Belarus strongman faces female rival in tense presidential vote

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (right) has emerged as Alexander Lukashenko's strongest rival. PHOTOS: REUTERS, EPA-EFE

MINSK, BELARUS (AFP) - Belarus holds a high-stakes presidential election on Sunday (Aug 9) with a female opposition candidate posing the greatest challenge yet to long-ruling strongman Alexander Lukashenko.

Ms Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mother became an unlikely election candidate after the authorities barred from running and jailed her husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky.

She swiftly emerged as Mr Lukashenko's strongest rival and her rallies have drawn tens of thousands of supporters across the country.

Her presidential bid has given rise to an informal new protest movement, with many dreaming of change in the former Soviet country of 9.5 million people and insisting that Mr Lukashenko's time is up.

Political observers say there is little doubt that Mr Lukashenko, 65, who has been in power since 1994 and is seeking a sixth term, will rig Sunday's vote in the absence of international observers.

But while the opposition agrees that the vote result is largely predetermined, they say that what happens next is anyone's guess.

Ms Tikhanovskaya, who joined forces 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 called on law enforcement to refrain from fulfilling "criminal orders" and has urged election officials to count honestly.

Speaking to supporters on the eve of the vote, she asked them to do everything so that Belarusians could "wake up in a new country".

She said in a video address: "When you see that we have won, celebrate our victory!"

Ms Tikhanovskaya, who is by far the strongest of Mr Lukashenko's four rivals in voter surveys, has also urged Belarusians to help ward off election fraud by voting late on the main polling day, on Sunday, and wearing white bracelets.

Early voting began last Tuesday, with official turnout over the past four days already at more than 32 per cent.

On Sunday, polling stations open at 0500 GMT (1pm Singapore time) and close 12 hours later.

Ahead of the vote, Mr 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.

Some questioned Mr Lukashenko's state of health, as he sounded hoarse and constantly mopped his brow during the speech.

He has sought to galvanise support by warning of outside threats and raising the spectre of violent mobs.

Belarus has detained more than 30 Russian mercenaries allegedly planning 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 Mr Lukashenko that he wants Belarus to stay stable.

Mr Lukashenko has retained close ties to Moscow, though he often plays Russia and the West against each other.

France, Germany and Poland have urged Mr 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 Europe's Organisation for Security and Cooperation, an observer group, for the first time since 2001.

In the past, Mr Lukashenko crushed protests with riot police and hefty jail terms, prompting Western sanctions. Two of his would-be election rivals including Ms Tikhanovskaya's husband were jailed during the current campaign.

Ms Tikhanovskaya says she is not a politician and if she wins, she will call fresh elections that will include the entire opposition. On Saturday, the authorities arrested her campaign manager and briefly detained one of her two top allies.

Many Belarusians said they hoped polls would lead to change.

A 30-year-old make-up artist from Minsk said she wanted to vote for one of the jailed would-be candidates, Mr Viktor Babaryko, and accused Mr Lukashenko of clinging to power.

"No one I know will vote for Lukashenko," said the woman who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals.

An electrician from Minsk said he would also vote against Mr Lukashenko.

"I am tired of hearing the same things for the past 26 years," the 60-year-old said on condition of anonymity.

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