Usually dreary and played in advance, the presidential election Sunday in Belarus turned into a challenge for the authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko, faced with the emergence of an unexpected opponent, new to politics, who mobilizes the crowds, a first for many years.
At the head since 1994 of this former Soviet republic wedged between the European Union and Russia, the Belarusian president has redoubled his efforts in recent weeks to stem the rise of the opponent Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa, denouncing a plot with the complicity of the Kremlin to bring it down.
A few days before the ballot, he tried to present the country under his presidency as an island of stability, promising again Thursday to counter the “fire in the heart of Minsk” that his rivals hope to ignite.
He eliminated his main competitors in the spring and early summer: two of them are incarcerated, a third has gone into exile.
But the 65-year-old former sovkhoz director faces competition from Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old trained English teacher.
His campaign has seen unheard of crowds of sympathizers rally across the country, calling for “change” and singing a song calling to bring down the walls of Belarusian prisons.
She herself presents herself as an “ordinary woman, a mother and a wife” who replaced at short notice her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a blogger imprisoned in May.
Described as “poor girl” by the strong man of Belarus, she called on her fellow citizens to no longer be afraid of repression, even though the country has never been able to see the emergence of a united and structured opposition.
For this, she joined forces with two other women: Veronika Tsepkalo, the companion of an opponent in exile, and Maria Kolesnikova, the campaign manager of Viktor Babaryko, a former banker imprisoned when he wanted to present himself.
In case of victory, she promised to stay in power only long enough to release “political prisoners”, organize constitutional reform and new elections.
She has not escaped the pressures. Again Thursday, his campaign manager was briefly arrested, and his last meetings were uncertain due to legal and logistical obstacles set up by the authorities.
Fear of fraud
Sunday’s presidential vote will also be in an atmosphere of unprecedented mistrust of Moscow, of which Alexander Lukashenko is both the closest and the most turbulent ally.
If the relations between the two “brother countries” have always been a roller coaster, never in 26 years have tensions been so concrete: for Mr. Lukashenko, the Kremlin “puppeteers” intended to replace him with a more docile president and to make Belarus a vassal.
At the end of July, the Belarusian authorities arrested 33 Russians, suspected mercenaries of the opaque private military group Wagner, known to be close to Russian power.
Moscow has rejected these accusations, denouncing an electoral “spectacle” which the 33 Russians have suffered, “guilty of nothing” and “in transit” to other countries.
Tuesday, Alexander Lukashenko, in a fiery speech, hammered that he would not “abandon the country” in Moscow. In the process, the army declared its “full support” to him and military maneuvers at the border were organized.
The opposition, which says it fears fraud, has planned to organize its vote count, calling on voters to send it pictures of their ballots and calling on its supporters to wear a white bracelet at polling stations as a sign of support.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which usually observes elections in its member states, will not be present, a first since 2001, for lack of being invited in time.
The Belarusian authorities have also justified a reduced number of domestic election observers by the coronavirus epidemic.