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Belarus Cracks Down On Opposition, Vote Monitoring Ahead Of Election


Early voting has started in Belarus. (file photo)
Early voting has started in Belarus. (file photo)

Belarusian authorities have ramped up pressure on the opposition and independent election observers ahead of the August 9 presidential ballot amid concern strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka will use fraud and repression to extend his 26 years of rule against an energized opposition.

Law enforcement on August 8 detained the campaign chief of opposition presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Two other campaign staff members were also summoned to the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption for questioning and have not been heard from.

Tsikhanouskaya’s spokeswoman, Anna Krasulina, told RFE/RL that campaign chief Maryya Maroz was detained in Minsk and would go before a court on August 10. It was not clear why she was detained.

In response to the threats against her staff, Tsikhanouskaya left her flat in Minsk for security reasons to an undisclosed location.

Late in the evening, security forces also briefly detained Maryya Kalesnikava, the representative of jailed presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka and a close ally of Tsikhanouskaya. Kalesnikava told RFE/RL that police claimed they had mistakenly detained her and she was released.

Separately, the Minsk-based Vyasna human rights center on August 8 reported dozens of cases of police harassment and intimidation at polling stations, as well as the detention of independent election observers during early voting.

Analysts say Lukashenka's rule looks increasingly vulnerable ahead of the August 9 election, but that he is likely to win through a combination of fraud and a widening crackdown on dissent.

The lead-up to the vote has been marred by dubious disqualifications and an unprecedented scale of detentions and other persecution against a backdrop of a pandemic and pro-democracy protests.

Tens of thousands of opposition supporters have attended daily rallies in recent weeks in support of Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who says she will release political prisoners and call fair elections if she wins. She entered the race after her husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, a firebrand vlogger, was arrested and then barred from collecting signatures to get on the ballot.

Tsikhanouskaya has urged voters to combat electoral fraud and set up multiple organizations to monitor the presidential poll, which began on August 4 with early voting.

Opposition politicians, rights activists, and critics of Lukashenka have called on citizens to refrain from early voting, charging that it gives government loyalists more opportunities to rig the election results.

The Central Election Commission said on August 8 that turnout during the early voting period was 32.24 percent of the country's 6.8 million eligible voters.

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One election-monitoring campaign said August 8 it had documented inconsistencies in the first three days of early voting at polling stations where observers of the initiative were present.

Campaign observers with the opposition group Honest People recorded turnout of 45,613 voters compared to the Central Election Commission’s figure of 89,439 at several hundred ballot stations.

According to the initiative, about 50 of its observers have been detained during the five days of early voting.

The Honest People campaign was initiated by former Belgazprombank chief Babaryka, whose presidential campaign and that of another disqualified presidential candidate have joined forces to elect Tsikhanouskaya.

Meanwhile, the Voice platform, which calls on voters to send photos of completed ballots for the presidential election, has counted over a million registered users who have promised to help keep track of the vote. The platform was launched by the Honest People initiative.

Ahead of the vote, the Prosecutor-General’s Office threatened to block the website of the Voice platform after Lukashenka on August 6 stated that it was necessary to assess the legitimacy of alternative vote counting initiatives.

Central Election Commission head Lydia Yarmoshyna has accused the Voice platform of "organizing mass riots" and forming “a shadow” electoral body.

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