios and flats.
Huge queues had formed outside polling stations in Minsk and other cities before voting ended at 8pm local time (17:00 GMT) after Tikhanovskaya urged her supporters to vote late to give authorities less chance to falsify the election.
The first official results were expected later on Sunday. The opposition said it would keep an alternative count.
‘I want honest elections’
Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and is seeking a sixth term, has warned the opposition he is not planning to give up his “beloved” Belarus and security was dramatically tightened in the capital on Sunday.
Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old English teacher by training and stay-at-home mother, mounted a surprise opposition campaign against Lukashenko after her husband, a popular blogger, was jailed and barred from running.
Tens of thousands of supporters attended her rallies and many voters wore the opposition’s trademark white bracelets at polling stations on Sunday.
“I want honest elections,” she told cheering supporters outside a polling station in Minsk after a gruelling campaign that saw her draw massive crowds throughout the country.
The atmosphere in Minsk was tense, with police and special forces on the streets and many residents saying it was impossible to connect to the internet.
“It is unbearable to have him in power for so many years. The man should understand himself that he must just leave,” said Yuri Kanifatov in Moscow, who voted against Lukashenko.
Voting under way in Belarus as protests rattle Lukashenko
Portraying himself as a guarantor of stability but criticised by the West as dictatorial, Lukashenko says the opposition protesters are in cahoots with foreign backers to destabilise the country.
Casting his vote, Lukashenko vowed to maintain order, suggesting his opponents may be planning unrest. “Nothing will get out of control, I guarantee you … whatever certain people have planned,” he said.
Political observers predicted Lukashenko would rig the vote in the absence of international observers. He won over 83 percent in previous polls in 2015.
“Lukashenko a priori 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.
Tikhanovskaya’s campaign office on Sunday said one of her key allies, Veronika Tsepkalo, had left for Russia out of concern for her safety.
Tsepkalo’s ex-diplomat husband Valery Tsepkalo was barred from standing. Maria Kolesnikova, campaign chief of ex-banker Viktor Babaryko, was also dropped from the polls and was jailed on Saturday but later released.