Lukashenko rivals unite behind blogger's wife to fight Belarus election

MINSK (Reuters) - Two main rivals to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, both barred from next month’s presidential election, said on Thursday they would back the wife of an arrested anti-Lukashenko blogger who is pressing on with her campaign.

Hundreds of people protested in the capital on Tuesday after the central election commission refused to register the two rivals as candidates in the Aug. 9 election, all but ensuring victory for Lukashenko, 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 the commission disallowed some of the signatures supporting his candidacy.

The two are now standing behind Svetlana Tikhanouskaya who launched her campaign for president in place of her husband, a blogger who was arrested last month for threatening public order and now faces up to three years in prison.

“We are uniting our efforts!” staff of the two barred politicians and Svetlana Tikhanouskaya said in a joint statement.

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.

The EU delegation to Belarus has said excluding the two rivals “undermines the overall integrity and democratic nature of the elections” and Europe’s election watchdog expressed concern about “key aspects of the electoral process”.

Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky, writing by Pavel Polityuk, editing by Nick Macfie