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Belarus elections: Lukashenko's authoritarian grip faces test

Alexander Lukashenko is seeing his dominance challenged in an election campaign that has held several surprises. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya's campaign has given the opposition in Belarus a female profile.

It has been a long time since a presidential election in Belarus promised to be as exciting as the vote scheduled for Sunday. Initially, the election looked as if it would be a routine victory for the authoritarian incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic on the European Union's eastern border since 1994.

The 65-year-old former director of a large Soviet agricultural enterprise, Lukashenko is the longest-serving president in Europe. EU media refer to him as "Europe's last dictator."

The 2020 election campaign has not turned out the way Lukashenko likely expected. In just a matter of weeks, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old teacher and interpreter and the wife of the imprisoned blogger and activist Syarhei Tsikhanousky, has become a symbolic figure for Lukashenko's opponents. When her husband, whom Amnesty International describes as a "prisoner of conscience," was not permitted to run in the election, Tsikhanouskaya entered the race — and tens of thousands of people attended her rallies. "I'm tired of being silent," she said at a rally in the capital, Minsk, at the end of July.

Read moreLukashenko is playing games to keep his grip on power

An emerging opposition

Unlike in neighboring Ukraine, people in Belarus were long thought of as politically passive by international observers, partly thanks to Lukashenko's relatively successful economic policies, which benefited from close ties with Russia. In the past years, however, there have been repeated disputes with Moscow over energy shipments.

Now, people's willingness to protest seems to have increased. Voters stood in long lines to give their signatures in support of opposition candidates, as required under Belarusian election law, and they took to the streets in nationwide protests when candidates were arrested. 

Leaders of the nationalist opposition parties, who have fought Lukashenko without success for years, were unable to agree on a candidate. Some of them have been arrested.

One of the new social phenomena associated with this election is the involvement of the urban middle class, which had tended to steer clear of public political statements. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why two representatives of the ruling elite announced that they, too, wanted to run for president: Viktor Babariko, the longtime head of Belgazprombank — a subsidiary of the Russian energy giant Gazprom — and Valery Tsepkalo, a former diplomat and the founder of Belarus Hi-Tech Park.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya stands in front of a mural (Getty Images/AFP/S. Gapon)

Tsikhanouskayahas become a symbol of the opposition in Belarus

The willingness of these two men to challenge Lukashenko was one of this campaign's biggest surprises. They did not get far and were not admitted as candidates on procedural grounds. Babariko was accused of economic crimes and arrested and remains in custody, and Tsepkalo left for Russia with his family. 

The fact that Babariko and Tsepkalo's campaigns, led by young women, joined Tsikhanouskaya's has given the opposition in Belarus a clear female profile. Women have been showing up for rallies to put an end to Lukashenko's presidency. Two of the five candidates on Sunday's ballot are women.

With no independent polling, it is hard to say how much of a challenge Tsikhanouskaya will pose for Lukashenko. State media claim that Lukashenko has the support of about 70% of Belarusians. Some opposition politicians and media report that the president's approval rating is, in fact, in the single-digit range.

The coronavirus campaign

Many of the approximately 9.5 million Belarusians have been angry about how the state has dealt with the pandemic. As the novel coronavirus spread in Belarus, Lukashenko ignored it.

The president recommended vodka and sauna visits as protective measures. Lukashenko refused to impose a lockdown.

At the end of July, Lukashenko admitted that he had contracted COVID-19. The president's opponents, who had taken the problem seriously from early on, had worn masks and kept their distance.

Watch video 01:26

Belarus opposition hosts largest rally in a decade

Where is Russia?

In previous presidential elections in Belarus, there was a geopolitical division of roles: Lukashenko advocated closer ties to Russia, while the opposition urged better relations with the European Union. That division is not as pronounced ahead of the current election. Relations with Russia have been tense for months — partly because Lukashenko himself has balked at a still closer integration between the countries.

Alexander Lukashenko walks past Vladimir Putin during a press conference in St. Petersburg (picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Lovetsky)

Lukashenko's strained ties with Putin have raised questions over his ability to hold onto power

The president has accused Russia of interfering in past election campaigns and supporting opposition candidates. Just days before Sunday's election, news of the arrest of 33 Russians accused by Belarusian authorities of being "mercenaries" with a private Russian combat squad caused a stir. Belarus accuses them of plotting mass unrest, which Russia has denied.

Read moreJournalists under pressure in Belarus as Lukashenko runs for presidency

It is unlikely that Lukashenko will lose the election — but it no longer seems impossible. The head of state has never shied away from holding on to power by force. Protests after the 2010 presidential election were brutally suppressed and opposition leaders arrested.

Back then, the United States and EU reacted with sanctions that were left in place until just a few years ago. Now history may repeat itself. Some observers fear the emergence of a police state.

The future of Belarus will become apparent after Sunday's election whether and how much he has changed in that regard.

This article has been updated to reflect the Belarusian spelling of the opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.