Elections in Belarus are usually a boring and predictable affair.
Often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” Alexander Lukashenko is normally crowned the winner in an event which had the same outcome in his 26-year Iron Reign.
But this time it’s different. Three women stand up against Lukashenko, one of the world’s most authoritarian leaders, in a challenge that symbolizes the electorate’s thirst for change.
Just a few weeks ago, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova had no intention of taking over the president.
Now they are organizing rallies with tens of thousands of their supporters – the biggest expression of dissent Belarus has seen in years – asking them to vote for Lukashenko.
“What the three women have been able to do is unite a lot of their supporters, and you can see by the number of people they attract with their political rallies that there is strong support for the type of change they profess, ”said Emily Ferris of the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank.
While there is no doubt that Lukashenko, 65, will retain power after Sunday’s election, the trio have created “an unprecedented activation of Belarusian society,” said Alesia Rudnik, researcher at the Center for New Ideas, a company based in Minsk. think tank.
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“Despite the outcome of the elections, these three personalities managed to embody the struggle against the regime by raising awareness and giving hope to ordinary Belarusians,” she said.
Tsikhanouskaya, 37, a former teacher and translator with no political experience, registered as a presidential candidate after the electoral commission refused to register her husband, popular political blogger Syarhei Tsikhanouski. He was then detained at a rally in support of his wife and remains jailed on several counts, according to the country’s investigative committee. He dismissed the charges as a provocation.
Veronika Tsepkalo’s husband Valeriy, a former ambassador to Washington, was denied registration as a presidential candidate and fled to Russia last month after being told his arrest was imminent.
The two women teamed up with Kolesnikova, the campaign manager of Viktor Babariko, a former banker and opposition candidate, who was arrested on charges his team called “absurd” and later disqualified from the race. by the electoral commission.
Since unifying their campaigns last month, the three women have become the faces of the opposition in Belarus.
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An image of them with three different symbolic gestures – a closed fist for Tsikhanouskaya, a victory sign for Tsepkalo, and a heart shape for Kolesnikova – has gone viral.
Although Tsikhanouskaya is the only one standing for election, she insists that she is not a politician.
She said she registered as a presidential candidate last month to support her husband, who was snubbed by the election commission. Since then, she has grown from a self-proclaimed politically indifferent “mother and wife” to an outspoken opposition leader who challenged Lukashenko to a live televised debate.
“I am not in politics for power. I am for justice, ”she said in a speech on state television last month.
“We have two options – to continue living in poverty and empty promises or to build a Belarus that we deserve. “
She promises to release all political prisoners if elected and to allow candidates who were not allowed to run, including her husband, to stand for re-election six months later.
The Tsikhanouskaya platform is otherwise poorly detailed, but its key messages include economic recovery and improved living standards.
The challenge seems to be enough to deflect some votes from Lukashenko, who called himself “Batska”, which means “father” in Belarusian.
Besides grievances over the economy, human rights and fatigue with his reign, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic has rekindled opposition.
Lukashenko dismissed the pandemic as a “psychosis” that can easily be cured with vodka and fresh air, refusing to lock down the country of 9.5 million people.
The country’s already weak economy is set to contract by at least 4% in 2020 – the biggest drop in 25 years, the World Bank warned in May, calling the impact of COVID-19 on Belarus “severe” .
Human rights groups have for years criticized Lukashenko’s government for suppressing dissent and the independent media. And Western observers have described the previous elections as rigged to keep him in power.
Official polls are almost non-existent, but experts still believe that Lukashenko is rapidly losing his electorate. But will voters turn to Tsikhanouskaya instead?
“Sviatlana is running to change everything,” Tsepkalo said during a press briefing announcing their campaigns are uniting. “She runs to clean the slate. “
Lukashenko rejected Tsikhanouskaya’s candidacy.
“Our constitution is not for women,” he joked at a press conference last month. “Our society is not ready to vote for a woman. “
Yauheni Preiherman, director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations, a political think tank, said there is no doubt that Tsikhanuskaya will garner nearly all anti-Lukashenko votes.
Preiherman said that while Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign is unlikely to be successful, it could still have long-term effects. His camp has not been clear on what should happen if he decides the elections are rigged.
Post-election protests, which Preiherman sees as inevitable, could turn chaotic or even violent, he said, prompting a potentially draconian response from the state.
Belarusian authorities have arrested more than 1,000 participants in protests since the start of the campaign.
“Lukashenko has never hidden his availability and his determination to use all the means necessary to ensure his maintenance in power. This time it’s no different, ”said Preiherman.