Local Elections in Belarus: the Easiest Campaign to Forecast

Polling station in Belarus

On 24 February the coordinator of the "Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections" initiative Valiantsin Stefanovich called the upcoming 23 March 2014 local elections in Belarus "an invisible campaign." 

His point is not without merit, when considering the total passiveness, apathy and predictability surrounding the electoral process in Belarus.

While the authorities prepare themselves for the usual re-appointment of members of local councils, the opposition has little to respond with. It appears that, finally, society completely understands the profane nature of the whole process and yet, by ignoring the elections can create another set of problems for the authorities, this time – psychological ones.

Authorities Prepare their Usual Performance

Local elections have never been real issue for the authorities. In 2010 they even allowed the opposition to occupy ten out of 288 places in the nation's local councils. The government has little to be afraid of here because local councils have extremely narrow competencies and nearly no influence. In most cases their job is to approve the decisions of local executive committees, the heads of which are appointed by Alexander Lukashenka directly.

This time the authorities seem not to be conceding hardly anything to their opponents. The results of how the district electoral committees (DECs) are being formed and respective candidates registration in the elections shows this rather explicitly.

  Organisation Members in (DECs) Denials Candidates registered Denials
Loyal forces Federation of Trade Unions  8,736 7% No data  
"Belaya Rus" 4,189 8% No data  
Women's Union 4,010 4% No data  
Belarusian Republican Youth Union 3,354 11% No data  
Republican Party of Labour and Justice 699 11% 48 6%
Communist Party 574 24% 255 8%
Social-Sports Party 582 10% 3 0%
Agrarian Party 531 9% 0  
Republican Party 327 12% 0  
Unclear position Liberal-Democratic Party 0   125 22%
Opposition Belarusian Left Party "A Just World" 12 94% 88 26%
United Civil Party 3 97% 81 26%
Belarusian People's Front 6 91% 28 21%
Belarusian Social-Democratic Party (Hramada) 2 50% 52 48%
"Tell the Truth" campaign No data   103 79%
"For Freedom" movement No data   38 56%
Belarusian Christian Democracy No data   43 67%

 

This data speaks for itself: opposition candidates and representatives are registered or placed in DECs far more seldom than their pro-governmental counterparts. Even these figures provided above can be deceptive: many activists belong to several oppositional organisations at any given time and there may be double counting on these lists.

Local elections have never caused any tensions or even notable political activity in Belarus. Hence, the government tries to use this opportunity for purely reputational purposes: legitimisation in the eyes of its supporters, a demonstration of their position to credulous and politically indifferent people, while swaying them away from getting involved in the political process and keeping up maintenance of the government's projected image of unity between the people and the state.

Opposition: Exhausted and Divided

Only 1% of more than 22,300 registered candidates are representatives from the opposition. This indicates not only the authorities' strategy to turn their opponents down during registration is at work, but also the general weakness of the opposition and a lack of interest in taking part in the upcoming elections. Given the 20-80% denials' ratio, less than 300 registered candidates throughout the country means that far too few activists even have a hope of getting into office.

Most of the oppositional parties do not hide that they merely use the local campaign as a phase in their more general political strategies. The coalition from the "Tell the Truth" campaign, Belarusian Social-Democratic Party (Hramada), Belarusian People's Front and Movement "For Freedom" use the legal possibility of collecting signatures during elections to promote their "People's Referendum" project. Another coalition – "Talaka" (Belarusian Left Party "A Just World", United Civil Party and several smaller initiatives) continues its campaign of free and fair elections.

The only area where the opposition has managed to form a broader coalition is election observations. Seven oppositional forces including four participants of People's Referendum coalition, Green Party, Party of Freedom and Progress and the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy party have organised the "Right to Choose" campaign.

They plan to send out no fewer than a thousand observers to districts where oppositional candidates are running to observe the voting process. However, the legal restrictions of the observers' work (barring them from entering vote-counting areas, denying all of their complaints and their regular removal from the voting stations) leave few chances for the necessary observational control to be placed over the balloting process.

The latest polls have shown a further decline in Belarusians' trust and support for the opposition. Therefore, their prospects during the upcoming elections would not have been very good even if they managed to submit and register a large number of candidates. But in the present situation (having only 1% of all registered candidates) almost nobody, including the opposition themselves, seriously expect a successful outcome.

New Headache for the Government

In fact, the Belarusian authorities do not even need to resort to any kind of manipulation during the upcoming campaigns to make their results easy to predict: the average competition for a membership in a local council is 1.2 person per seat. This means that almost 80% of all electoral districts will undergo a one man race.

The absence of real power in the hands of local governments combined with the general political apathy in society and the expected rigging of the results have created a new sort of headache for the government. Whereas previously the opposition was the main irritant, now it is Belarusian citizens participation .

Before the previous 2010 local elections, the authorities removed an attendance barrier from the electoral code, foreseeing the passivity of voters. After the elections independent observers reported about a 40% attendance at polling stations, while the government announced 79%.

The December IISEPS survey also indicated than only 44% of respondents plan to vote. But "planning to vote" when asked by sociologists is not the same as actually leaving home and visiting the voting booth on Sunday.

Alexander Lukashenka himself addressed this issue at his latest press-conference in January. He called on people to vote, regardless of who it was, but be sure to go to the ballot box.

High attendance reflects the involvement of society in the political process, the people's recognition of the existing order. When the masses ignore the elections, authorities see that as a sign of citizens' rejecting the government's carefully orchestrated performance.

Through decades of gradual pushing opponents out of politics and the annihilation of any real local governance, Lukashenka has set for himself a trap: he remains politically interested in people's passiveness, but psychologically needs them to come to show their loyalty and recognise the validity of the existing order.

However, this does not change anyone's election forecasts. The March 2014 local elections will be invisible and apolitical because society has little interest in taking part in them. And neither the opposition, nor the government has the tools to make people show up.

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

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