Huge crowds of passionate supporters and interested voters greeted Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya across Belarus as her campaign gained momentum ahead of the country's presidential election on August 9.
But few doubt when the election results are announced, the official winner will be Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has won five elections so far -- none but the first deemed free and fair by credible international observers -- and ruled the country for 26 years.
RFE/RL looks at five factors that make Lukashenka virtually impossible to beat.
The Belarusian presidential election is officially slated for August 9, but voting actually started five days before.
The Central Election Commission said on August 4 that all of the country's nearly 7 million eligible voters could vote early, casting ballots at 5,767 polling stations set up in public spaces, including medical facilities and army barracks, and at 44 polling stations abroad.
Early voting by students, soldiers, teachers, and other state employees is encouraged -- sometimes enforced -- and critics says it allows more time to tamper with ballots cast and manipulate the outcome.
The parliamentary elections in November 2019 provided a glaring glimpse of alleged fraud in early voting: An independent observer filmed a woman who tried to stuff a pile of ballots into a box at a polling station in the western city of Brest.
The video sparked outrage, but nothing was done. The observer who did the filming, however, was sharply criticized by Central Election Commission (TsKV) chief Lidzia Yarmoshyna.
Yarmoshyna has headed the TsKV for 23 years. She has presided over the process each time Lukashenka, first elected in 1994, has secured a new term: in 2001, 2006, 2010, and 2015.
Yarmoshyna replaced Viktar Hanchar, who was fired by Lukashenka in 1996 after he refused to certify results of a referendum that expanded Lukashenka's power. Hanchar disappeared in 1999, one of up to 30 Lukashenka opponents or perceived foes who went missing around that time. In 2001, the U.S. State Department said it found "credible" allegations that Lukashenka or those close to him had been involved in the disappearances. The cases have never been solved.
When confronted with the news of the alleged ballot box stuffing attempt in Brest in the 2019 parliamentary elections, Yarmoshyna expressed outrage, saying the observer who filmed the video should be stripped of his accreditation. "It doesn't matter what an observer says," she said. "The most important thing is the ballot box. The truth is determined by the vote count."
During those elections, the opposition did not win any seats. Two opposition members who did have seats in the lower house of the National Assembly -- Hanna Kanapatskaya and Alena Anisim -- were barred from running.
Yarmoshyna's TsKV holds the power to determine who does and who doesn't get on the ballot. In the current presidential campaign, all those would-be candidates said to be the most serious challengers to Lukashenka -- vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, former bank executive Viktar Babaryka, ex-ambassador to Washington Valer Tsapkala, and opposition stalwart Mikalay Statkevich -- were all left off the ballot for reasons their supporters said were trumped up.
Monitors Or No Monitors
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) vote-monitoring arm, ODIHR, announced in July that it would not send a mission to observe the presidential election process because of the lack of a timely invitation from the Belarusian authorities.
It's the first time the ODIHR won't be monitoring a nationwide election in Belarus since 2001.
In past elections, international observers have said they have faced problems, including being blocked by Belarusian officials from carrying out their jobs.
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Katia Glod, a political-risk analyst who has been an OSCE monitor at previous Belarusian elections, told Euronews that it was hard to figure out what was going on at polling stations, especially when ballots are being counted.
"You can't see much even at the polling station, you need to be 5 meters away from the counting table," she said. "You don't get to see the ballots because they are encircled by a group of people and counted secretly."
While the OSCE will not have observers on the ground, there will be international monitors from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a Russian-led grouping of former Soviet republics. In the past, CIS observers has never observed an election in Belarus they didn't like.
Belarus will also have its own monitors as well -- more than 48,000 of them, according to the Belarusian rights group Vyasna (Spring). Most are from state-run or state-controlled bodies.
But a few dozen independent observers, including 47 from the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, have been allowed to monitor polling stations. But according to Vyasna, some independent monitors have been blocked and at least 11 reportedly detained since early voting began.
Lukashenka dominates state-run media outlets, which convey his message to the public uncritically.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Lukashenka has used TV appearances to downplay the scale of the problem, dismissing it as a "mass psychosis" and rejecting calls from the World Health Organization (WHO), among others, to institute social-distancing measures.
"The Soviet Union has survived on television," Nadia Buka, a former journalist at Belarusian state-run Capital TV, told Current Time, suggesting that blatant propaganda remains the norm.
During the current presidential campaign, Lukashenka has suggested that both Russia and Western powers have been plotting to interfere in the election and destabilize Belarus.
In a speech on August 4, he claimed forces abroad had been cooking up plans for a "color revolution" -- a reference to the protests that have toppled governments in Ukraine, Georgia, and other former Soviet republics.
Lukashenka has hinted he would be ready to use the armed forces to stay in power. On June 23, he called on the military to be prepared to suppress civil unrest and "protect sovereignty" from "hybrid threats."
In the past, Lukashenka has repeatedly calling out security forces to quell any postelection unrest -- with "Bloody Sunday," the crackdown that followed the 2010 presidential election, especially violent. More than 600 people were detained, including seven of the candidates.
One of them, Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, 64, was arrested while lying in a hospital bed after being beaten unconscious by security forces during the protests.
That Was Then
These methods have worked for Lukashenka in the past, but a changed landscape seems to make their reliability this time around less certain.
State media appears not to be the factor it once was, having been left behind by many Belarusians who use and consume social and independent media instead.
The large crowds that have turned out for rallies addressed by Tsikhanouskaya, who has teamed up with the quashed campaigns of Babaryka and Tsapkala, make the election and its aftermath less predictable.
Lukashenka faces a changed populace, one that wants fair elections and responsible governance, Belarusian writer and Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich told RFE/RL's Belarus Service in a recent interview.
"A new generation has grown up [and] middle-aged people have regained their consciousness," she said. "These are not the same people who existed 26 years ago, when Lukashenka began to rule."