Updated at 13:34,27-03-2023

Alexander Lukashenko expected to remain as president of Belarus

The Guardian

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus almost unchallenged for 21 years, said he would be concerned if he received less that 80% of the vote

Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus who is expected to hold his post as the country goes to the polls, has said he would be concerned support in his leadership was waning if he received less than 80% of the vote.

Lukashenko, who was been president since 1994, faced no serious competition in the election campaign, which was boycotted by the opposition. Even before polls opened in the former Soviet republic, the central election commission announced that 36% of the 7 million registered voters had cast their ballots during five days of early voting.

By 4pm local time on Sunday the official turnout was nearly 75%, even though many polling stations in the capital and nearby villages were nearly empty. Opposition leaders denounced the early voting as an ideal instrument for falsifying the result. International observers also raised concerns.

“It is very unusual for us to find that a country has an election on so many days,” said James Walsh, head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s parliamentary assembly. “Most democracies have a challenge in getting its citizens ... to come out and vote.”

Walsh said the observers have questions about the security of the ballot boxes, a concern also raised by the opposition.

“For five nights, no one was guarding the ballot boxes and the authorities could do anything they liked with them,” said Anatoly Lebedko, the leader of the opposition United Civil Party.

Lukashenko said it would be a bad sign if he received fewer votes than during the last election in 2010, when he won 79.65 % of the vote. “That would mean that people were beginning to move away and were dissatisfied with some of my policies,” he said after voting in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. “Therefore for me it is very important: If Lukashenko wins, I retain what was there in the past election.”

Lukashenko, 61, appeared at the polling station with his 11-year-old son, Nikolai, who was wearing the same suit and tie as his father. An independent research institute put Lukashenko’s support at about 46% in September, while the official state sociology institute tallied his support at 76 %.

Lukashenko faced three nominal rivals during the election: the leaders of two pro-government parties, Sergei Gaidukevich and Nikolai Ulakhovich, and little- known opposition activist Tatyana Korotkevich. Prominent opposition figures were either barred from running or decided against trying to get on the ballot for an election they considered a farce. During his 21 years of rule, Lukashenko has cracked down on dissent while cultivating an image of strong leadership that guarantees order and stability.

“Oh, life has become harder, but Lukashenko promises stability and peace,” said 68-year-old Tamara Krylovich after voting in Minsk. “Look at what democracy brought in Ukraine – war and poverty.”

Lukashenko has largely preserved the state-controlled Soviet type of economy, albeit with the help of cheap Russian gas and western loans. The unreformed economy may be sputtering, but it still puts bread on the tables of pensioners and workers at unprofitable state factories.

But Anton Gurevich, a 41-year-old automobile factory worker, said it was time for a change. “I have lived half of my life with Lukashenko, but life has not gotten better,” he said. “After all, the leadership should change, there should be changes.”

Lukashenko said he was prepared to introduce economic reforms if the Belarusian people were prepared for the difficulties they would bring. “If you give me carte blanche for any destruction and any revolutionary transformations, if that is what you want, then for God’s sake we will do it,” he said. “The issue is not me, the issue is society.”

Lukashenko allowed opposition candidates to run in past presidential elections, although none of the votes were recognised in the west as free or fair. In 2010, most of the candidates who opposed him were arrested soon after the polls closed. Police also detained hundreds of opposition supporters while violently dispersing an election night protest that drew tens of thousands onto the streets.

One of the former candidates, Nikolai Statkevich, spent nearly five years in prison until Lukashenko unexpectedly pardoned him in August along with all five other remaining political prisoners. Their release was seen as an effort to improve relations with the west, which imposed sanctions on Belarus in response to the crackdown on dissent.

On Friday, an EUofficial said sanctions on Belarus may be suspended.

The opposition has called on its supporters to join a protest after polls close on Sunday night. The protest is expected to be relatively small and will be allowed to proceed peacefully. Police did not interfere with an opposition demonstration on Saturday involving about 1,000 protesters.