Minsk's "Election" Message to the West
Belarusian authorities do not allow even a minimal level of electoral competition and openly censor opposition candidates in the ongoing parliamentary election campaign. The campaign looks like a staged show in which the incumbent regime only needs to make sure that not even the slightest destabilisation occurs. On 15 September two major Belarusian opposition parties - the United Civic Party and the Belarusian Popular Front Party - decided to withdraw their candidates from the race.
Last Friday the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) Election Observation Mission published its initial overview of the ongoing parliamentary campaign in Belarus. The report mentions various violations but does not state the obvious - that the OSCE will not recognise the election results as legitimate. The Belarusian authorities simply do not leave any hope for a different conclusion but still hope to normalise relations with the West.
The authorities are trying to convey the following message to the West: we are gradually moving towards systemic modernization but all attempts to pressure us are counterproductive, therefore, you’d better appreciate our progress. Minsk wants such a notification of progress in order to have a chance for a rapprochement with the EU ahead of a new wave of crises which is likely to hit the Belarusian economy soon.
Appointed MPs and Censorship
According to several credible government sources, all the 110 future parliamentary deputies were “appointed” by the Presidential Administration several months ago. And now the authorities only have to dress these appointments as the will of the voters.
However, in the era of information technologies it is impossible to hide such massive-scale rigging from the public eye. The OSCE Interim Report does not make any judgments on the campaign so far but lists the most egregious examples of irregularities.
For instance, a large number of candidates were denied registration on the grounds of minor inaccuracies in their income statement or invalidation of signatures. The official signature verification process was completely non-transparent. In some cases the Central Election Commission and the Supreme Court resorted to strange arguments when denying registration to nominee candidates.
The most ridiculous example was when the authorities refused to register non-partisan Alexander Solop on the grounds of morality: because such a person “should not be a lawmaker”. The head of the Central Election Commission Lidzia Yarmoshyna publicly admitted that Mr. Solop had an expunged conviction and, therefore, had the legal right to run, but she emphasised that the Central Election Commission decided to make a political decision in his case.
The Central Election Commission openly introduced the censorship of candidates’ appearances in the state-owned media. Candidates who use unwanted words like “boycott” or “for fair elections without Lukashenka” in the majority of cases are denied the right to address their electorate.
The composition of precinct and district election commissions is another area of concern. Out of all the members of the district commissions only 3.5% represent opposition parties. Precinct commissions include only 0.09% opposition representatives.
Why Invite OSCE Observers?
The OSCE Interim report of 14 September also notes a number of other irregularities. And it is already quite obvious that the election will not be recognised as free and fair according to the Copenhagen criteria that the OSCE adheres to.
It is also clear that the other major international observation group – the Commonwealth of Independent States – will take an opposing view. Its observers will not notice any gross violations of the Belarusian Electoral Code.
A logical question arises: why invite OSCE observers if their negative conclusions can be predicted long in advance? Would it not be easier for the Belarusian government to invite only loyal observers from the CIS?
Two factors play in favour of still extending an invitation to the “hostile” OSCE. Most importantly, proper international observers are needed for domestic consumption. The authoritarian Belarusian state needs the majority of its own citizens to believe that the election is in full conformity with all laws and standards. By inviting "biased" international observers the government wants to demonstrate that it has nothing to hide from critics.
But it also feels like the authorities are looking beyond the parliamentary campaign. According to the National Bank’s chairwoman Nadzeya Yarmakova, in October Belarus plans to resume negotiations about a new loan with the IMF. She emphasised that the “political factor” remains the major obstacle in the negotiations.
This obstacle can only be removed if the EU and USA soften their hard positions on Belarus. Overall, the ongoing parliamentary campaign is so rigged that it cannot be conducive to a thaw with the West. However, if the OSCE observers mention some progress in how the election is organised the Belarusian government will be in a better negotiating position in October. And if the authorities additionally release political prisoners at the end of the year they can have a real chance for a new IMF loan.
Promise of Gradual Change
This explains why the authorities are being so nice and cooperative with the OSCE mission.
In order to get observers on their side the authorities employ a simple argument: the Belarusian political system will definitely transform, but gradually. They stress that the civil society and political parties have failed to keep pace with the modernization of the state. That is why, they say, it will take time to consolidate a working party system. But this transformation, they assure, is in progress.
To show progress, they point to the newly acquired ability of political parties to nominate candidates in all constituencies regardless of whether they maintain regional structures in a given district. As a result in this election a significantly higher number of candidates were nominated by political parties than in 2008. It was 264 this year and in 2008 it was 58.
The authorities also hint that soon after the elections the Republican Public Association Belaya Rus will be transformed into a fully-fledged political party. Given that it now supports 70 pro-government candidates, who will most probably get into the House of Representatives, the new party will have an absolute majority there. This will, in the opinion of Belaya Rus representatives, create new opportunities for party politics in the country.
In fact, if such a transformation really takes place Belarus will get a new political system. The governing party will gradually dissolve the uniqueness of President Lukashenka in the country's political life. But it can only happen if Lukashenka himself agrees to the scenario.
Time will show how the West will respond to the election message from Belarusian authorities.
Yauheni is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society Liberal Club in Minsk