MINSK, Belarus — Belarus on Monday declared a landslide election victory for long-serving dictator Alexander Lukashenko, after police used stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets to disperse protesters denouncing the vote as a fraud.
Challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya rejected the result, saying the election was rigged, and demanded that Lukashenko cede power.
Prominent rights group Viasna said that one man was killed, dozens wounded, and more than 300 arrested during the police crackdown overnight Sunday to Monday. But police later put the number of arrested people at 3,000.
The protests erupted after an exit poll showed Lukashenko soundly beating main opposition challenger Tikhanovskaya — a result confirmed by election officials on Monday.
Central Election Commission chief Lidia Yermoshina announced Lukashenko had won 80.23 percent according to preliminary results, handing him a sixth term.
Tikhanovskaya won 9.9%, while three other candidates each won less than 2%.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping both quickly congratulated Lukashenko, but Poland called for an emergency European Union summit on the clashes.
“The authorities have used force against their citizens, who are demanding change in the country. We must support the Belarusian people in their quest for freedom,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in a statement.
Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mother and political novice, galvanized the opposition during the election campaign, attracting tens of thousands of supporters to the ex-Soviet country’s biggest demonstrations in years.
Thousands took to the streets of Minsk and other cities on Sunday night to denounce the result, sparking clashes with police.
Shocking images released by pro-opposition media and posted online showed police firing stun grenades and rubber bullets into the crowds and a police van ramming into the demonstration and running down a protester.
Young protesters were seen covered in blood, lying immobile on the ground or being dragged away by police.
Crowds in Belarus keep getting bigger. This is Minsk, via popular anti-Lukashenko Telegram channel NEXTA pic.twitter.com/8bmE1YKjsl
— max seddon (@maxseddon) August 9, 2020
— Amnesty International (@amnesty) August 9, 2020
‘Mockery of our people’
Viasna said one protester had died after suffering a “traumatic head injury… as a result of being run over by a police vehicle.”
It said dozens of protesters were injured, including at least 10 who had to be taken to hospitals.
An interior ministry spokeswoman denied that there had been any deaths.
"This is what elections in Belarus look like."
Clashes between police and protesters erupted in Minsk after Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko claimed a sweeping victory for a 6th term. More @business: https://t.co/9eG8V8ObkU #Минске #Беларуси pic.twitter.com/p6KFYauOv2
— Bloomberg QuickTake (@QuickTake) August 10, 2020
The Belarusian Investigative Committee launched a criminal probe on charges of organizing and participating in “mass unrest” — punishable by jail terms of eight to 15 years.
Alexander, a 35-year-old protester in Minsk, accused Lukashenko of blatantly rigging the vote.
“I came out to protest because the country needs a change in power,” he told AFP. “This is a crime, a mockery of our people.”
In a news conference after polls closed, Tikhanovskaya said she did not trust the results.
“I believe my eyes, and I see that the majority is with us,” she said. “We have already won, because we have overcome our fear, our apathy and our indifference.”
In another news conference hours later, she said she considered herself to be the election winner and demanded authorities transfer power to the opposition.
“Yesterday, the voters made their choice but the authorities did not hear us, they have broken with the people,” Tikhanovskaya said. “The authorities should think about how to peacefully hand over power to us. I consider myself the winner of this election.”
She denounced authorities for the crackdown saying police had used “disproportionate measures” against protesters and called disruptions to the internet “a crime.”
“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 ally, Maria Kolesnikova, said the government was “incapable of running the country” and an “unprecedented” political crisis was setting in.
Tikhanovskaya decided to run for president after the authorities jailed her husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, and barred him from running.
On Sunday afternoon, huge queues formed outside polling stations in Minsk and other cities, after Tikhanovskaya urged her supporters to vote late to give authorities less chance to falsify the election.
Many wore white bracelets that have become a symbol of the opposition.
Tikhanovskaya had said that if she won, she would release political prisoners and call fresh elections to include the entire opposition.
Lukashenko has sought to boost his support by warning of outside threats and raising the specter of violent mobs.
Authorities have detained 33 Russians, describing them as mercenaries sent to destabilize the vote.