Belarus’s opposition candidate for president went into hiding the night before challenging longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko on Sunday in the country’s most unpredictable election in a generation.
Candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya fled her apartment after police detained several senior staffers in what critics called an attempt to scare the opposition ahead of the crucial vote.
“She won’t spend the night at home so that she is not alone. But she is not fleeing Minsk, she will remain in the city,” a press secretary told journalists.
Polls opened on Sunday after a blockbuster campaign that has seen the country’s largest opposition political rallies since the fall of the Soviet Union. Lukashenko, who has consolidated immense power over 25 years of rule, is expected to claim victory but anger over vote rigging will likely trigger protests.
There were already signs of a crackdown heading into the vote. On Saturday, riot police in balaclavas made arrests to break up impromptu demonstrations against Lukashenko. Pro-Lukashenko ads on state television showed chaotic scenes of “colour revolutions” from other post-Soviet states. Local media have warned of a possible internet shutoff to stifle protests following Sunday’s vote.
Lukashenko is facing unprecedented anger over his handling of the economy and a bungled coronavirus response. Ahead of the elections, he has jailed opposition candidates and targeted foreign allies, accusing Moscow of sending mercenaries to destabilise the country.
Tikhanovskaya was initially a stand-in candidate for her husband, a popular YouTuber jailed in spring by the authorities. She has grown into an effective campaigner, attracting more than 63,000 people to a campaign rally last month in Minsk. She has been joined onstage by two other female politicians in a “trio” that has transformed the image of the country’s male-dominated politics.
More than a third of Belarusians have already cast ballots in early voting, an unusually high number that critics say indicate ballot stuffing. Vote monitors contacted by the Guardian said they had been expelled from polling stations in favour of loyalists who were unlikely to raise challenges. A photograph that went viral showed one vote monitor standing on a stool peering through a polling station window with a pair of binoculars.
The opposition has said it will challenge vote rigging at polling stations but has stopped short of calling supporters out onto the streets. “We’re not calling people to a Maidan,” Tikhanovskaya told Belarusian news site Tut.by in an interview published on Friday, referring to the 2014 revolution in Ukraine. “We want honest elections. Is that a crime?”