Belarus has barred two popular opposition candidates from running in the presidential elections next month in what their supporters said was a blatant effort to ensure a sixth term for the autocrat Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled for a quarter of a century.
The country’s election commission disbarred Viktor Babariko, an outspoken former banker, and Valery Tsepkalo, an entrepreneur and former diplomat, from the poll, despite both having collected more than 100,000 signatures in a boisterous pre-election campaign.
“The government is so weak that they did not even allow Babariko [to run in the elections] from behind bars,” said Maria Kalesnikava, a representative for Babariko’s campaign, after the election commission announced its decision on Tuesday.
Frustrations with the government have reached boiling point owing to a lagging economy, slow response to the coronavirus outbreak, and exhaustion with Lukashenko’s record after 25 years in power.
Elections in the country are usually a carefully managed affair, where Lukashenko beats several handpicked opponents with about four-fifths of the vote, a scenario that the new opposition candidates threatened to upset.
While most public polling is banned in Belarus, leaked surveys indicated that Babariko could mount a serious challenge. He was arrested in June and charged with money laundering, tax evasion and bribery in a case widely viewed as politically motivated. His son has also been arrested. Amnesty International has named both prisoners of conscience.
Babariko was disbarred from the elections because of the pending legal case. Tsepkalo was blocked after thousands of signatures endorsing his candidacy were thrown out.
A third opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was registered for the election. Her husband, Sergei, was also jailed after leading protests where Lukashenko was ridiculed as a “cockroach” and said to have just 3% support across the country. She is a reluctant candidate who nonetheless may emerge as a consensus choice for opponents of Lukashenko.
“Seryozha, I love you very much, I am doing this for you and for those who believe in you,” Tikhanovskaya told Tut.by, a Belarusian news site on Tuesday. She had previously complained of threats against her children because of her participation in the elections.
Lukashenko has claimed the crackdown thwarted a revolution backed by “foreign puppet masters” that he claimed was fomented by Russia and the west. In total, five candidates were registered for the elections, including Lukashenko, Tikhanovskaya, and three others seen as palatable to the government.