By JAMES MARSON
MINSK, Belarus-Thousands of Belarusians stormed the main government building and clashed with riot police in a protest against what they called large-scale electoral fraud as exit polls gave President Alexander Lukashenko more than 70% of the vote Sunday in his bid for a fourth term.
The size of the protest, joined by as many as 20,000 people shouting "Get out!" and "Long live Belarus," was unexpected, and it confronted the authoritarian ruler with a noisy challenge to his legitimacy as he seeks alliances in the West. But it was unclear whether the opposition could maintain the pressure on Mr. Lukashenko, who swiftly crushed a similar protest against his re-election in 2006.
Soon after polls closed Sunday, opposition supporters poured into the center of Minsk for a preplanned protest. Part of the crowd broke windows and glass doors of the building on Independence Square and tried twice to force their way in, only to be beaten back by police with clubs and plastic shields.
Hundreds of police then charged into the square, chasing the crowd away and pursuing protesters into nearby courtyards and an underpass in the subfreezing night. Dozens of protesters and two presidential candidates, Vladimir Neklyayev and Vitaly Rymashevsky, were injured.
Before the police moved in, Mr. Rymashevsky declared the demonstration's aim to "return power to the Belarusian people" through new elections. Speaking from the base of a large statue of Lenin in the square, Sergei Kalyakin, another opposition leader, said: "The vote count was unfair. They didn't allow us to see the count."
"Let's melt the ice of this dictatorship," he shouted.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko likely winner in general elections. Video courtesy of Reuters.
The Central Election Commission announced no returns. An exit poll by the pro-government Ecoom analytical center gave the president 79.1% of the vote. A poll taken by the state-owned ONT television network gave him 72.2%.
Mr. Lukashenko has run the former Soviet republic since 1994, allowing no independent broadcast media and keeping about 70% of the economy under state control. He had been widely expected to win a majority of the vote in a field with nine rival candidates, but Western leaders, particularly in Europe, were watching Sunday's vote for signs of how fair the process was and how the president handled its aftermath.
Long a staunch ally of Russia, the 56-year-old Belarusian leader has turned to the West in recent years as subsidies from Moscow dwindled and relations became strained.
European officials have said Belarus can expect as much as $3.5 billion in loans and credits if an observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe judges the vote to be free and fair.
Mr. Lukashenko's domineering style of rule enjoys broad support among Belarus's population of 9.5 million. His promise of political and economic stability played well with many voters Sunday.
"This president has done so much good: Roads have been built, the city has started to look better," said Alina Gurinovich, a 37-year-old accountant who voted for Mr. Lukashenko at a polling station in central Minsk. "I like Belarus the way it is-peaceful, quiet and stable."
Svetlana Vizgina, a 30-year-old foreign-language teacher, said she checked an option on the ballot marked "against all" candidates. "Conditions were inadequate for an election," she said.
Five opposition candidates had called for a rally late Sunday in October Square. Authorities declared the planned gathering illegal and installed an ice-skating rink in the square to limit space for demonstrators. As the crowd swelled, it moved toward Independence Square.
As Mr. Neklyayev led about 250 supporters from his headquarters toward the rally, they were stopped by about 70 black-clad men who threw smoke and stun grenades, said Viktor Gorbachev, an aide to the candidate. He said Mr. Neklyayev was knocked unconscious briefly and hospitalized with head injuries.
The Interior Ministry said a fight erupted as the opposition activists tried to stop police from searching two of their cars. It said police found truncheons and explosives in the cars. An aide to Mr. Neklyayev said his group had just one vehicle and it contained only sound equipment.
Seeking approval from the West, Belarusian authorities had allowed opposition candidates to register, speak on live television and campaign with less obstruction than in previous contests.
That was enough for Geert Ahrens, head of the OSCE observer mission, to declare before Sunday's protests that "these elections can be assessed better" than Mr. Lukashenko's ritual renewals of power in 2001 and 2006.
Mr. Ahrens added, however, that the OSCE's final assessment would be given after the vote count, a contentious procedure he said had been "a problem in the past."
Opposition candidates said the vote count was stacked against their candidates in at least two ways:
Under Belarus's electoral system, voters were allowed to cast ballots from Tuesday through Sunday. Twenty-three percent of the ballots were cast before Sunday and remained overnight at precinct polling stations, supervised only by the police. Election authorities had rejected appeals by opposition parties to put observers at the polling stations around the clock during the week.
Meanwhile, representatives of opposition candidates were allowed to take part in vote-counting at just 183 of the country's 6,830 precincts. Nearly 2,000 opposition candidates applied for approval to serve on the vote-counting panels but were turned down.
Mr. Lukashenko also dominated state television coverage of the campaign. On Sunday, he was the only candidate shown voting.
He said his rivals were claiming vote fraud because they knew they were heading for defeat.
The president hinted at a loosening of his rigid control, however, saying he would be willing to open a dialogue "with people who want to live in their country and provide for her independence and stability." The remark echoed his cryptic promise earlier this month that "there will definitely be political changes" in his next term.
But on Sunday he said there could be no talks with opposition candidates who protested his re-election. He called them "bandits and saboteurs."