Electoral Reform in Belarus: Liberalisation or Window-Dressing?

Head of the Central Commission on Elections Lidia Yarmoshyna

On 6 August 2013 Alexander Lukashenka held a meeting with top officials on the proposed changes to the Election Code. Some of the announced changes could potentially serve to further tighten the government's control over elections.

Meanwhile, the officials’ rhetoric concerning electoral reform implies that they intend to carry out these vague legislative amendments as if they were implementing Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) recommendations.

If the OSCE wants to avoid such window-dressing from the Belarusian government in future, the organisation should reconsider its approach to drafting these recommendations.

Government Solves its Problems

The first alarming aspect of the current electoral reform is the way the government is working on it. The Central Commission on Elections (the Election Commission) announced its plans to amend the Electoral Code at the end of 2012. Since then, the public has not been given access to any draft with regards to this reform.

Some politicians have accused the Election Commission of intending to "surprise" the opposition with unexpected changes on the eve of the local elections of winter 2013-2014.

The sparse information that has been presented by state-run media reveals some amendments that the Electoral Code will probably undergo.

the amendments would place a prohibition on campaigning to boycott any elections

First, the amendments would prohibit campaigning to boycott an election. During the most recent parliamentary elections of 2012, some opposition candidates used their right via state-run media to call upon citizens not to vote. This irritated the authorities, who censored most of their agitation.

Second, it would introduce the removal of budgetary support for candidates' campaign funding. When the changes enter into force, the candidates will have to establish their own "electoral funds".

This measure could create problems for candidates who are not wealthy. Openly donating to the opposition can also be quite problematic in Belarus. During a presidential meeting held on 6 August, officials did not conceal the fact that they introduced this measure to control the candidates’ funds more effectively.

Third, the proposed reform will establish an additional level of electoral committees: territorial. This way, the government argues, it will become easier to administer the elections. Opponents are convinced that this is just another obstacle, planned to lessen the number of complaints sent to the Election Commission in order to hide the real scale of complaints from foreign observers.

Another procedural novelty relates to defining the winner during parliamentary elections. There will be no need to receive more than 50% of the ballots; victory with just a simple majority will be enough. Again, opponents suspect the government is making the work of falsifiers easier; this way, they will not need to "add" too much support to the pro-governmental candidate.

All in all, the proposed reforms seem unlikely to ease campaigning. On the contrary, the government may use them as further restrictions on independent candidates.

Window-Dressing

The Election Commission Head Lidia Yarmoshyna used interesting rhetoric to convince Lukashenka of the necessity of the changes and, in particular, of enabling candidates in local elections to generate their own funds: "Let them establish their own funding; they will not do it, but it is for the sake of democracy".

Leaving aside the idea that the permanent Head of the Belarusian Election Commission cares about democracy, one can conclude that imitating democratisation before Western observers has become the major purpose of these reforms.

This is in line with the statements made by the Election Commission spokesman Mikalai Lazavik after every election which received an OSCE report: "We will implement the OSCE recommendations in part".

After the 2008 parliamentary campaign, the government adopted a group of amendments to the Electoral Code, in order, they announced "to comply with the OSCE recommendations that followed the elections".

The changes included:

  • the removal of the requirement for parties to have regional offices to field candidates in these districts (a minor procedural improvement);
  • adding the word "substantial" to the mistakes in application documents that lead to candidates’ removal from the campaign (with no further explanation of what it means);
  • entitling candidates to appeal the decisions of the electoral committees in court (which are heavily dependent on the government in Belarus);
  • giving candidates access to state media for speeches and debates (sometimes followed by censorships, e.g. in the case of calling for boycott)

In other words, the government has introduced very limited reforms, including purely technical improvements or those that will not influence the general transparency and fairness of the elections. The authorities omitted truly significant changes. The OSCE report also pointed out several other issues, including: non-transparent ballot counting, restrictions on observers’ work, biased coverage of the opposition in the state media, the closed nature of the procedure for announcing results, the uncontrolled mass preliminary voting system, etc.

The OSCE went on to officially welcome the progress Belarus had made in its electoral reforms, but also shared its concern and regret that the work had not been fully completed. This was enough for Belarusian state propaganda to proudly proclaim something along the lines of: "Look, we are slowly progressing; the EU does not want to take notice of our progress and places unfair sanctions on us."

The OSCE's technical, procedural and essential recommendations were thus mixed together into one convoluted report and followed by a "balanced assessment" of the progress made by Belarus. This provided the perfect grounds for the Belarusian authorities to interpret their critics' advice in their own favour.

The rhetoric that has followed the deliberations of the new amendments, the focus placed on reforming the candidates’ election funds (as the OSCE recommended inter alia in its latest report) without addressing significant gaps in the legislation means that the government may again plan to use its strategy of cherry-picking from Western recommendations to clean its hands.

How to Adjust the OSCE's Approach

The OSCE has little power to correct its participating states’ policies. However, by modifying its approach towards its evaluation of Belarusian elections, it can at least stop giving a free hand to state propaganda to interpret these assessments in an improper way.

When drafting the post-election reports, the OSCE should avoid the simple thematic division of recommendations (e.g. in the fields of media, registration, voting, counting, campaigning). Instead, OSCE experts should firmly divide all the recommendations into Fundamental, on the one hand, and Technical/Subsidiary, on the other, with a sharp boundary established between them.

It is also better to avoid providing overly abstract recommendations that can work as guidance only for those governments willing to advance democratic changes. Instead, the OSCE should include only specific steps that are assessable, the progress of which can be easily measured afterwards. While assessing the legislative amendments, particularly in cases where no fundamental changes have occurred, it would be better to stress this fact. 

Otherwise, the government may cherry-pick the softest recommendations and proclaim "partial compliance with the OSCE critics" while still ignoring all the essential problems.

Artyom Shraibman is a political correspondent and editor working for a major Belarusian informational portal TUT.BY in Minsk.

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