Belarus election: Second night of clashes over disputed poll

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BBC.COM-Image copyright EPA Image caption Demonstrators say the election result was rigged

Police in Belarus’s capital Minsk have fired rubber bullets for a second night to quash protests following Sunday’s disputed presidential elections.

Officials say one demonstrator died when an explosive device went off in his hands – the first confirmed casualty since the clashes began.

Autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko won 80% of the vote.

His main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya refused to accept the results, saying she was the real winner.

A lack of scrutiny – no observers were present – has led to allegations of widespread vote-rigging in the poll.

The election was held amid growing frustration at Mr Lukashenko’s leadership, with opposition rallies attracting large crowds. The preceding days saw a crackdown on activists and journalists.

Mr Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has described opposition supporters as “sheep” controlled from abroad, and vowed not to allow the country to be torn apart.

Mr Lukashenko won 80.23% of the vote, according to election officials, with Ms Tikhanovskaya receiving 9.9%.

Ms Tikhanovskaya entered the election in place of her jailed husband and went on to lead large opposition rallies.

What’s the latest from Minsk?

Riot police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades to disperse thousands of demonstrators rallying in the capital.

Polish-based broadcaster Belsat TV aired footage of the police charging into the crowds.

Reports say some of the demonstrators fought back, throwing Molotov cocktails. Protesters also tried to build barricades.

A number of people were arrested. One journalist was injured, her colleagues and eyewitnesses said.

Later on Monday, the interior ministry said a protester died when he “tried to throw an unidentified explosive device at members of law enforcement”.

“It exploded in his hand,” the ministry said in a statement.

Several metro stations in the city had been closed and the internet was mostly unavailable for a second day.

Protests were also being held in other Belarusian cities.

What did Ms Tikhanovskaya say?

The opposition candidate said that the election results published on Monday morning “completely contradict common sense” and the authorities should think about how to peacefully hand over power.

“We have seen that the authorities are trying to hold on to their positions by force,” she said.

“No matter how much we asked authorities not to turn on their own people, we were not listened to.”

Her campaign said it would challenge “numerous falsifications” in the vote.

“The election results announced by the Central Electoral Commission do not correspond to reality and completely contradict common sense,” her spokeswoman Anna Krasulina said.

But Mr Lukashenko poured scorn on Ms Tikhanovskaya’s comments.

The president said: “So Lukashenko, who is at the top of the power structure and the head of state, after getting 80% of the vote, must voluntarily hand over power to them? The orders are coming from over there [abroad].”

“Our response will be robust,” he added. “We will not allow the country to be torn apart.”

What has the international reaction been?

Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated his Belarusian counterpart on his victory, despite friction over accusations of a Russian plot, which Mr Lukashenko has tried to link to the opposition.

The leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Moldova and Azerbaijan have sent messages of support.

But the German government said it had “strong doubts” about the election and that minimum standards were not met.

The US said it was “deeply concerned” by the election and urged the government to “respect the right to peacefully assemble and to refrain from the use of force”.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for the election results to be published.

“Harassment and violent repression of peaceful protesters has no place in Europe,” she said.

What’s the context?

President Lukashenko, 65, was first elected in 1994.

In the last vote in 2015, he was declared winner with 83.5% of the vote. There were no serious challengers and election observers reported problems in the counting and tabulation of votes.

The campaign saw the rise of Ms Tikhanovskaya, 37, a former teacher who became a stay-at-home mother until she was thrust into the political spotlight.

After her husband was arrested and blocked from registering for the vote, she stepped in to take his place.

President Lukashenko has dismissed Ms Tikhanovskaya as a “poor little girl”, manipulated by foreign “puppet masters”.

As people voted on Sunday, internet service was “significantly disrupted”, according to online monitor NetBlocks. Opposition supporters say this makes it harder for evidence of election fraud to be collected and shared.

There were already concerns over a lack of scrutiny because observers were not invited to monitor the election and more than 40% of votes were cast ahead of the election.

Tens of thousands defied an escalating crackdown on the opposition last month to attend a protest in Minsk, the largest such demonstration in a decade.

Anger towards Mr Lukashenko’s government has been in part fuelled by its response to coronavirus.

The president has downplayed the outbreak, advising citizens to drink vodka and use saunas to fight the disease.

Belarus, which has a population of 9.5 million, has reported nearly 70,000 cases and almost 600 deaths.

 

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