Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko won a landslide victory in the highly controversial August 8 presidential elections, according to exit polls that immediately provoked protests and clashes with the police across the entire country that continued until 2am.
Thousands gathered in some 30 cities across the country to protest against what they believed was a rigged vote. In Minsk a crowd of several thousand clashed with riot police that responded with brutal violence, tear gas and flash grenades. Ranks of riot police that had been brought into the capital to be ready for unrest then attempted to lock the city down as soon as polls closed at 8pm.
While the official result shows a huge victory for Lukashenko, around 20 polling stations rebelled and reported the true results, showing a landslide win for opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
The trouble started after an official state exit poll reported that Lukashenko had won 79.7% of the vote, with “against all” coming second with 9.2% and former housewife and now leading opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya a distant third with 6.8%.
“Tikhanovskaya gets 6.8%. Less than the number of voters who registered on her campaign’s vote-protection site; almost certainly less than the number who signed her & allies’ nomination papers. A provocatively absurd result,” tweeted Felix Light, a journalist covering eastern Europe.
In a small rebellion the heads of some polling stations, embarrassingly for the Lukashenko regime, released the actual results of votes cast in their polling stations.
“There's more and more results coming from polling stations where commissions apparently refused to rig the vote. It seems that the actual ratio is from 3:1 to 4:1 in favour of Tikhanovskaya,” Tadeusz Giczan tweeted, a PhD candidate at University College London School of Slavonic & East European Studies who follows Belarus.
Local news outlet Nexta published one protocol, from a polling station where it was claimed the result was not fixed, showing 707 votes for Tikhanovskaya (62.2%) and only 428 for Lukashenko (37.7%). Another exit poll cited by Anders Aslund, the Swedish economist and a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, gave Tikhanovskaya 69.7% and Lukashenko 16.3% from 58,500 votes.
Tikhanovskaya came out of hiding on voting day to cast her ballot wearing a smart white suit and grinning as she dropped her voting-paper into the box for the cameras. In a few short weeks she has been transformed from a housewife and mother to a titanic political force who has managed to unite almost the whole country behind her simple message of change and justice.
As reports of street fighting started to come in Tikhanovskaya made an appeal to the country’s security forces, calling on them to stop their attacks on the people and for her supporters to exercise restraint. “I want to ask the militia and troops to remember that they are part of the people. Please stop the violence,” she said in a statement.
No one was killed, although one man who had been clinging to the front of a police truck that drove through a crowd in Minsk fell and may have died. Another man was reportedly shot in the chest and is in hospital in critical condition. Casualties remain relatively few, but social media show some victims of police beatings and rubber bullets bloodied and being attended to by other protestors. One man had part of his foot blown off by a stun grenade.
There have been small rebellions amongst the security forces too. Riot police refused to attack protesters in several of the regional towns, including Lida and Zhodzina, according to reports. In Kobryn in the Brest region, video released on social media shows
The official exit polls reported a crushing victory for Lukashenko and the capital Minsk was immediately put under lockdown after polls closed by a heavy military presence.
As the evening wore on, a few thousand marched into the centre of town, where they clashed with police. The latter used tear gas, violence and flashbang grenades to try to disburse the crowds. In regional cities protestors overwhelmed local police and took control. Residents of Brest, where Tikhanovskaya held her second biggest rally, report that police used tear gas to try and disband the gathering, as well as large crowds marching on the city centre.
Thousands remained outside polling stations demanding to see the voting protocols. Crowds shouted “Shame!” as the election officials left the buildings under heavy police escort.
There were a few signs of a possible rebellion by the forces under Lukashenko's command. In addition to the polls that refused to fix the vote, a picture of soldiers in the back of a truck in Minsk posted on social media showed them holding the red and white Belarusian flag that has become the icon of the opposition movement. The soldiers were also making the hand signs of the opposition. That is in stark contrast to a leaked copy of the results from inside a closed military polling station published by independent news outlet Belsat: all the votes were cast for Lukashenko, bar 2 that went to state-backed tennis star Victoria Kanapatskaya. There were no votes for anyone else.
But maybe the bravest of all the rebels was Anton Bulakh, a member of the Ministry of Emergencies (MChS) who released a video on social media calling on his colleagues to remember their vow to serve the people and stand by them in the coming days. MChS is a military organisation and both Bulakh and the soldiers in the truck face possible court-martials for defying the authorities.
Lockdown and violations
The results have been widely ridiculed, but that is not the point. Lukashenko continues to have an iron grip on the country and the capital was immediately locked down as the president hopes to brazen it out by simply crushing any dissent. The opposition had called for a rally in the centre of Minsk at the Minsk Hero City obelisk at 10pm on election day but all approaches to the square were closed by roadblocks by shortly after 8pm when the polls closed.
Voters across the country were still queuing to cast their ballots at 8pm and were simply turned away – both in Belarus and at embassies across Europe. Spontaneous demonstrations broke in several other cities. The crowd outside of the Belarusian embassy in Moscow were chanting “We want to vote!” and “Go away (resign)!”
The internet was also jammed and the websites of the two leading independent publications that have been extensively reporting on the repression and opposition rallies – Tut.by and Nexta – both went dark at 8pm. State TV ignored the protests entirely and ran a nature programme about the lives of badgers.
There is no doubt that the election result was blatantly fixed. A day earlier a rehearsal meeting by workers of the Central Election Commission (CEC) was leaked, where staff were reportedly told to simply make stacks of ballots and give Lukashenko 67% of the vote, against all 17% and Tikhanovskaya 7.5%. After that PR disaster it seems that Lukashenko has doubled down and given himself an even larger share of the votes.
There were no independent observers at the elections. The few NGO personnel that tried to observe the voting were detained by police. Local newspaper Nasha Niva reported in one polling station where British diplomats were observing the count that when the count actually started they were forced to leave under threat of physical violence.
Early voting started on Monday and by Sunday the CEC reported that 41% of the population had already voted – a record high. However, it seems that the authorities had been overly enthusiastic in ballot stuffing and at least two polling stations reported voter turn out at 107% and 112%, reports Viacorka.
Videos appeared on social media of ladders being put up at the back windows of school polling stations and workers lowering sacks to the ground that presumably contained surfeit ballot sheets as they tried to correct their mistake.
Other polling stations reported they had run out of ballot sheets as the number of voters coming to cast their ballots exceeded the official number of people registered in the district thanks to ballot stuffing.
Another indication of the voter fixing is that boxes of ballots showed that the majority of the ballots had been folded lengthwise 4-6 times to show their vote was for Tikhanovskaya in a prearranged move to fight against vote fixing, and pictures of ballot boxes shared on social media show the majority of ballots folded this way.
Embassies exit polls
Belarusian embassies across Europe were also besieged by long queues of citizens coming to cast their votes. However, the staff at the embassies were on a go-slow regime and only admitting 20 people per hour in Moscow, for example, which meant the bulk of would-be voters were turned away.
The low number of ballots accepted in Minsk and foreign embassies contradicts the record high turn-out numbers released by the CEC. However, as the embassies have no control over the streets outside their doors, exit polls were easier to organise and done extensively in many countries that paint a radically different picture to the official results released in Minsk.
For example, in London the exit poll found Lukashenko took a mere 1.7% of the votes, with Tikhanovskaya winning 93.4%. Similar results were reported by exit polls at all other embassies. Voting by Belarusians living abroad was overwhelmingly in favour of Tikhanovskaya. In Moscow, which has a large Belarusian population, queues stretched around the corner but hundreds were turned away. A spontaneous demonstration broke out with the crowd chanting “We want to cast our votes” and “resign”. Eventually Russian riot police arrived to break up the demonstration peacefully.
In Budapest the results from another exit poll found that 83.9% voted for Tikhanovskaya, with Lukashenko gaining 1.7% of the vote, behind Against All that took 10.2%. And there was a very similar result in Vilnius, with 80% voting for Tikhanovskaya and only 6.8% for Lukashenko.
That was backed up by an international exit poll conducted at 19 Belarus embassies in Europe that have a large Belarusian diaspora that found 79.7% voted for Tikhanovskaya, 10.6% were against all and Lukashenko won 6.2% – almost the mirror image of the official results announced in Minsk.
Indeed, the official 6.8% Tikhanovskaya won according to the official exit polls in Minsk was less than the number of people that registered for the Voice website where voters could register their vote. Over a million people had registered by August 7, when the site was closed down by the authorities, or 15% of the voting population that presumably would have all voted for Tikhanovskaya.