Belarus was braced for protests on Sunday evening as the incumbent president, Alexander Lukashenko, appeared poised to claim victory in an election marred by accusations of vote-rigging.
As polls closed at 8pm, a state exit poll gave Lukashenko 79.7% of the vote and just 6.8% to challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose maverick campaign attracted some of the largest political rallies in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union. An estimated 9.2% voted “against all”, according to the poll, a tradition dating from Soviet days.
The claim of a landslide vote appeared to increase the danger for Tikhanovskaya, who went into hiding Saturday evening after nine of her campaign staff were arrested by the government. She emerged on Sunday to vote but remained in a protective bubble of campaign staffers and journalists, which press secretary Anna Krasulina called “the most trustworthy defence we have”.
Tikhanovskaya, who entered the campaign after her husband was jailed, has sent her children abroad after she said their lives were threatened.
Andrei Yeliseyeu, director of the Warsaw-based EAST centre, said the apparent blowout result combined with claims of vote tampering could push thousands of people on to the streets, including in the regions beyond Minsk.
“Surely this will enrage the public, because people are well aware that Lukashenko does not have this impressive majority presented by the exit poll results,” he said. “This will provoke public anger in one form or another.”
Thousands of voters were left outside polling stations in Belarus and embassies after the government refused to extend voting hours beyond the 8pm cutoff. Tikhanovskaya’s opposition campaign has refused to endorse street protests after Sunday’s vote, calling on supporters to protest legally and avoid provoking the government.
On Sunday evening, a Guardian reporter encountered small groups of young people wandering around downtown Minsk, where many streets have been closed off by police to prevent a possible backlash against the election result.
One woman, referring to the large numbers of riot police in the city centre, taunted them: “Look how many there are, it’s like a football match! Standing like bunnies on every corner.”
Lukashenko, who has revelled in being labelled “Europe’s last dictator”, has consolidated immense power over 26 years of rule in Belarus and is seeking a sixth term in office.
Observers pointed to record numbers of early votes as a likely sign of ballot stuffing, with nearly 40% of eligible Belarusians reportedly casting their ballots before polls opened on Sunday. Several polling stations ran out of ballot papers on Sunday as they appeared to surpass 100% of eligible voters.
One video from a polling station appeared to show a member of the electoral commission climbing down a ladder from a second-storey window with a bag assumed to contain voting slips.
Pro-Tikhanovskaya voters said they wanted to see change, a popular slogan for the campaign, or thought that Lukashenko had overstayed his time in office. But many were pessimistic about the chances of the vote being counted fairly.
Zoya Vlasenko, a retired engineer, said she was voting against Lukashenko for her grandchildren’s sake. “I don’t want them to have to leave their homeland,” she said. Her oldest son has already left to work in the US. “But now there’s hope that my grandchildren can stay here.”
Others said they were angry about the arrests of activists and the threat of violence against the opposition. There were already signs of a crackdown in the runup to the vote, as armoured cars, water cannon and riot police were reported in the centre of Minsk near the presidential administration. Armed men had also been seen at highway entrances to the city.
“There are armoured cars on the highway, there are people not even in uniform, in jeans and T-shirts with rifles in their hands,” said Vladimir, a local businessman who came to the polling station with his wife and young son. “It’s scary when you don’t know if someone is a bandit or a member of law enforcement. I’m voting against being afraid.”
Local journalists reported problems with Telegram, Twitter, Viber, WhatsApp, and websites associated with opposition parties and platforms for monitoring the vote. Netblocks, a civil society group, said internet connectivity had been “significantly disrupted in Belarus amid presidential elections”.
Nigel Gould-Davies, a former UK ambassador to Minsk, called the election a “dangerous farce” and said the west should impose further sanctions on Lukashenko. Referring to Tikhanovskaya’s campaign, he wrote: “What is happening in #Belarus is the last phase of a great reordering of European politics that began in 1989.”
Supporters of Tikhanovskaya have said that her campaign has transformed the country and would have a profound impact on the future of the country’s politics.
“People in this campaign have become more educated. They understand better what is happening,” said Olga Kovalkova, one of Tikhanovskaya’s aides. “It’s important. They’re ready to fight using legal means. This process won’t end on election day – it’s just begun.”