Belarusian Election As An Opportunity For Change
The September 2012 Parliamentary elections offer a chance for the opposition to reconnect with the wider Belarusian population rather than retain the current status quo. Even though some economic pressure on the regime has been lifted by the latest deals with the Russians, the population is increasingly looking for alternative sources of information and for different visions of how Belarus could develop.
Against the background of the recent Russian protests, the upcoming election campaign is a major window of opportunity – if exploited to the full – for the opposition. Elections provide a time of heightened interest for the population in the political situation of the country, and are therefore the perfect time to re-build party structures comprising activists willing to carry out political activity today.
In spite of this, the opposition remain divided about how they should approach this campaign. Alternative strategies include a boycott, an “active boycott” involving submitting candidates and withdrawing before election day, and running fully committed candidates through the entire electoral process.
Why Boycotting is Likely to Fail
More radical opposition activists argue that it would be immoral to run given that political leaders and former presidential candidates remain in jail.
Groups considering an “active boycott” have identified three main conditions to be addressed. These are the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners detained following December 19 2010 events; amendment of the election law to include changes proposed by opposition; and full representation of opposition candidates onto the electoral commissions at all levels.
While it is theoretically possible that these conditions could be met, they would all require significant political will from the side of the authorities, which is clearly missing at present. Arguing for strict implementation of these commitments before running is thus virtually synonymous with arguing for a boycott.
A boycott of the election would simply remove the opportunity for legal campaigning that the election time presents. It would also take away a chance for the opposition to reach out on issues that the “political middle” in society cares about, such as the economy and health care. The boycott would condemn the opposition to continue to be sidelined from mainstream Belarus. For an opposition without widespread support in society, as is the case today in Belarus, such a strategy is therefore a privilege that they cannot afford.
It is also very unlikely a boycott would have any major impact amongst the population – as pressure from the regime to vote will be high. With it proving impossible to build a united coalition of democratic forces around a boycott, it is unrealistic to expect the wider public to be convinced. No attempts have been made, even by its proponents, to quantify what would be a successful boycott.
In this environment, even if a boycott could in theory be run successfully, the the opposition’s current lack of effective coordination, inability to communicate a consistent message, constant internal gamesmanship and distrust between them would mean any effort at a credible “boycott campaign” would almost certainly fail.
The lack of clarity of strategy is already impeding the opposition's preparations for the elections – indeed it seems the preparation for partisan election observation is more advanced than for the campaign the observers should be safeguarding – an example perhaps of the perverse situation (and incentives) operating in Belarus now.
The opposition will risk repeating one of the main mistakes of 2008 parliamentary elections – letting the campaign be dominated by whether and when they are going to boycott or pull out of the campaign. Worse – by proposing the condition of the release of the political prisoners – they are putting this decision in the hands of the authorities.
This level of uncertainty as to whether pull out or not – which may not be clarified until the last minute – is likely to seriously undermine the opposition. Neither are candidates likely to take their campaign seriously, nor will the population take the candidates seriously as they are planning to withdraw.
Indeed it is this uncertainty and division in the opposition about whether to take the election seriously that has so undermined the opposition in the past. Some observers see this as a successful implementation of a “divide and rule” strategy implemented by the authorities.
In this regard, some politicians have warned the regime may seek to improve relations with the West through allowing a pseudo-opposition “KGB group” into Parliament, who would be handpicked by the security services based on their likelihood for collaboration. Opposition politicians should avoid being distracted by such red herrings – and the desire to protect their own status quo – and focus instead on becoming the most credible and popular candidates in their electoral district.
Commitment to Run Serious Campaigns
The window offered by the recent decline in support for Lukashenka should be maximised to the full during the election period through prospective parliamentary candidates from the opposition seeking to run credible election campaigns.
Developing credible candidates takes time. Efforts should be made already to build up election support teams, message development and efforts to increase name recognition and popularity with voters ahead of the elections. The focus should be on developing personalities in each constituency through direct dialogue with the voters on local issues that matter to them.
To enhance their credibility in the eyes of voters, candidates should commit to run to the end of the electoral process. They should maximise opportunities to engage with the electorate, including using all public meeting opportunities and possibilities for canvassing, such as door to door. Above all, candidates should focus on clear coordinated messages of relevance that make the case for political change and include credible alternatives proposals, to the wider population.
Parties and candidates should also attempt to work more closely with trade unions, which have been more active in recent time, albeit mostly on individual factory based issues.
Elections to Motivate Demand for Change rather than the idea of Revolution
Transformations in the region over the last 15 years show clearly that election time has provided the prime focus for expressing discontent.
In Belarus too, election nights have seen the largest protests in the last 10 years. Against the backdrop of the post-parliamentary election protests in Russia, there may also be a window of opportunity for similar events in Belarus – if the opposition was able to campaign solidly, including a message of “vote and defend your vote”.
However, the population will only take such events seriously if the opposition takes the whole campaign seriously – which it did in 2004 (Parliamentary Elections), 2006 and 2010 (Presidential) but did not in the 2008 Parliamentary elections.
Protesters are liable to pay a high price for participation including possible loss of employment or detention. Therefore, the opposition must ensure people are sufficiently motivated to demand change through a campaign focused on issues that matter to them, rather than on any idea of revolution. If people are won over in what they see as a serious campaign they will naturally seek to defend their vote. If not, as seems likely, they will simply avoid any risk and stay at home.
Indeed, the prevailing view in both the opposition and wider society is that the Parliament is a toothless institution not worth fighting for. In spite of this, the parliamentary elections provide a rare opportunity to turn the silent majority into active seekers of change. Failure to use it will set the opposition on track for three years of stagnation and eliminate any chance of election related change until the Presidential elections due in 2015.
Dr Alastair Rabagliati