Hours before voting ended — and official exit polls claimed a 79.7% victory for long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko, and an equally unbelievable 6.8% share for his nearest rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — Belarus had all but declared a state of emergency.
Footage of soldiers and military equipment entering the capital was shared widely by locals, who appeared both excited and spooked by its serious prospects in this usually calm backwater.
By 6pm local time (8pm BST), reports suggested most of the capital Minsk’s central squares and government buildings had been cordoned off. Roads in and out of the capital were also reportedly closed.
The regime’s nervousness had extended to the internet, which by the evening had slowed to a standstill. Major disruptions to mobile networks were reported from the morning and proxy servers, used widely in these parts to get around censorship, became unreliable.
Journalists and independent observers were a target. At around 2pm local time (4pm BST), reporters from the Russian liberal outlet TV Dozhd were handcuffed and held to the ground. They were working without accreditation, it was reported; most foreign journalists had, in fact, been refused accreditation.
Sunday’s events came at the end of an unexpectedly panicked campaign that saw opposition candidates jailed, protesters snatched from the streets, the president claim a scarcely believable Russian-backed plot, and where his main opponent was forced into hiding on the eve of voting.
The invigorating campaign of rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mum, took Belarus by surprise. It also wrong-footed Mr Lukashenko, who has towered over the post-Soviet nation with a peculiar brand of tyranny for 26 years.
Few anticipated Ms Tikhanovskaya would be able to unify the opposition — she did so in a 15 minute meeting. A political neophyte, few believed she could lead a clear campaign — she did so with a simple promise to deliver fresh elections, walk back authoritarian changes to the constitution, and free political prisoners.
Over the last few weeks, Ms Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has brought over 200,000 people to the streets in support — an astonishing moment for Belarus, a police state of just 9 million people where dissent often leads to jail.
Her campaign also carried an unmistakably feminist slant, against the openly misogynist positions of the president, who claimed the presidency was no place for a woman.
Underestimating Ms Tikhanovskaya was only one of many mistakes Mr Lukashenko made this year. He faced backlash over his Covid-19 denialism — claiming it was avoidable with vodka and trips to the sauna — and over his management of an increasingly desperate economic position.
Independent polling is illegal in Belarus, so it’s unclear quite how vulnerable “Europe’s last dictator” really is. But few will be ready to accept eight out of ten voted for him today.
There appeared to be obvious indications of widespread rigging, with record levels of early voting. The opposition encouraged its supporters to leave voting until the last day, Sunday, to make falsifications more difficult. Many seemed to heed that call with unprecedented lines of voters formed at poling stations. The Independent witnessed queues of thousands of Belarusians waiting to vote in Moscow.
Ahead of the exit polls today, Mr Luksahenko said his rivals weren’t even “worthy” of repression, though made several ominous warnings about what may come.
“All our structures and special services are ready and waiting,” he said. “There is no reason for our country to be plunged into chaos or civil war. I guarantee you that.”