Presidential polls opened Sunday in Belarus, with a popular woman opposition candidate posing the greatest challenge yet to long-ruling strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old English teacher and translator, stood for election after authorities barred her husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, from running and then jailed him.
She swiftly emerged as Lukashenko’s strongest rival and her rallies drew tens of thousands of supporters across the country.
Her presidential bid has sparked an informal protest movement calling for change in the country of 9.5 million people led for the last 26 years by 65-year-old Lukashenko.
A polling station in central Minsk early Sunday was unusually busy with voters standing in line for ballot papers, an AFP reporter saw.
Many wore white bracelets after Tikhanovskaya urged her supporters to wear them.
“We are waiting for changes,” said one voter, a 60-year-old woman speaking on condition of anonymity.
She added that she voted for a “new president,” Tikhanovskaya, because she “promises us the possibility of choice and changes.”
“Twenty-six years is a very long time. We need fresh blood,” said a 33-year-old businesswoman, adding: “I voted for Tikhanovskaya.”
Tikhanovskaya says she is not a politician, describing herself as an “ordinary woman, a mother and wife.”
She says that if she wins she will call fresh elections that include the entire opposition, including those currently in detention.
Political observers said there is little doubt that Lukashenko, who is seeking a sixth term, would rig Sunday’s vote in the absence of international observers.
A record 41.7 percent of voters cast their ballots in early voting, the central electoral commission reported, with observers saying this made it easier to manipulate the count.
Belarus ramped up security measures on election day with police carrying machine-guns checking vehicles entering Minsk. There was a heightened police presence in the city and government buildings were cordoned off by police.
Belarusians also reported problems with accessing websites of independent media.
Prosecutor-General Alexander Konyuk urged voters to be “reasonable” and not take part in unsanctioned protests, Belta state news agency reported.
Tikhanovskaya, who joined forces for her campaign with the wife of one barred opposition chief and the campaign manager of another, said she would not call on her supporters to protest after the vote.
At the same time she asked police not to obey “criminal orders.”
On Saturday, authorities arrested Tikhanovskaya’s campaign manager and briefly detained one of her two top allies.
In a video address on the eve of the vote, Tikhanovskaya asked supporters to do all they could so that Belarusians “wake up in a new country.”
“When you see we have won, celebrate our victory!” she said.
Tikhanovskaya, who is by far the strongest of Lukashenko’s four rivals in voter surveys, urged Belarusians to help prevent election fraud by voting late on Sunday.
The electoral commission chief warned against this, however, saying polling stations would restrict the flow of voters to prevent overcrowding.
Independent observer group Right of Choice said that at least 28 of its observers had been detained and election officials barred others from entering polling stations.
Ahead of the vote Lukashenko warned that dissent would not be tolerated and that he would not give up his “beloved” Belarus.
“We will not give the country to you,” he warned his opponents as he addressed the nation this week.
Lukashenko has sought to galvanise support by warning of outside threats and raising the spectre of violent mobs.
Belarus has detained over 30 Russians Lukashenko said were mercenaries allegedly sent to the country to destabilise the vote.
The detentions sparked a political crisis with ally Russia, with Moscow urging the men’s release and President Vladimir Putin telling Lukashenko that he wants Belarus to stay “stable.”
Lukashenko has retained close ties to Moscow, though he often plays Russia and the West against each other.
France, Germany and Poland have urged Lukashenko to ensure a “free and fair” election and allow “independent surveillance of the vote by local observers”.
Belarus has not held polls judged free and fair since 1995 and this time Minsk has not invited observers from the European OSCE observer group for the first time since 2001.
In the past Lukashenko has crushed protests with riot police and hefty jail terms, prompting Western sanctions.