One early sign of a dictator’s eventual demise is the moment when people cast off fear of his retribution against opponents. For Belarus, a small ex-Soviet nation next to Russia, that moment may come Aug. 9 in an election that could be largely rigged to favor its longtime ruler.
For some reason, President Alexander Lukashenko has allowed a candidate that he dismisses as “just a housewife” to run against him. Perhaps he needs a sheen of democracy. Or he actually believes his statement that Belarus “has not matured enough for a woman” to become president.
Little did he anticipate that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former English teacher and translator, would draw big crowds with this campaign pitch: “Now is the time when everyone must overcome their fear.”
Ms. Tikhanovskaya certainly has plenty to fear herself. In May, her activist husband was jailed after he announced his candidacy. Two other candidates were jailed or went into exile. At that point she decided to run. Even then, threats were made against her two children. She has sent them out of the country.
After hitting the campaign trail, however, the once-shy Ms. Tikhanovskaya realized she could pop a bubble of fear among Belarus’ 9.5 million people, especially the urban, tech-savvy youth.
“Do you think I’m not scared? I’m scared every day,” she told a crowd. “But I muster my courage, get over my fear and go to you, and go for victory.”
She also realized that the president’s dismissive attitude toward the coronavirus pandemic has awakened people. “They began to feel that they were protected by other people and not by the state,” she says.
Her popularity has been measured in the size of her crowds – the largest since independence in 1991. No political polls are allowed. In a rare TV appearance, she bravely talked about political prisoners.
She knows the election might be rigged against her. Mr. Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. She asks people to show solidarity by wearing something white when they go to vote. She also asks them to take pictures of their ballot and record their vote on an opposition website.
Under authoritarian regimes, such tactics are the tools of the powerless. Yet real power lies first in setting aside fear and embodying the qualities of democracy, such as equality and freedom.
If she somehow wins, Ms. Tikhanovskaya says her goal would be to quickly hold a legitimate election within six months, one in which freed political prisoners could run and people do not succumb to fear of retribution. She’s already set an example of that.