For the first time in recent memory, Alyaksandr Lukashenka appeared to have a fight on his hands in a presidential election. A former teacher and English translator, Svyatlana Tskihanouskaya, had electrified crowds across the country, stepping into the race only after her husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, was barred from the ballot and arrested.
However, no election in Belarus since Lukashenka came to power in 1994 has been deemed by the West and international institutions to have been free or fair. And this time, the official outcome seemed set to be little different: State exit polls indicated that the official results would hand Lukashenka a landslide victory in the August 9 election.
But protesters poured into the streets after the balloting ended and police cracked down, making for harrowing scenes of mayhem in darkened cities and leaving the future of the country and its authoritarian leader murky.
RFE/RL looks at some of the key factors during the vote and the possible fallout for Belarus, Lukashenka, and his relations with Russia and the West.
Facing his most serious challenge to date, Lukashenka appeared to take no chances with the vote result. Observers and opposition figures said that one of the first signs suggesting the election may have been rigged came early on August 9 when the Central Election Commission (CEC) announced that turnout from early voting that started on August 4 was some 42 percent, a record for a Belarusian presidential election. Critics say early voting is when the bulk of the ballot-box stuffing occurs, as many of these polling sites are not under close supervision and the process is easier to manipulate.
Fraud allegations mounted as voting proceeded.
Some precincts in Minsk were reporting turnout rates over 100 percent, according to the Tut.by news website.
Anti-government Telegram channel Nexta posted video of what it said was an election official in Minsk climbing out of the second-floor window of a polling station, carting away a sack of voting ballots.
Internet access was disrupted on voting day, and independent observers were in some cases barred from monitoring the vote and in some cases detained.
The Lukashenka government wasted little time issuing an exit poll showing him with about 80 percent of the vote and Tsikhanouskaya, who attracted thousands to rallies across the country, in the single digits. Analysts expected the official results would be similar.
"The results will show a sweeping victory," Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus and now a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told the BBC. "The results are sweeping lies."
With unprecedented crowds turning out for Tsikhanouskaya's campaign rallies and independent media outlets running preelection polls that suggested her support was well into the double digits -- one indicated that a runoff between the political novice and Lukashenka would be very close -- the state exit poll results left many in disbelief.
SEE ALSO: 'We Love, We Can, We'll Win': Belarusian Opposition Candidate Tsikhanouskaya Rallies Thousands Ahead Of Presidential Vote
"He's doing it to humiliate Tsikhanouskaya, but also all those who voted for her,' Franak Viacorka, a Belarusian journalist and digital-media strategist for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, told Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
The Use Of Force
During the campaign, Lukashenka did not reach out to voters as much as to the military and security forces. On June 23, at a military gathering in the western city of Brest, he called on the military to suppress civil unrest and "protect sovereignty" from "hybrid threats.'
"Lukashenka will not tolerate massive protests. Security forces and even part of [the] army are on alert and prepared to crack down," said Kamil Klysinski, a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based OSW Center for Eastern Studies.
As polls were closing, police and soldiers were being transported into Minsk, cordoning off the city, and taking up positions at strategic sites in anticipation of unrest. And shortly after the balloting ended, the crackdown began, with security forces clashing with protesters who took to the streets and many other cities.
"Lukashenka a priori made it clear that he intends to retain his power at any cost. The question remains what the price will be," political analyst Alyaksandr Klaskovsky said in comments to Reuters.
Some Lukashenka opponents said they would not back down.
"Yes, there will be protests today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. They won't be centralized as before to protect people, but today's events are only the beginning of the final sprint to the finish line. And we are not talking years -- we are talking two to three months," Volha Karach, head of the Belarusian NGO Our Home, told Current Time.
2010 Again -- Or Worse?
In the past as well, Lukashenka has not hesitated to call in security forces to quell postelection unrest.
"Bloody Sunday," the crackdown that followed the 2010 presidential election, was particularly violent: All told, more than 600 people were detained, including seven of the election candidates -- one of them, 64-year-old Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, was arrested while lying in a hospital bed after being beaten unconscious by security forces during the protests.
The clampdown and clashes late on August 9 came after police, soldiers, and crack OMON units, fanned out across Minsk during the voting, staking out positions around government buildings and central squares. The outcome was unclear as midnight passed
Earlier, Klysinski said that given the heavy force presence, postelection developments might be "the first sign of whether Belarusian society is ready to confront security forces, including the feared OMON special forces."
What Cost For Lukashenka?
The vote came with relations between Moscow and Minsk frosty over Lukashenka's resistance to closer integration with Russia, including what appeared to be a last-moment decision in December 2019 to reject a plan to forge closer ties. The Kremlin may not be happy with Lukashenka, but analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government prefer him to the alternatives in the opposition.
If Lukashenka weathers the protests, the evidence of fraud and the crackdown will bring calls for tough action by the European Union and the United States, but also the prospect that further sanctions could push him into the arms of Russia.
Belarus Votes For President
Read our coverage as voters in Belarus decide on August 9 whether President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will continue after 26 years in power.
So in some ways, both Moscow and the West may feel they have limited room for movement, which is what Lukashenka has counted on in the past.
"Lukashenka is very lucky. On the one hand, Russia is not happy with him, but it knows very well that anyone after him will have a much better chance to ensure good relations with the EU, NATO, and the West in general," Maksim Samorukov, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Current Time.
"On the other hand, the EU is not happy with him either, but it has been burned with Ukraine and now is not eager to do anything to destabilize Lukashenka, because it might cause an inadequate Russian reaction up to annexation, tanks, etc. Hence the West will continue its slow, clumsy, stalling engagement with him."
London-based country risk analyst Alex Kokcharov, however, said that Lukashenka's election win will be a "Pyrrhic victory," with Moscow exploiting his weakened position at home to extract even more concessions, "including further political integration and military bases."
"So by keeping power in Minsk in this year's sham 'election', Lukashenka is actually likely to lose out as Belarusian sovereignty will likely be eroded further by the Union State of Russia and Belarus," Kokcharov told RFE/RL in written comments.
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036