MINSK: Voters and journalists surround joint opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (centre) as she arrives to cast her ballot at a polling station on Sunday.—AFP
MINSK: Voters and journalists surround joint opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (centre) as she arrives to cast her ballot at a polling station on Sunday.—AFP

MINSK: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was set for an overwhelming victory in a presidential election on Sunday, an official exit poll said, after a political newcomer mounted a historic challenge to the strongman.

The exit poll for state television gave Lukashenko 79.7 per cent of the vote, with main challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya coming second with only 6.8 per cent.

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 the capital Minsk and other cities before voting ended at 8pm local time, after Tikhanov­skaya urged her supporters to vote late to give authorities less chance to falsify the election.

Central Election Commission chief Lidia Yermoshina, who had denounced the queues as an “organised provocation”, said most polling stations had closed as planned but that voting would be extended at some to allow waiting voters to cast their ballots.

“I hope that the vote will also end without any problems” at these stations, she said on public television.

The first official results were expected in the evening, and the opposition said it would keep an alternative count.

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.

Columns of military vehicles were seen on roads into Minsk, police carrying machineguns checked vehicles entering the city and government buildings were cordoned off.

Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old English teacher by training and stay-at-home mother, has emerged as the symbol of the ex-Soviet country’s new protest movement against Lukashenko’s rule.

She decided to run for president after the authorities jailed her husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikha­no­vsky, and barred him from running.

“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.

At polling stations, many wore white bracelets that have become a symbol of the opposition. Tikhano­vskaya wore one on each wrist.

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,” the strongman said.

Political observers predicted Lukashenko would rig the vote in the absence of international observers. He won over 83 per cent at previous polls in 2015.

Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2020