Belarus' leader faces toughest challenge yet in Sunday vote

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Belarusian police officers detain a man in Minsk, Belarus, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. On Saturday evening, police arrested at least 10 people as hundreds of opposition supporters drove through the center of the capital waving flags and brandishing clenched-fist victory signs from the vehicles' windows. The presidential election in Belarus is scheduled for August 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

MINSK – After 26 years in office, the authoritarian leader of Belarus is facing the toughest challenge yet as he runs for a sixth term.

Discontent over a worsening economy and the government's dismissive response to the coronavirus pandemic has helped fuel the country's largest opposition rallies since Alexander Lukashenko became its first and only elected president following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Rumblings among the ruling elite and a bitter rift with Russia, Belarus's main sponsor and ally, compound the reelection challenge facing the 65-year-old former state farm director on Sunday.

Lukashenko, who once acquired the nickname “Europe's last dictator” in the West for his relentless crackdowns on dissent, has made it clear he won't hesitate to again, if necessary, use force to quash any attempt by his opponents to protest the results of the presidential election.

On Saturday evening, police arrested at least 10 people as hundreds of opposition supporters drove through the center of Minsk, the capital, waving flags and brandishing clenched-fist victory signs from the vehicles' windows.

Election officials barred the president's two main prospective rivals from what is now a five-person race. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former teacher and the wife of a jailed opposition blogger, has managed to draw strong support, with tens of thousands flocking to her campaign rallies.

The head of her campaign, Maria Moroz, was detained Saturday on charges of taking part in unauthorized protests and is likely to remain jailed until after the election, said Tsikhanouskaya's spokeswoman Anna Krasulina. It was not immediately clear what protests the charge referred to.

Krasulina later was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying Tsikhanouskaya decided to leave her home and spend the night elsewhere because of concerns about her security following Moroz's arrest and the apparent detention of another staff member.