“Our constitution is not for women. Our society has not matured enough to vote for a woman. This is because by constitution the president handles a lot of power.”

These are the recent words of Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus.

Today Belarus goes to the polls in an election that is shaping up to be the biggest political challenge ever to the man dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” and who has ruled for over a quarter of a century.

Leading that challenge is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher who was thrust into frontline politics after her blogger husband, Sergei, who campaigned against Lukashenko, was arrested in May on what many say are trumped-up charges. Such an accusation, it should be said, is not without some credence in Lukashenko’s Belarus.

In the past, Lukashenko, who commands a large and often brutal security apparatus, has never been shy about demonstrating that he can crush any dissent. Only last week, in an address to the nation, the former Soviet-era state-farm boss ominously warned about the consequences of what would happen if he loses power.

“I am not a saint, but are you, Belarusians, ready to give these powers and this constitution to another person?” asked Lukashenko, while underlining the close ties between his regime and the security forces.

“The state will not abandon you, it will protect you. We have our own methods to deal with those extremists. Therefore, do not even be afraid for your safety and your children,” Lukashenko added, in what many Belarusians and election-watchers saw as a scarcely veiled threat.

It was just the latest demonstration of the regime’s intimidation which over the past few weeks in the run-up to today’s election has seen a crackdown on opposition candidates and supporters.

This, however, has not stopped thousands of anti-government protesters taking to the streets to challenge what they see as a rigged electoral system, dismal economic situation, authoritarian government, and Lukashenko’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, which he says should be tackled by “drinking vodka” and “working hard in the countryside”.

In taking on Lukashenko, Tikhanovskaya can also take comfort from the fact that two other women representing different opposition campaigns are supporting her challenge.

The other two joining this “troika” of opposition candidates are Maria Kolesnikova, a member of the campaign team for Viktor Babariko, who was detained and accused of financial misdeeds, and Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of Valery Tsepkalo, a former Belarus ambassador to the US, who was barred from standing after the central election commission disallowed some of the signatures he needed to collect in order to become a candidate.

An image of the three women posing for the camera, Tikhanovskaya clenching her fist, Kolesnikova making a heart sign, and Tsepkalo making a “V” for victory sign, has become an iconic image of the election campaign.

But as these three wives of the disbarred male opposition candidates have stepped in for their husbands and formed a compelling alternative for voters, Lukashenko, it seems, will stop at virtually nothing to silence their opposition to his rule. In a recent report entitled “Crackdown from the Top: Gender-based Reprisals against Women in Belarus”, human rights group Amnesty International revealed how women are “disproportionately affected” by the repression in Belarus.

“Insatiable in their intention to silence their political opponents and any form of dissent, the Belarusian authorities are wheeling out practices that smack of misogyny,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia director. “They are deliberately targeting women involved in politics or female family members of political activists, including with open discrimination and threats of sexual violence,” Struthers added.

The Amnesty report also highlighted how, by using the presidential decree that outlines “measures to protect children in disadvantaged families”, the Belarus authorities threaten to take children away from women political activists and from families of jailed opposition members.

Earlier in June, just around the time that Tikhanovskaya was about to hand in a petition with the 100,000 signatures required for her to stand as a candidate, she received an anonymous call threatening that her children would be taken away unless she abandoned her campaign.

“I have a choice – my children or carrying on the struggle,” said Tikhanovskaya at the time, before later saying she would continue because “it is only way to help my husband”.

Since then, however, the mother of two has sent her children abroad to an undisclosed location in the EU.

Despite until recently lacking any real political experience, Tikhanovskaya’s rise to become the leading opposition challenger to Lukashenko is, according to experts, aided by a number of factors, not least of which is that the regime did not perceive her as a threat.

“Tikhanovskaya, at the beginning of her campaign, appeared very weak. She was indeed under enormous pressure, she was very scared,” says Katia Glod, an independent analyst at the London-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“The authorities thought ‘well, she is very weak, we can easily pressure her, we can destroy her at any time’. But they miscalculated,” Glod, an expert on Eastern Europe, told Al Jazeera last week.

Apart from being a new face in politics supported by a popular coalition of forces, Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has also benefited from the growing anti-Lukashenko sentiment that has being brewing across the country for some considerable time.

But the big question remains over whether Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has the capacity to oust the iron-fisted president and longest- serving leader in the former Soviet Union.

Some observers point to the fact that 65-year-old Lukashenko has looked rattled of late, attacking both enemies and allies as he increasingly struggles to explain the upsurge of popular discontent within the country.

While ties between Belarus and Russia run deep, only last week Lukashenko turned his ire on Moscow, after Belarusian security services arrested a group of Russians the president described as mercenaries sent to disrupt the election.

Belarus’s security service said the men were members of the Wagner group, a notorious private military firm reportedly controlled by an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

But some analysts say the Russian mercenaries have been using the Belarusian capital Minsk as a stopover point on their way to Africa since Russia halted most commercial flights out of the country because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The mercenaries might also have been heading for Venezuela, a country with which Russia has close ties and has seen the presence of private military contractors in the past. Lukashenko, however, saw things differently.

“They’ve decided to try out new forms of ‘colour revolutions’ against us,” he said, referring to anti-government protests that pushed presidents from power in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia over the past two decades. “It won’t work,” the president insisted in a speech.

“A hybrid war is going on against Belarus, and we should expect dirty tricks from any side,” he told security officials in Minsk. “We don’t even know who they are: Americans with Nato, or someone from Ukraine, or our eastern brothers showing their affection towards us this way.”

The comments, say observers, bore all the hallmarks of a leader lashing out while under pressure.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Moscow has not responded well, further deepening a rift that has been widening for years over oil prices, trade disputes and political integration between Russia and Belarus.

Recently, Lukashenko further compounded the animosity by hinting that Russian oligarchs might have bankrolled his election opposition rivals.

While most analysts dismiss this as highly unlikely, it does raise the question of what the Kremlin would like the outcome of today’s election to be. Would it prefer a Lukashenko win or see a new regime in power?

“The geography, the significance, the symbolism of Belarus means that what happens there means a lot more for those in charge in the Kremlin than other places ... Belarus hasn’t seen this sort of moment since the mid-90s,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus speaking to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in an interview last week.

“What does it look like to Moscow if a long-serving authoritarian leader in a Slavic state, whose economy is in decline, gets into trouble, and faces an opposition movement? And a free and fair election?” Gould-Davies added. “That sets a bad example for Putin.”

Any fears, however, that Moscow might harbour over Lukashenko’s potential political demise are most likely unfounded for a number of structural and procedural reasons surrounding the election that will determine the outcome, say analysts.

To begin with there is the aforementioned pressure from the authorities to ensure only certain people are able to register and run as candidates even if the troika of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo have mustered the capacity to make the list – much to Lukashenko’s annoyance.

Then there is the early voting process that allows ample opportunity for state employees to tamper with the ballots cast and manipulate the outcome. Predicting the election will be rigged, Tikhanovskaya has already called on supporters to photograph their ballot papers and register their votes with an opposition platform called Golos, or “The Voice”.

Only on Friday there were initial indications of ballot-stuffing taking place when the government claimed that nearly a quarter of Belarusians had already been to the polls.

Belarus’s elections commission said 22.5% of eligible voters, more than 1.5 million Belarusians, had already cast ballots in early voting, a significant increase on previous elections that critics said indicated ballot-stuffing.

Any allegations of election tampering or rigging will most likely be easily dismissed by the regime given that no comprehensive outside international monitoring of the ballot will take place.

Last month, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) vote-monitoring arm, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), announced it would not send a mission to observe the election process, citing a lack of a timely invitation from the Belarusian authorities. It is the first time the ODIHR won’t be monitoring a nationwide election in Belarus since 2001.

And last, but far from least in terms of determining the election outcome, there is the state control of the Belarusian media and use of fear and intimidation against those showing any support or likelihood of voting for an opposition candidate.

True to form, Lukashenko has repeatedly called on the security forces to quell any post-election unrest, with many recalling the especially violent “Bloody Sunday,” crackdown that followed the 2010 presidential election. Back then more than 600 people- were detained, including seven of the candidates.

On Friday, Tikhanovskaya, who has promised to hold new, free elections if she wins, remained undaunted despite the early reports of ballot-stuffing.

Tikhanovskaya called on supporters to fight vote-rigging at the polls, but was careful to stop short of calling for open protests.

“We’re not calling people to a Maidan,” she told Belarusian news site Tut.by in an interview published the same day, referring to the 2014 revolution in Ukraine.

“We want honest elections. Is that a crime?”

Few doubt that the odds are stacked against anything like an honest election. Few doubt too that after today, Alexander Lukashenko will again be declared the election winner and president for the sixth time.

But in the run-up to this election, Belarus has seen its largest protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 30 years ago. Given this and the almost predictable outcome, the key question then, as analysts have repeatedly pointed out, is how many Belarusians will then contest the result in this young country of 9.5 million people?

Lukashenko has already derisorily referred to the trio of women challenging his rule as “miserable little girls”.

Objectionable as his remarks are, there is no denying these women and countless other Belarusians have shown they are not prepared to accept such a leader in place.

Whatever the election outcome, political change is stirring in Belarus and it might yet prove unstoppable. Down the line, Alexander Lukashenko, like so many past autocrats, might just come to rue the day he made such remarks.