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Demonstrators stand in front of riot police during a protest after polls closed in Belarus' presidential election, in Minsk on August 9, 2020.SERGEI GAPON/AFP/Getty Images

Military units and riot police tried to take over the streets of Belarus on Sunday, in an attempt to choke off opposition claims of victory in a hotly disputed election closely watched by both Russia and the West.

There were clashes around the capital city of Minsk well after midnight local time, as thousands of protesters vented their rage at the regime, but were met with lines of riot police who fired tear gas and stun grenades into the crowds.

The crackdown, if it succeeds, would keep strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994, in office for at least another six years. A state-run exit poll, released minutes after voting ended, declared Mr. Lukashenko had won a sweeping victory with almost 80 per cent of the vote.

But the opposition, which has rallied around the unlikely figure of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political neophyte, told The Globe and Mail late Sunday that they had seen the official vote counts from 20 polling stations and – with Ms. Tikhanovskaya well ahead in all of them – they were ready to declare that their candidate had in fact won the election.

“Today, we have a victory,” said Anna Krasulina, a spokeswoman for Ms. Tikhanovskaya. “We say [to the regime] that they need to prepare to transfer power to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.”

Ms. Krasulina said the opposition was hoping that the country’s Central Election Commission would decide to “be heroes” and release the real results on Monday. Ms. Krasulina said that in the 20 polling stations from which the opposition had seen results, Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s share of the vote was “two, three, four times” that of Mr. Lukashenko.

Ms. Krasulina said that if the government continued to insist that Mr. Lukashenko had won the election, Ms. Tikhanovskaya would join her supporters in the streets to “defend their rights.” Sunday night, she said, Ms. Tikhanovskaya was planning to remain in her campaign headquarters to monitor the official results.

A calm transfer of power seemed unlikely on Sunday. The country’s security services began arresting opposition figures even before voting began.

The crackdown followed a campaign that was expected to be only a formality, but instead developed into the biggest threat that Mr. Lukashenko – a former collective-farm boss and an admitted admirer of Josef Stalin – has faced in his 26 years in power.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya worked as a teacher and translator before she entered politics in June after the arrest of her husband, a well-known blogger who was jailed trying to register as a presidential candidate. But Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s grassroots call for change energized politics in the country, with her rallies drawing some of the largest crowds in the country’s history.

In Belarus, a newcomer fights a presidential election stacked against her as ‘Europe’s last dictator’ faces a reckoning

The struggle for Belarus is fraught with geopolitical implications. A former Soviet republic that still plays host to Russian military bases on its soil, the country is strategically located between Russia to the east, and NATO members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania to the west and north.

The situation has drawn comparisons with events in neighbouring Ukraine six years ago, when a pro-Russian strongman was ousted by pro-Western crowds. That revolution prompted a fierce military response from Moscow, which annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and provided military support to separatists in Ukraine’s southeast.

Elections in Belarus have not been free and fair since Mr. Lukashenko came to office. With foreign monitors and media barred from observing Sunday’s vote, and with the internet in the country cut off for much of the day, a state-run exit poll declared minutes after voting ended that Mr. Lukashenko had won with an improbable 79.7 per cent, versus just 6.8 per cent for Ms. Tikhanovskaya.

It was a claim that generated immediate scorn. An exit poll of Belarusians who voted at foreign embassies found that Ms. Tikhanovskaya had won 71 per cent of the vote, compared with 15 per cent for Mr. Lukashenko.

“The [official] exit poll results show that Lukashenko did not make and is not going to make any concessions to the opposition. He’s just showing his complete power with these crazy numbers,” said Franak Viacorka, a Belarusian journalist. “It’s a signal to the opposition that he’s going to destroy them.”

Mr. Viacorka said there was little doubt that Ms. Tikhanovskaya had received more votes than Mr. Lukashenko. “But that’s not enough. The major competition is happening on the streets, and without any internet or correspondents [to witness] – and Lukashenko has the soldiers, the army and the KGB on his side.”

Despite the partial internet blackout, opposition supporters managed to post videos on social media that showed Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s supporters attempting to take to the streets in Minsk and several other cities, only to be quickly arrested by riot police. In one video, a crowd of people flee one of Minsk’s main squares amid the sound of explosions that the independent Tut news website reported were caused by stun grenades.

Human-rights groups say more than 1,300 people were detained during the run-up to the election, a number that did not include Sunday’s arrests.

In other videos, protesters seemed to greatly outnumber the police on Sunday night. There were assertions on Twitter and Telegram that opposition supporters had taken over the main squares in several smaller cities outside the capital.

Casting his vote in central Minsk earlier in the day, Mr. Lukashenko made it clear that he would use force to crush any uprising. “If you’re going to go against our country, or even in the smallest way try to plunge the country into chaos and destabilize it, you will receive an immediate response from me,” he said.

Many Belarusians say they simply want change after 26 years of Mr. Lukashenko’s authoritarianism, a period that has seen the country fall far behind its neighbours economically. The fatigue with Mr. Lukashenko turned to anger this year after he dismissed the COVID-19 pandemic as a “psychosis,” and refused to declare a lockdown. Doctors say they have been pressed to attribute hospital deaths to pneumonia or other causes in order to keep the official coronavirus statistics – 68,500 cases and 580 deaths – low.

As the pre-election crackdown unfurled, Ms. Tikhanovskaya left her apartment and went into hiding on Saturday night. Earlier in the day, police had stormed the opposition’s headquarters, arresting her campaign manager and several other members of her staff. But Ms. Tikhanovskaya emerged Sunday to vote in Minsk, escorted to the polling station by a crowd of several hundred supporters who chanted her name and yelled “Thank you!” as she cast her ballot.

In brief remarks, Ms. Tikhanovskaya said she hoped the authorities would not resort to violence. She said her only demand was for Belarusian votes to be counted fairly. “I really want the election to be honest, because if the authorities have nothing to fear, if all the people are for [Mr. Lukashenko], then we will agree with [the results.]”

Journalists and independent election observers were also among those arrested on Sunday, leaving few witnesses who could challenge the regime’s claim of victory. Photos and videos posted on social media showed long lines still waiting to vote as polling stations closed at 8 p.m. local time. Many of the voters wore white ribbons indicating their support for the opposition.

During the election campaign, Mr. Lukashenko repeatedly warned that foreign powers were plotting a coup against him. At one point, 33 Russian mercenaries were arrested at a spa hotel outside Minsk. The Kremlin acknowledged the men were private security contractors, but said they were only in Belarus because they had missed their flight to an unnamed third country.

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