Hundreds protest in Belarus after two main challengers barred from election ballot

MINSK (Reuters) - Hundreds of people protested in the Belarusian capital Minsk on on Tuesday after the central election commission refused to register the two main rivals of President Alexander Lukashenko as candidates in the Aug. 9 presidential election.

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The commission’s decision all but ensured victory for Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years.

Viktor Babariko, a banker who was detained last month, was excluded from the ballot because of a criminal case against him, the commission said. Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador who runs an office park for tech companies, was also rejected, after signatures on a supporting petition were nullified.

The two men had been widely seen as the last candidates left with a chance of defeating Lukashenko, who faces his strongest opposition in years as frustration mounts over the economy, human rights and his playing down of the coronavirus pandemic.

Several hundred people took to the streets in the centre of Minsk, periodically breaking into applause - a common form of public protest in Belarus of late. Police detained several dozen people while blocking off main streets.

“We are categorically for honest and fair elections,” a protester who gave his name as Ruslan, told Reuters.

Social media networks released images of what they said were other protests in the cities of Grodno, Gomel and Brest. Reuters could not immediately confirm those reports.

Over the past few weeks police have arrested hundreds of people in an effort to quell anti-government protests before the elections. Almost all of Lukashenko’s main rivals are either in detention or under investigation.

The European Union delegation to Belarus said the electoral commission’s decision “undermines the overall integrity and democratic nature of the elections”.

Andrei Lankin, an official in Tsepalko’s campaign, said Tsepalko would go to court to challenge the ruling.

Babariko, who headed the local unit of Russia’s Gazprombank before deciding to run for president, was detained last month on accusations he spirited hundreds of millions of dollars out of the country in money laundering schemes. He has rejected the charges as a way for the authorities to sideline a critic.

Lukashenko’s campaign chief, Mikhail Orda, called for a calm election “without any provocations and upheavals”.

Writing by Alexander Marrow and Pavel Polityuk; Editing by Mark Heinrich