MINSK, March 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Election day in central Minsk ended with the sound of many thousands of Belarusians chanting "Long live Belarus!" But the name the crowds were chanting was that of Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate, and not that of the man who, preliminary results indicate, won nearly 89 percent of the vote.
How many Belarusians turned up is a matter of guesswork, but as many as 30,000 opposition supporters gathered to protest a vote that will already seems certain to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to office for an unprecedented third term.
Alexander Lukashuk, the director of RFE/RL's Belarus Service, said there were "an incredible number of people, an incredible number of young people" carrying flags of the European, the opposition Zubr movement and -- above all – the white-red-white flag that was, until 1996, Belarus's national flag.
There were no reports of clashes between protesters and security forces, although large personnel trucks delivered troops to the area. Metro and bus service to the region had also been interrupted.
Lukashenka had vowed earlier in the day that protesters seeking to disrupt the vote would have their necks broken like "ducklings."
But such threats were not enough to keep away the protesters. "This is my homeland. If I am become afraid to live in my homeland, this is the worst thing that can happen to a human being," one woman told RFE/RL.
Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the main democratic candidate in the vote, appeared at October Square, as did his fellow opposition figure Alyaksandr Kazulin.
Milinkevich ended the rally with a call for opposition supporters to return to the square for another rally on March 20.
But he and Kazulin later led a thinning group of protesters to nearby Victory Square, where they laid flowers at a war memorial and called on the crowd to return to October Square on Mach 20 for a second round of demonstrations.
Early results from the election show Lukashenka with an overwhelming lead.
The Belarusian Central Election Commission (CEC) said with 22 percent of the ballots counted, Lukashenka had won 88.5 percent of the vote.
An official win would mean Lukashenka, who has already ruled Belarus for 12 years, would remain in office until 2011.
The CEC said Milinkevich took just 3.8 percent of the vote.
Milinkevich was followed by two other candidates: pro-government lawmaker Syarhey Haydukevich picked up 2.8 percent of the vote and the opposition figure Alyaksandr Kazulin won 1.5 percent.
Earlier, CEC head Lidziya Yarmoshyna said early figures from "closed" polling stations, such as hospitals and military bases, showed the incumbent with an "even more overwhelming" victory, with 98.4 percent.
Milinkevich described the official results as "laughable."
Ratcheting Up The Rhetoric
Alyaksandr Milinkevich attending an opposition rock concert on March18 in Minsk, where he first issued a call for protests (RFE/RL)
TOWARD A SHOWDOWN?: The main Belarusian opposition presidential candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, and his campaign manager, Syarhey Kalyakin, spoke on March 19 at a news conference in Minsk. RFE/RL's Belarus Service provided excerpts from Milinkevich's remarks.
Milinkevich: I believe this civil confrontation can be resolved by repeating elections, in which representatives of all candidates will be represented in election commissions.
Milinkevich: This will not be a true result. It will be a result of falsifications that have been continuing for a long time. [The results] will be recognized neither by us nor the majority of the Belarusian population. They will not be recognized by democratic countries, it has already become obvious.
Milinkevich: I will be appealing to the good senses of the authorities. This conflict should not be escalated. It should not be fomented. A resolution should be found. Let's sit down to the negotiating table.
Milinkevich: I am absolutely confident that democratic countries will not recognize this election as legitimate. I very much hope that there will be quite a few serious politicians in Russia who will do the same.
Milinkevich: Those people who will overcome fear will come out in the streets. There was and still is fear being infused today by warnings of alleged terrorism, which has never been heard of in Belarus. So let's see how many people will come out. I will be grateful to everyone who comes out and says peacefully that we want to live like humans and not on our knees, in humiliation.