Minsk         -        Strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled over ex-Soviet Belarus for nearly three decades, is facing down the greatest challenge to his rule ahead of presidential elections on Sunday.

In the run-up to the vote in which Lukashenko will seek a sixth term, protests have erupted across the country straddling Russia and Europe, with 37-year-old stay-at-home-mother Svetlana Tikhanovskaya emerging as his toughest rival.

Critics have mocked Lukashenko, claiming his approval ratings have hit single digits and nicknamed the 65-year-old authoritarian leader “Sasha 3 percent.”

One of Lukashenko’s would-be rivals, Tikhanovskaya’s husband Sergei, dubbed the famously mustachioed Lukashenko “the cockroach” and his supporters waved slippers at protests to symbolise stamping out his rule.

In response, Lukashenko, who is Europe’s longest serving leader, jailed his main rivals including Tikhanovsky and told opponents not to call him names.

“Insulting people is not allowed in any country in the world,” he said at a meeting with Belarusians in late June.

“Do you really believe that a sitting president can have a 3-percent rating?”

During an animated address to the nation this week, Lukashenko wiped sweat from his brow as he accused the opposition of planning mass riots in the capital Minsk and urged voters to renew his tenure to stave off an uprising.

“All kinds of arrows, poisoned and COVID-ridden, are targeted at Lukashenko in order to bring him down, humiliate him, stamp on him, and destroy him,” he told the packed auditorium of officials, church leaders and military personnel.