Belarusian Elections: The Art of Falsification
Today's parliamentary elections are the simplest for Belarusian election committees. Because the majority of the opposition has boycotted the elections, the election committees have almost no need to rig the votes. In any event, when neither the observers nor even individual members of election committees have access the final count - it is difficult to have unexpected results.
The elections in Belarus last paradoxically long – for 6 days -- for two main reasons. First, the authorities get time to increase the turnout under threats of dismissal, problems at educational institutions or eviction from dormitories. Second, such a prolonged snap poll gives them enough time to falsify the results.The author has been working as an observer for these elections over the last six days, based at one of the polling stations outside Minsk and trying to figure out what is hidden behind the red curtain.
A typical polling station in Belarus is an ordinary school classroom. A policeman is standing nearby, “on the watch for the process”. From time to time they sit directly at the polling station for the whole day and which constitutes a violation of Belarusian law. Police explain that they should watch the threat posed by independent observers.
In Belarus, standard ballot boxes are made of wood, thus, they are non-transparent. The commission chairman agreed during the first meeting with the author that it is rather easy to add extra ballots because of large holes in ballot boxes. The author together with the chairman solved the problem by glueing it up with plasticine.
Election Committee vs. Independent Observers
The election committee consists approximately of 10 members. Employees of various organisations, political parties, public organisations nominate them. It is also possible to do so by collecting signatures. Then the Central Election Committee lead by Lidia Yarmoshyna declines unreliable candidates. Naturally enough, opposition representatives are among them.
This time there are only 48 opposition representatives who managed to be part of the local election committees, which constitutes just 3.3% of the total number. It is interesting that members of the committees remain almost the same from election to election. Only ideologically reliable people can stay there for so long.
As opposition-minded people are not likely to appear in the election committees, the opposition has to “advance the troops of observers.” Despite the small amount of members, they act quite efficiently. Even Secretary of the Central Election Committee Mikalai Lazavik admitted that he begins his day from browsing the human rights web-sites for Belarusian election news.
The relations between the election committee and independent observers are tense for an obvious reason: if falsifications are revealed, members of the election committee may (at least in theory) face criminal charges. In accordance with their dislike of democratic institutions, their hostile attitude becomes clear. The election committees sometimes ask for the removal of observers when the latter notice irregularities.
Dealing with the Low Turnout
Parliamentary elections in Belarus are far from being popular. The parliament does not play any role other than ceremonial in Belarusian politicics. Just look at the figures: the House of Representatives has prepared only three bills in the last four years. The rest came from the presidential administration to be rubber-stamped. The opposition boycott also contributed to the low turnout.
After a four day poll in Belarus, 20% of the electorate had already voted. These figures are two time lower at stations with independent observers where it is more difficult for election committees to allow voting on behalf of a whole family.
Which is, by the way, a widespread practice in Belarus, to relieve them of their obligation. When observers cannot see it, committees may allow them to vote for their relatives. Otherwise they say it is illegal. It looks most ridiculous when voters ask why it was permitted during the presidential election in 2010 but not this time.
Many state enterprise directors make their workers vote in advance, giving them permit for early leave in order to “do their civil duty.” One woman, who came to vote at the author’s polling station, even asked to give her a special confirmation document to show her boss.
The less popular, but more effective governmental method is "carousel". This means the situation when people are gathered in groups, put into the bus and driven to the polling station. On Wednesday one such "carousel" was uncovered at a polling station in Minsk. According to independent observer Aliaksandr Marchanka, around 100 people came to the polling station by buses and refused to show their passports to observers to prove that they are entitled to vote at that particular station.
The Administrations of Belarusian universities also made their students vote in advance. In these cases they often provide students with additional days off. If students live in a subsidised dormitory, the dorm administration makes them vote in advance under the threat that next year they will not get a place in the dormitory. In the Belarusian student town Gorki, 883 of 1600 people voted at one polling station during Tuesday, the first election day. Most of them were students.
The Ultimate Counting Magic
Counting votes is the most stressful moment in any election. It is even more stressful in case of falsifications in Belarus.
When the polling station closes for voters, each member of an election committee gets several hundreds ballots to count. Afterwards, he or she writes down the voting result on a sheet of paper and passes it to the committee chairperson in silence. All other members of the election committee do the same. Thus, nobody announces their results. Members of an election committee do not even know the results of their colleagues’ counting.
Finally the chairperson announces the overall result. At the same time, the observers have no way to verify the figures. Belarusian democratic activists often call chairperson officers magicians for such tricks. The only difference is that magicians pull rabbits out of their hats, while commission chairperson pull election results.