Thousands of people protest after Lukashenko landslide win in Belarus election

·3 min read

Police and protesters have clashed in the capital of Belarus and other cities after a contested presidential election which saw the country's long-time leader secure a landslide victory.

Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled for 26 years, won the election with 80% of the vote, the election commission said - according to preliminary results.

However, there is widespread suspicion that the election was not fair, with two opposition candidates denied places on the ballot before one of them was jailed and the other fled to Russia.

On Monday morning Reuters reported that at least one person was killed and 120 protesters had been detained, citing the Viasna human rights group.

Many were injured in clashes with riot police who were deployed on the streets to disperse protesters.

"It was a peaceful protest, we weren't using force," said 23-year-old protester Pavel Konoplyanik, helping a friend to hospital who had a plastic grenade fragment stuck in his neck.

"No one will believe in the official results of the vote, they have stolen our victory."

The main opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was targeted during the weekend: eight members of her staff were arrested and one of her aides fled the country.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya, a former teacher and wife of a jailed opposition blogger, had received large displays of support leading up to the election - unusual in a country where dissent is rarely tolerated.

But opposition supporters said they expected election officials would manipulate the election results in favour of Mr Lukashenko.

After the vote on Sunday, thousands of protesters gathered in Minsk where police used truncheons to beat them and flash-bang grenades in an effort to get them to leave. Protesters tried to build barricades with rubbish bins.

There were also demonstrations in the cities of Brest, Gomel, Grodno and Vitebsk and police fired tear gas at people in Brest, according to news reports.

It is unclear how many people were injured or arrested but the Association Press quoted Ales Bilyatsky of Viasna as saying there had been several hundred arrests.

Among them were three journalists from an independent Russian TV station and an AP journalist was beaten by police and taken to hospital.

But for some voters, Lukashenko's long, hard-line rule was a plus.

"He is an experienced politician, not a housewife who appeared out of nowhere and muddied the waters," said retiree Igor Rozhov.

"We need a strong hand that will not allow riots."

Meanwhile, Ms Tsikhanouskaya said she did not believe the polls, saying: "I will believe with my own eyes. The majority was for us."

After voting earlier in the day, she had said: "I hope that everything will be peaceful and that the police will not use force."

As he voted, Mr Lukashenko had said: "Do you want to try to overthrow the government, break something, wound, offend, and expect me or someone to kneel in front of you and kiss them and the sand onto which you wandered? This will not happen."

Mr Lukashenko has been in power since July 1994 but many have become frustrated with his authoritarian rule, the struggling economy and his failure to recognise the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic.

He has dismissed the illness as "psychosis" and advised people to "drink vodka" and "go to saunas" to ward off the virus.

Two weeks ago, the 65-year-old said he had caught COVID-19 and recovered "on his feet" without showing any symptoms.

He has not brought in any restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, despite more than 68,500 confirmed cases and 580 deaths - numbers that critics say are manipulated.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya tapped into this frustration as she campaigned across the former Soviet country of 9.5 million people.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe was not invited to send observers to the election.