Polling came to an end on Sunday as Belarusians cast their vote in the country's presidential elections, with President Alexander Lukashenko pitted against unlikely candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Lukashenko won Sunday's election with 79.7% of the vote, according to an official exit poll.
Main opposition challenger Tsikhanouskaya came second with 6.8%, according to the poll. However, Tsikhanouskaya rejected the numbers.
"I believe my eyes, and I see that the majority is with us," she said.
Independent media outlet TUT.by published a video showing an altercation between the riot police and a group of protesters.
In Belarus, security forces allegedly started detaining people who were still lining up to cast their ballots. Parts of the city center and the subway system were reportedly closed off by the police. Eyewitnesses spoke of groups of protesters being broken up by the security forces.
Lukashenko: Things 'would not go out of hand'
Police set up checkpoints outside the capital to quash potential protests at the election outcome and the detention of at least eight opposition campaign workers. After casting his ballot on Sunday, Lukashenko promised that "situation would not go out of hand." Problems with accessing websites in Belarus have been reported throughout the day.
On Sunday evening, Tsikhanouskaya said Belarusians have "woken up."
"People have finally breached their own fear," the candidate was quoted as saying by the Russian Meduza website. "I believe that we have won, because we have won against our fear, against being apolitical, we won against apathy and indifference."
Escalating protests were reported in Minsk and other major cities on Sunday evening. Belarusian nationals who attempted to vote in the country's diplomatic offices in Russia, but were turned away due to polls closing, were reportedly also protesting. An exit poll among the Moscow-based Belarusian expats showed 78.5% voting for Tsikhanouskaya and only 6% for Lukashenko – a reverse result to the one published by the state media in Belarus.
Official preliminary results are expected on Monday.
Poll majority no great shock
DW's Moscow correspondent Emily Sherwin said the official poll result was not a surprise given past result and that there had been widespread reports of violations at the ballot box.
"Even before the elections, Lukashenko himself had said that he wouldn't be giving up power," Sherwin said.
However, she said the low support reflected for Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya in the poll had not been expected.
"It does seem surprising if you look at the unprecedented amount of support that we've been seeing for Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya even out on the streets. It's very rare for people to protest in Belarus at all. Usually protesters immediately get arrested and we've been seeing up to 60,000 people gathering in support of Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya so in a sense that really doesn't add up with the numbers that we've now seen in this exit poll."
DW's correspondent from Belarus, Alexander Burakov, was detained ahead of the vote.
'No people would stand for that'
Opposition politician and one-time Lukashenko rival Andrei Sannikov disputed the official poll, telling the Russian Dozd TV channel that the Belarusian president "lost with a bang."
He said that Lukashenko's handling of the pandemic was "the last straw" for the voters.
According to Sannikov, who ran against Lukashenko in 2010, the strongman leader also banned the closure of schools and "insulted people who died of COVID-19."
"He called them fat, he used derogatory terms, said it's their own fault and so on," the opposition activist said. "No people would stand for that."
Russian observer says vote 'legal'
Voting was not observed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as the group did not receive a timely invitation.
Russian lawmaker Sergey Kryuchek, one of the observers sent by the Russian parliament, reported no major violations.
He described the vote as "legal and self-sufficient" in comments carried by the Russian Interfax news agency.
When asked about her message to the losing candidates on Sunday, Central Election Commission chief Lidia Yermoshina said the most important thing is to "know how to accept defeat."
"That is to make peace with it, accept it, to congratulate," she said. "Not to create concerns for the crowd which has supported them and which may, if the candidate incites them, take to the streets."
'We will not give the country to you'
Tsikhanouskaya, a stay-at-home mother and former teacher, was tapped to run after authorities began a crackdown on opposition figures, including her husband. Lukashenko's main rival, Viktor Babariko, was jailed over fraud and embezzlement charges and subsequently banned from standing in the election.
Belarusian authorities have detained more than 1,000 protesters since election campaigning began in May, according to the human rights group Viasna. Journalists in Belarus have also been detained.
The 65-year-old Lukashenko took power in 1994 and isEurope's longest-serving leader. Ahead of the vote, Lukashenko warned that dissent would not be tolerated and that he would not give up his "beloved" Belarus.
"We will not give the country to you," Lukashenko said of his opponents, as he addressed the nation earlier this week.
An unlikely candidate
Tsikhanouskaya, who ran in place of her jailed husband, YouTube blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, posed Lukashenko's greatest challenge yet.
Tsikhanouskaya's rallies drew some of the largest crowds since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Her presidential bid has given rise to an informal new protest movement, with many in the ex-Soviet country calling for Lukashenko to quit.
The 37-year-old, from a small southwestern town, has said she has no interest in politics. She has campaigned to remove Lukashenko, free political prisoners — including her husband — and reduce the country's reliance on Russia.
Tsikhanouskaya has promised to step down within six months to hold a new and free presidential vote, which would allow banned opposition candidates to run for Belarus' top post.
This article has been updated to reflect the Belarusian spelling of the opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
mvb,dj/dr (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters, Interfax)