By Ignacio Ortega
Moscow, Aug 9 (efe-epa).- Belarusian President Alexandr Lukashenko was reelected Sunday with 80 percent of the votes, according to exit polls, a victory marked by arrests of opposition protesters and journalists, the blocking of the Internet and suspicions of fraud.
“The most important thing is to know how to accept defeat. That is, accepting (the result) and congratulating” one’s rival, Lidia Yermoshina, the feared head of the Central Election Commission, a post she has held since 1996.
Lukashenko, 65, has been in power since 1994 and was seeking a sixth presidential term amid tensions with Minsk’s main ally, Russia, and thawing relations with the United States, which on Sunday sent a second shipment of petroleum to Belarus to help cover the shortfall created by the halting of Russian oil shipments to the former Soviet region.
According to exit polls made public by the Belta news agency, Lukashenko, widely dubbed Europe’s last dictator, received 79.7 percent of the votes, a win which could keep him in office until 2025, an unprecedentedly long term in office in modern European history.
Meanwhile, the presidential candidate of the unified opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, obtained 6.8 percent of the votes, a result quite a bit below what had been predicted by analysts.
Tikhanovskaya, who in May assumed the leadership of the opposition after the arrest of her husband Sergey Tikhanovsky, the country’s most popular blogger, managed in recent weeks to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people throughout Belarus.
“The country cannot belong to just one person,” the opposition leader said on Saturday, promising if she won the election to convene truly democratic elections within six months.
Tikhanovskaya is part of a troika with two other women – Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of an exiled candidate, and Maria Kilesnikova, the representative of arrested banker and presidential aspirant Victor Barariko.
Despite their efforts, Lukashenko has insisted that a woman cannot become president of Belarus.
“I don’t consider that person as my main opponent. It’s you (the communications media) who have made her into my main rival. She herself has admitted that she doesn’t know where she is or what to do,” Lukashenko told reporters after casting his ballot.
The overwhelming preliminary support by voters for the status quo under Lukashenko come in contrast to the huge popular discontent over his management of the nation during the coronavirus pandemic, with Belarus having suffered almost 70,000 confirmed cases and 587 reported deaths.
“In our country, not a single person has died from the coronavirus. Not one!” Lukashenko declared, words that rocketed around the world and prompted calls for a visit to Belarus by the World Health Organization.
To that must be added the country’s economic stagnation, with the World Bank forecasting a 4 percent contraction of the economy this year, the biggest drop in 25 years, as well as public indignation over the massive arrests of activists, reporters and election observers.
“Sasha 3 percent” was the nickname for Lukashenko that was popularized on the social networks in recent months due to his ostensibly low level of popularity among his fellow citizens.
The state’s repression of opponents continued on election day with the arrest of one of Tikhanovskaya’s main collaborators, with 10 people close to the opposition candidate having been arrested for various alleged crimes in recent days.
Out of fear of being arrested, Tsepkalo urgently fled Belarus and took refuge in Moscow, to where her husband and two of her children had already exiled themselves.
After the precincts closed on Sunday and the exit poll results giving the resounding win to Lukashenko were made public, opposition activists gathered around several polling places despite the warnings of the authorities.
Police arrested several opposition members and violent clashes erupted between demonstrators and anti-riot personnel.
Specifically, after Lukashenko warned that a revolution like the one in Ukraine would not be permitted to occur in Belarus, security forces reinforced their presence in downtown Minsk and cordoned off government buildings, parks and city squares.