MINSK — Protests broke out across Belarus on Sunday evening after an exit poll predicted an overwhelming victory for authoritarian incumbent President Aleksander Lukashenko.
Independent Belsat television showed large crowds being attacked by police in Minsk, amid reports that a few local polling stations were saying that in their counts opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was doing better than Lukashenko.
The exit poll, conducted by the government-run Youth Laboratory of Sociological Studies, gave Lukashenko 79.7 percent and Tikhanovskaya 6.8 percent; independent polls are banned. The Central Election Commission said early results would be released after midnight, with a more complete vote count coming on Monday morning.
Tikhanovskaya was a surprise replacement for her husband Sergei, a popular blogger who was arrested when he tried to launch a presidential campaign. She held large rallies in Minsk and in provincial cities, riding a groundswell of popular discontent at Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994.
The lopsided margin of victory is seen as unbelievable by the opposition.
Police arrested independent election observers and reporters on Sunday and there were reports of internet outages and difficulty accessing news sites. People also filmed large numbers of troops moving toward the capital; the main roads running into Minsk were blocked on Sunday, and the city was filled with riot police and the military.
In her campaign, Tikhanovskaya had called for a clean vote count, and the opposition warned against early voting — traditionally used for ballot stuffing. Lukashenko has built his regime on a tight alliance with the security forces and government elites, coupled with the use of force to bring potential opponents to heel.
Tikhanovskaya went into hiding on Saturday night, emerging on Sunday to cast her ballot.
Veronika Tsepkalo, one of Tikhanovskya's campaign allies, fled to Russia ahead of the vote. Her husband, Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the United States and a potential presidential candidate, was forced to flee to Russia last month. Another ally, Maria Kolesnikova, was briefly detained on Saturday.
During the election campaign, Minsk and other Belarusian cities saw spontaneous protests, with police cracking down on cyclists and horn-blowing drivers.
After casting his ballot, Lukashenko said he didn't anticipate large-scale protests.
“I think tomorrow they will calm down and understand that everyone only lives once," he said.
Ahead of the election, Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, warned of the government's "unacceptable" restrictions on freedoms of media and assembly, as well as "detentions of peaceful protesters, domestic observers, journalists and activists."
"The EU appeals to the Belarusian authorities to guarantee the exercise of full political rights of the candidates, to avoid using force against peaceful protesters, to refrain from further detentions of elections observers, peaceful protesters, candidates and members of their teams and immediately release all activists, human rights defenders, bloggers and journalists detained on political grounds," he said.