Aug. 10 (UPI) — Protesters and riot police clashed in Belarus as demonstrators took to the streets in opposition to early exit polls that indicate incumbent President Aleksandr Lukashenko would handily win a sixth term at the country’s helm.
Election officials late Sunday released exit poll data showing that the authoritarian president had secured nearly 80% of the vote to main opposition Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s 6.8%
The opposition has previously expressed worries the election would be rigged, and Tikhanovskaya told reporters during a press conference after the poll was released that she does not accept the tally.
“I believe my eyes, and I see that the majority is with us,” she said.
Lidia Yermoshina, chairwoman of the Central Election Commission, said based on preliminary estimates from Sunday’s vote that nearly 5.8 million people, or 84.23% of eligible voters, cast a ballot in the election, state-run Belta news agency reported.
The tally, she said, will be double-checked but “I don’t think that they will change dramatically.”
In the capital of Minsk, riot police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons Sunday night to disperse protesters, some of who were injured, Viasna, a human rights organization in Belarus, said in a statement, adding at least 70 protesters were arrested.
In the weeks before the election, human rights organizations warned of ongoing arbitrary arrests of peaceful protesters, journalists and bloggers.
“Belarusian authorities are using flimsy pretexts to silence journalists and critics, which should never happen, but that has even more damning consequences for citizens’ rights in an election period,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a late July statement. “The international community should not ignore such serious flouting of human rights obligations.”
Since May, Viasna has reported that more than 1,000 people have been arbitrarily arrested, including Tikhanovskaya’s husband, Sergey Tikhanovskaya, a YouTube blogger and former presidential candidate.
Following his arrest, Tikhanovskaya, 37, took her husband’s place on the ballot, the BBC reported.
A day before the election, Viasna reported that Tikhanovskaya’s campaign manager, Maryia Maroz, was also detained though the charges had yet to be announced.
Lukashenko was first elected to the country’s highest office in 1994.