MOSCOW — From Beijing to Moscow and Minsk, authoritarian presidents are terrified of “color revolutions.” Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus is facing his strongest challenge in 26 years of power, and the opposition has claimed the color white.

His rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was underestimated by authorities when they allowed her onto the ballot, wears white plastic bands on her wrists and white blouses — a nod to political groundswells in other countries that used unifying colors such as the Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine in 2004-2005.

She has urged her supporters to wear something white when they go to vote on Sunday — to show the number of voters who want Lukashenko out.

Predicting the election will be rigged, she has also called on supporters to photograph their ballot papers and register their votes with an opposition platform called Golos, or “The Voice.”

The key question in the election, say analysts, is not the outcome — Lukashenko is expected to declare himself the winner — but how many people will protest it.

Lukashenko has clung to power since 1994 by changing the constitution; falsifying elections; jailing opponents, bloggers and activists; barring presidential candidates; and unleashing riot police to crush protests.

But his message that only he can deliver peace and stability is starting to fray because of the country’s economic stagnation and his denial of the coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 68,000 people and caused nearly 600 deaths in the nation, according to official figures, widely seen by health experts as understating the crisis.

Lukashenko ridiculed the pandemic as “mass psychosis” and once suggested vodka and saunas would protect people.

Opposition banned

Lukashenko jailed two main opponents, including Tikhanovskaya’s husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular blogger. His YouTube channel, A Country For Living, portrays the daily problems ordinary people face in a stagnant economy with low wages and government corruption. Another key opponent, barred from standing, fled the country after threats.

Tikhanovskaya — disdained by Lukashenko, who said a woman could never win — took her husband’s place and united the campaigns of three jailed or barred candidates: Tikhanovsky; former banker Viktor Babariko, jailed; and former Belarus ambassador to the United States Valery Tsepkalo, who fled Belarus. Their platform is to restore the 1994 democratic constitution, free political prisoners, and hold new free and fair elections where all candidates can run.

Tikhanovskaya sent her two children to Europe after a threatening phone call.

Lukashenko’s response to the challenge has been to whip up unsubstantiated accusations. People were plotting a “massacre” in Minsk, he declared in a televised speech this week. Foreign agents, he claimed, were stirring up trouble.

He had claimed chaos was brewing that could stir a repeat of Ukraine’s Maidan protests in 2014, known as the Revolution of Dignity, which ousted a pro-Russian kleptocrat, Viktor Yanukovych, as president. Lukashenko warned he could use the armed forces to put down protests.

Lukashenko also asserted that members of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner were planning to destabilize the nation. The arrests of 33 suspected Wagner mercenaries in Belarus last week touched off a public quarrel with the Kremlin, with relations between the two longtime allies increasingly fraught.

In one of Lukashenko’s toughest political crackdowns, at least 1,100 opposition supporters have been arrested at peaceful protests, according to Human Rights Watch. Dozens of bloggers, activists and journalists have been detained or jailed, the Belarusian rights group Viasna reported. At least 40 journalists were detained while covering peaceful protests since May, it said. There were 420 people detained at peaceful rallies July 14 and 15, it reported.

Opposition crowds swell

Tikhanovskaya’s crowds, however, kept growing. Last week, one rally drew more than 60,000 people, the largest rally since independence.

In response, authorities have begun to stop her from holding them, using excuses such as road works or construction. Many independent election observers have been detained since early voting, which began Tuesday.

Hugh Williamson, director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, said Belarusian authorities were using flimsy pretexts to silence journalists and critics, with some being held behind bars until after the vote.

“The international community should not ignore such serious flouting of human rights obligations,” he said in a statement July 30.

On Thursday, Lukashenko called a meeting of security chiefs and ordered prosecutors to investigate opposition plans for a parallel vote count. The head of Tikhanovskaya’s election headquarters, Maria Moroz, was arrested Thursday.

Tikhanovskaya, who was allowed recent slots on state television, said the opposition only sought free and fair elections.

She also took some colorful swipes at Lukashenko — describing him as a drunken school headmaster who beat children and ignored the wishes of the parents, and also as a rude stranger who sat with his feet on the table, abused everyone and refused to leave.

“We say that we want a new president, and the government answers that there will be a Maidan,” said Tikhanovskaya, clad in a white suit, referring to Ukraine’s upheavals. “We say that a majority of Belarusians want to live in a free, rich country, and the government threatens us with Maidan. So who is it here who wants to organize a Maidan? Him or us?”

Valery Karbalevich, a Belarusian political analyst and author of a book on Lukashenko, said it was obvious from the large opposition rallies that Lukashenko’s popularity was falling.

“The main reason is that the Belarusian social and economic model has exhausted itself and can no longer support the population,” Karbalevich said.

“People want higher salaries,” he added. “Labor migration is very high. People who work for state enterprises are not satisfied with their salaries or the economy. Businesses are not satisfied because they lost a lot during the pandemic. And they all see the main reason for their problems as Alexander Lukashenko.”

Opposition information coordinator, businessman and restaurateur Vadim Prokopiev sold his restaurants and fled to Ukraine fearing arrest after he released a series of videos critical of Lukashenko and his handling of the pandemic.

“He never forgives a personal insult,” he said. “We don’t have any open political culture at all. It’s pretty repressed.”

He said the opposition strategy was to expose Lukashenko for stealing the election by mounting its own tally of voters and carrying out informal exit polls.

“All we need to do is catch him red-handed. That will bring the anger out on the streets. If we have enough people — say if we have 100,000 people out on the streets — he’s in big trouble,” he said, referring to protests across the country.

“If it is fewer people, the police will be brutal . . . There will be blood,” he added.

Karbalevich noted Belarus’s elite was still solidly united behind Lukashenko.

“This is not the beginning of the end,” he continued. “Lukashenko will succeed in ruling for the next five years because we do not see any split in the elites, and we do not see any dissatisfaction in the elites and we do not see any pressure there. The state machine is working perfectly well, and the state machine will manage to deal with the protesters.”

Stern reported from Kyiv.