“No words, only emotions.” That was how one opposition activist described seeing the exit poll for Sunday’s Belarusian Presidential election. Surprisingly for a man who had just won a landslide victory, Alexander Lukashenko seemed to have no words either. The incumbent President was facing his sixth election and, according to the official figures, he had gained nearly 80% of the vote. His opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who had attracted unprecedented crowds at her rallies, had managed less than 7% of the vote. But there was no victory lap from Lukashenko – not even an acceptance speech.

Almost overnight, Tikhanovskaya had gone from frying cutlets for her family to the most dangerous woman in Belarus. The 37-year old English teacher had only reluctantly agreed to stand to be President of Belarus after her husband’s candidacy was barred. But, in the weeks that followed, she managed to do what two decades of opposition candidates hadn’t. In a country where every election since the fall of the Soviet Union had produced the same result, she’d given people hope that things could change.

By all accounts, this election was supposed to be like the others. But, as the opposition began staging massive campaign events not just in Minsk, the capital, but in provincial cities like Gomel, Bobruisk and Brest, it became clear he was facing an unprecedented challenge to his leadership. Never before had Belarus seen political engagement on this scale, and it was drawing not just student activists but thousands of ordinary citizens, many of whom had never been to a protest in their lives.

On Sunday, as the polls closed, the jubilation of those crowds turned to anger. Lukashenko’s muted campaign had focused on the spread of civil unrest across the globe, from Black Lives Matter in the UK to the Maidan rebellion in neighbouring Ukraine. Only he, he said, could stop Belarus sliding into chaos as well. And, according to the official predictions, his pitch had worked. But independent exit polls, conducted outside foreign embassies where expatriate Belarusians were voting, had the reverse. There, Tikhanovskaya had gained 79.7% of the vote, while Lukashenko had 6.25%.

Before long, groups on the Telegram messaging service were being flooded with pictures of official tallies from polling stations within Belarus where Tikhanovskaya had won outright majorities. At the same time, stories of voting irregularities were already circulating. One video, shared on Twitter, purported to show a woman from Belarus’s Election Commission climbing down a ladder from the window of a polling station with a bag full of ballot papers. An audio recording, forwarded on widely by activists supposedly captured election officials pre-agreeing the number of votes that would be cast, and who they would be for. The official denial that this was just a rehearsal seems to have reassured few people.

What has happened since then has transformed Belarusian society beyond recognition. Belarusians are well-known for their abhorrence of violence and unrest, and are more disposed to suffering whatever comes their way with cynicism and humour. Even the first line of the national anthem declares, “we are peaceful people.” But something altogether is happening now.

Bracing for unrest even before the polls closed, long convoys of trucks bringing military hardware, barbed wire and soldiers began rolling into the city. Riot vans and even army Humvees roared around the city centre while troops began to close off roads into the capital. Access to the internet, including social media and streaming services had been severely restricted. OMON, the country’s feared riot police, were moving street to street, making arrests and tearing down the white and red flag that has come to represent opposition to Lukashenko’s government.

And so, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest what they saw as a stolen election, the authorities were ready for them. Dozens of protestors report being beaten or tear gassed. That anger soon turned to tragedy, as footage emerged of a man being hit by a van driven by security forces, with protesters and police attempting to resuscitate him. Rumours have circulated that the man has since died – which is denied by the Interior Ministry. A man was, however, confirmed to have died on the second night of protests, after being injured by a flash grenade.

Lukashenko has been able to suppress protests and direct action in the past, but he has never faced anything on this scale. The protesters regularly share images of Hong Kong activists, and they seem to have adopted their motto to “be like water.” While OMON and the special forces who appear to be working with them can apply unrelenting force in any given location, they simply cannot mobilise quickly enough to all the places of spontaneous mass gatherings. Police trucks bulldozed barricades constructed on main intersections, only to find them rebuilt when they returned a few hours later.

There are signs of escalation, too. In one unverified film, a car being turned around at one of the many road checkpoints that have been erected sped into a security official, before driving off. The most dramatic footage of the second night of protests showed huge crowds cheering as Molotov cocktails and fireworks were thrown at the authorities.

However, for all the energy and outrage of the crowds, the protests lack a strategic direction. While ordinary people are leaving their building doors open and sharing keycodes so protestors can hide, there appears to be no co-ordination of this grassroots movement. Its most obvious leader, Tikhanovskaya, disappeared after a meeting at the Electoral Commission, only to resurface this morning in a tearful video made from Lithuania. Many of her team, it is alleged, are being held as collateral.

But while Belarus’s new-found opposition is in a precarious situation, so too is Lukashenko’s government. Photographs shared on Telegram showed soldiers who appeared to have been mobilised to deal with protests holding a makeshift red and white opposition flag. Another video showed a riot policeman removing his helmet and refusing to disperse crowds. If Lukashenko is as unpopular with rank and file members of the army and security services as he supposedly is with the public at large, it wouldn’t take a significant escalation for them to begin to refuse his orders.

For the meantime, it appears that the Belarusian state is waiting to see what happens next. If cracks have begun to emerge between Lukashenko and those he needs to stay in power, they haven’t yet broken open. Anonymous quotes, reported to be from a former security official, claimed that those in the service of the state were as tired and as weary as many of those who had taken to the street. Apparently, a combination of overtime work throughout the election and the sheer scale of opposition had taken its toll. But, for as long as Lukashenko looks like a safer bet than his opponents, they are likely to stick behind him.

However, his prospects in the longer term are less positive. When he ran to be the country’s first post-independence President in 1994, he said that the time for the Soviet old guard was over, and the country needed a younger leader. Now 65, Lukashenko is beginning to look like those he criticised. His succession plan for many years was supposedly to hand power over to his youngest son, Kolya, whom he would take along to meetings with other heads of state. Now, however, even his son has turned on him, with Lukashenko using an interview with a Ukrainian journalist to report that Kolya backs the opposition.

Belarus has suffered throughout its long and tragic history from being trapped between empires – European powers in the West and Russia to the East. Lukashenko’s great success has been to turn that weakness into a bargaining chip, by playing his neighbours off against each other. By threatening closer links with Europe and NATO he has been able to press Russia for favourable terms around oil and trade.

However, he now faces a tough choice. Overwhelming military force may be able to suppress the opposition and maintain his hold over the country. However, such a show of force would undoubtedly prompt sanctions and reprisals from Western leaders, effectively destroying Lukashenko’s leverage over Russia. That, in itself, would make his position even less tenable, with a foundering economy added to the list of public complaints.

Those calls for action are already starting to materialise. Democratic Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, the man who aspires to lead what was once known as the free world, issued a strong condemnation last night. In it, he urged not only non-violence, but went as far as to say that the results of the election were illegitimate.

As the Western world watches, Belarusians are preparing for another day of protests. One Telegram user asked how many packs of bandages they should bring, while others shared news of the strikes beginning to break out across Belarus’s industries. In many cases, people don’t agree what should happen next – some want Russia to intervene, others want new elections without Lukashenko, while still others want Tikhanovskaya to be made President. What is clear, however, is that while the election may be over, the struggle for the future of Belarus has now begun.