Belarusian opposition prepares for the 2016 parliamentary elections

Celebration of Freedom Day in Minsk on 25 March 2016 (photo: nn.by)

Belarusian parliamentary elections may take place on 11 September 2016, according to a recent statement by the Chairperson of the Belarusian Central Election Commission.

These elections will take place against the backdrop of President Alexander Lukashenka’s approval rating moving towards a historic low, and people's incomes falling rapidly.

This creates an opportunity for the Belarusian opposition, which has become more active in recent months. If the pro-democratic forces focus on social issues rather than on their internal horse race and maintain at least camouflage unity, the opposition has a chance to become stronger during the campaign.

Bad times for Lukashenka, good for the Belarusian opposition?

In late March, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) published data showing how Belarusians assess the state of the country. According to the pollster, 60 per cent of people think that Belarus is developing in the wrong direction and say that their economic condition has worsened since the beginning of the year. Moreover, less than 15 per cent of people think that the situation will improve.

it is no surprise that the popularity of the authorities and Lukashenka keeps falling. 47 per cent of Belarusians blame the country's leader for the crisis, and his mistrust rating exceeded the trust one. IISEPS conducted the survey before the government announced that it was raising the retirement age, so Lukashenka's approval rating and his whole system will fall further.

If presidential elections took place tomorrow in Belarus, who would you vote for?

The Belarusian economy continues its downward trajectory. According to official figures, the economy declined by 3.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2016, and the average salary is now about $300.

But average salary data can be misleading, as the majority of Belarusians do not earn as much as the mean figure - as everywhere in the world, the richest people push up the figures. Moreover, these statistics fail to take into account not-working people such as pensioners, children or people with disabilities, who have much lower income or no income. The income per Belarusian could be two times lower than the official average salary.

In such circumstances, the opposition has a real opportunity to get the support of the majority of Belarusians during the elections in 2016. Disappointment in the authorities may result in ordinary people selecting alternative candidate on their ballots, for example someone who holds no responsibility for the current crisis. But there is still a problem: the Belarusian authorities falsify elections, which remain neither free nor fair, as a recent report by Freedom House shows.

How the Belarusian opposition is preparing for the campaign

It seems that some opposition politicians have become aware of this opportunity. They are holding rallies in Minsk, travelling around the country and discussing possible unification of the pro-democratic forces. On 15 April, almost all of the opposition groups, except the Tell the Truth campaign, created the Council of Democratic Organisations whose main objective became discussing the future political campaign and cooperation on constituencies, as Belarus has a majority electoral system.

In addition, some groups are uniting in coalitions and generating common lists of candidates for parliamentary elections. So far, the centre-right coalition, composed of the Movement for Freedom, the Belarusian Christian Democracy and the United Civil Party, has had the greatest success in building a unity image. Coalition leaders drive across regions together and have, according to their statements, 93 potential candidates. The Belarusian parliament has 110 deputies, so the coalition plans to put forward candidates in around 80 per cent of the electoral districts.

Another coalition which will put forward a common list of candidates consists of former presidential candidate Viktar Ciareshchanka, leader of the Nash Dom (Our House) association Volha Karach and former political prisoner Siarhei Skrabiec. So far, prospects for their campaign seem doubtful, especially taking into the account Skrabiec's negative image. Many insiders see him as a confidence trickster.

Mikalai Statkevich, a Social Democrat and a former political prisoner, is preparing a congress of democratic forces for May 14-15. However, it remains unlikely that the congress will gather the majority of the opposition. Nominally, almost all members of the opposition want unification, but each of them has their own vision of how a union should work. For instance, the centre-right coalition refused to join the organising committee of the congress.

It seems that the only organisation that remains reluctant to discuss any coalition-building is the Tell the Truth campaign under the leadership of former presidential candidate Tacciana Karatkevich. She and her colleague Andrej Dzmitryjeu are trying to position themselves between the authorities and the opposition. Currently Karatkevich has the highest rating among opposition politicians - 6.9 per cent, according to IISEPS.

Unification makes sense, but what is more vital?

Although the opposition has become more active in recent months, few people in Belarus believe that it can use the current weaknesses of Lukashenka’s regime to its advantage. Despite that, one significant improvement stands out. Belarusian opposition groups have significantly reduced the amount of public criticism they make of each each other.

Moreover, unlike the previous parliamentary election campaign in 2012, all opposition groups seem now to have the same election strategy. In contrast, four years ago some parties boycotted the elections, some withdraw their candidates before election day and others participated in the whole campaign.

Now it seems that everyone in the opposition thinks that participation is the best idea, as ignoring the elections will fail to bring new followers. Even Andrei Sannikau, leader of the European Belarus campaign which became known as a strongly pro-boycott group, recently stated that his movement is considering participating.

Some opposition figures are pushing for more. As Mikalai Statkevich puts it, "the opposition is stealing the victory from herself by rejecting the nomination of a single list of candidates". Such words make some sense, as people dislike fragmentation of the opposition, so even a formal union at the national level and coordination of the electoral districts will strengthen the image of the opposition.

The bad thing about unification is that the process can over-shadow more important issues. So far, Belarusian independent media write more often about political topics like unification of the democratic forces or Western policy towards Belarus than about the opposition raising bread-and-butter issues.

It seems that democratic forces devote too much time to themselves, at the expense of mastering a message for society. However, if the opposition speaks up about things that matter to Belarusians , it can become more popular during this campaign.

For the opposition, these elections are about ensuring its own survival until the presidential campaign of 2020, as fewer and fewer people are joining the pro-democratic structures. If the opposition fails this year, it will become even more difficult for it to attract human and financial resources in the future.

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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