MINSK, Belarus (AP) -- Election officials in Belarus said Monday that President Alexander Lukashenko has won his sixth consecutive term with over 80% of the vote after facing his strongest challenge in 26 years and protests over his cavalier brushoff of the coronavirus, political repression and the country's deteriorating economy.
Thousands of people took to the streets in a number of Belarusian cities and towns on Sunday night, protesting the early count that indicated Lukashenko's landslide victory. Opposition supporters said they believe the election results were rigged and planned to gather in Minsk for more protests on Monday evening.
“We don't recognize these results,” opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, 37, said Monday. The Central Election Commission of Belarus gave the former teacher and political novice 9.9% of the vote to the 65-year-old incumbent's 80.23%. Tsikhanouskaya said her team was conducting its own ballot count.
“According to the data we receive from precincts, we won, and this corresponds with what we saw at polling stations," she said. "People stood in lines at polling stations in order to vote for Tsikhanouskaya. I believe my own eyes rather than the data of the Central Election Commission."
Lukashenko called the election “a festive occasion" and accused the opposition of trying to ruin it.
“We won't allow (them) to tear the country apart,” he said.
The protesters expressing anger over the outcome of Sunday's election faced rows of riot police who moved quickly to disperse them, firing flash-bang grenades and beating the demonstrators with truncheons. Human rights groups said one person was killed - which the authorities denied - and dozens were injured.
According to the Viasna human rights group, more than 200 protesters were detained. The crackdown followed a tense campaign that saw massive rallies against Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation with an iron fist since 1994.
The Interior Ministry said Monday no one was killed during the protests and called reports about a fatality “an absolute fake.” According to officials, 89 people were injured during the protests, including 39 law enforcement officers, and some 3,000 people were detained.
The Investigative Committee of Belarus opened a criminal probe Monday into mass riots and violence toward police officers.
European officials urged Belarusian authorities to adhere to standards of democracy and respect the people's civil rights on Sunday.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told the BNS news agency on Monday that “it's difficult to call this election transparent, democratic and free, regrettably.” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin on Monday that reports of systematic election irregularities were credible and the German government doubted the result announced by authorities in Belarus.
“It's obvious that the minimum standards for democratic elections weren't abided by in the presidential election.” Seibert said, adding that the European Union would now discuss an appropriate joint response.
Poland's Foreign Ministry issued a statement Monday saying that “the harsh reaction of the law enforcement forces, the use of force against peaceful protesters, and arbitrary arrests are unacceptable."
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called on European Union's leaders to convene an extraordinary summit to discuss Belarus, saying that the 27-member bloc should support the democratic aspirations of people in Belarus.
Several world leaders, in the meantime, congratulated Lukashenko on his win. Chinese leader Xi Jinping was the first among them, saying that “Belarus will certainly achieve new brilliant successes in state-building.” He was followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and the leader of Azerbaijan, Ilkham Aliyev.
The election results “indicate the popular support” for Lukashenko's rule, Tokayev said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a Facebook post Monday it was “obvious that not everyone in the country agrees with the announced preliminary election results. And, as we know, any legitimacy arises solely from public trust." He urged the government of Belarus to refrain from violence and called for dialogue with the opposition.
Two prominent opposition challengers were denied places on the ballot, but Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of a jailed opposition blogger, managed to unite opposition groups and draw tens of thousands to her campaign rallies, tapping growing anger over a stagnant economy and fatigue with Lukashenko's autocratic rule.
Lukashenko was defiant as he voted earlier in the day, warning that the opposition will meet a tough response.
“If you provoke, you will get the same answer,” he said. “Do you want to try to overthrow the government, break something, wound, offend, and expect me or someone to kneel in front of you and kiss them and the sand onto which you wandered? This will not happen.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose assessments of elections are widely regarded as authoritative, was not invited to send observers.
Tsikhanouskaya had crisscrossed the country, tapping into public frustration with a worsening economy and Lukashenko's swaggering response to the pandemic.
Belarus, a country of 9.5 million people, has reported more than 68,500 coronavirus cases and 580 deaths but critics have accused authorities of manipulating the figures to downplay the death toll.
Belarus has sustained a severe economic blow after its leading exports customer, Russia, went into a pandemic-induced recession and other foreign markets shrank. Before the coronavirus, the country's state-controlled economy already had been stalled for years, stoking public frustration.
Lukashenko has dismissed the virus as “psychosis” and declined to apply measures to stop its spread, saying a lockdown would have doomed the already weak economy. He announced last month that he had been infected but had no symptoms and recovered quickly, allegedly thanks to playing sports.