How mass post-election protests threaten Belarus's regime

The real challenge for the opposition will be how Lukashenko's government responds to continued unrest. 

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Massive protests have broken out across Belarus after official results for Sunday's contested presidential elections returned the incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, with a familiar 80 percent of the vote.

The preliminary results of the elections, according to the central election committee, grant Lukashenko 80.2 per cent of the vote and return him for his sixth term in office since 1994. His challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is credited with 9.9 per cent. However, independent exit polls conducted outside polling stations abroad, one of the few reliable indicators of actual voting patterns given the difficulty of conducting genuine polling inside Belarus, showed an almost perfectly reversed result: 86 per cent for Tikhanovskaya, 4 per cent for Lukashenko, RFE/RL reported.

Around 40 per cent of voters voted early, the country’s central election commission said. These votes were the regime’s opportunity for ballot stuffing, but long lines of actual voters on Sunday pushed turnout in some polling stations to above 100 per cent, according to the independent news site Tut.by.

Opposition Telegram channels were flooded with photos of results from polling stations which, reportedly, did not falsify their results, in every case resulting in landslide victories for Tikhanovskaya. In ward 70 of the Frunzensky neighbourhood in Minsk, for instance, Lukashenko was credited with 255 votes, and Tikhanovskaya with 1989 votes.

Protestors began gathering in their thousands in central Minsk and around the country at the close of voting on Sunday at 8pm. Videos from the scene showed them being met with brutal police violence, including stun grenades, beatings, and in one case a truck driving into demonstrators. In other regions, there were reports of riot police putting down their shields and refusing to suppress protests.

On Monday morning Reuters reported that at least one person had been killed and 120 protesters had been detained during the unrest, citing the Spring 96 human rights group.

Protests are almost certain to last through the week and will likely be met with escalating violence from the regime. The anger is not confined to Minsk, which points to a problem for the security forces, which may become overstretched if demonstrators continue to turn out in significant numbers in the regions as well as the capital.

Tikhanovskaya has called on the police and armed forces to refuse to carry out “illegal orders”. The regime has gambled on being able to rely on the loyalty of the security forces, but this could prove a miscalculation, especially if the violence ramps up.

As Alexander Feduta, a former advisor to Lukashenko, told Felix Light and I last week: “If Lukashenko orders the security forces to shoot protestors in the street, then he’ll be out of office in three days. Can anyone imagine that the men of this country would tolerate that?”

Sunday was just the beginning of the opposition’s challenge to Lukashenko; the official result of the elections was never in doubt. The real question is how Lukashenko will respond to the protests challenging the results.

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

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