Belarus’ incumbent strongman Alexander Lukashenko faces his first serious challenge in 26 years in Sunday’s upcoming election.
This election, marked by a crackdown on opposition candidates, has seen Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of an opposition candidate who was disqualified from the election, rise in popularity.
It comes against the backdrop of large protests of citizens who are unhappy with the dismal economic situation, authoritarian government and Lukashenko’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Now, many are wondering if Belarus, with its history of contested and unfair elections, could see change as the public protest the election process.
An unlikely opposition candidate
Ahead of the August presidential elections, several main opposition candidates were barred from running.
But since then an unlikely candidate has emerged — Tikhanovskaya registered after her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a prominent blogger, was arrested back in May.
She promises to free political prisoners and hold new, fair elections in six months if elected.
"I don’t think [the election commission] took her seriously and didn’t expect that the other two most prominent political campaigns would throw their support behind her," Sofya Orlosky, Freedom House's Senior Program Manager for Eurasia, told Euronews.
Two women from campaigns of other candidates who were barred from taking part in the election have joined forces with Tikhanovskaya and have turned out large numbers at campaign gatherings.
The 37-year-old former English teacher has repeatedly called for fair elections in the country and admitted to being a novice in politics.
There are three other candidates in the race: Anna Kanopatskaya, Andrei Dmitriyev, and Sergey Cherechen, according to the election commission. Each one collected tens of thousands of signatures in order to run.
"Registering them was probably an attempt to have token opposition so that Lukashenko could say: 'See I’m allowing opposition candidates on the ballot'," said Orlosky.
Concerns about a fair election
Independent experts and election watchers say it’s unlikely the country will hold fair elections.
Observers from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), wrote after the last presidential elections in 2015 that the election commission "did not publish the total number of ballots printed and distributed, and overall, the process lacked accountability and was not accessible to observers."
"Some 1,326 complaints were filed on early voting and election day irregularities," the international organisation that assesses the fairness of elections said in their 2015 report.
This year, the international body was not invited to observe the elections in Belarus until it was too late.
A spokesperson for the EU raised concerns that the situation would "severely negative consequences for the transparency and integrity of the election process".
"I don’t expect this election to be free and fair ... the main contenders are basically behind bars, facing very dubious made-up charges," Katia Glod, a former ODIHR election observer in the country, told Euronews.
"[Tikhanovskaya] is not really able to campaign. There is more and more pressure and more and more effort from the government to not let her run her rallies the way she did last week," she added.
The election has so far been characterised by a crackdown on opposition figures.
Lukashenko's main rival, Victor Babariko, was arrested on fraud charges and another potential rival, Valery Tsepkalo, was barred from the election because of allegedly handing invalid signatures to Belarus' Central Election Commission (CEC).
A representative for Babariko, Maria Kolesnikova, and the wife of Tsepkalo, Veronika Tsepkalo, have both joined forces with Tikhanovskaya.
Tsepkalo, who fled the country for Russia, told Euronews in July that Lukashenko would likely rig the election results.
Several more opposition figures, including the head of Tikhanovskaya's campaign, were also recently detained.
The first round of the election is on August 9 and unless a candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote, there is a second round in two weeks.
"Everyone expects that Lukashenko will announce 70 per cent for himself because that’s what he has done in the past," Glod said. She expects that the leader will not risk allowing a second round to happen where another candidate could win.
An engaged population
Tens of thousands of Belarusians have been engaged during this election, showing up to opposition meetings and protesting over the country's leadership.
Hundreds of protesters have been detained for demonstrating against the exclusion of opposition candidates from the elections.
Although protests are not uncommon before elections in the country, experts say, the scale of these protests is surprising.
"I think what is important is for the first time, Lukashenko has very low public support. During the previous elections he still probably had the majority of people supporting him," said Glod.
She said there would "obviously be protests in the streets" if Lukashenko gets a high percentage in the first round.
"It's very hard to predict how that could develop — whether the protests could be quashed or not," she added.
"Belarusians are able to travel during normal times to the EU. [The country] has borders with Lithuania and Poland. People see how things are on the other side, especially young people," said Orlosky.
"The people in Belarus are not blind; they know what’s happening in their country. They’re ready for change. There is an overwhelming energy that has ripened by now," she added, not just amongst young people but also those who remember the massive crackdowns of previous elections.
Orlosky said this public engagement is the big "wildcard" of the election. If turnout and the people's vote is high enough, it could be more difficult to rig the results, she added.
Glod explains: "It’s also important to realise that the election has become about democracy and the rule of law and that’s what the majority of active people want in Belarus."