Political Parties in Belarus Consider Elections Tactics

Opposition political groupings in Belarus are stepping up preparations for the parliamentary elections, scheduled for 23 September 2012.

An IRI opinion poll figure from February shows that 43 per cent of people believe that in order to solve the economic situation in the country, new people are needed in government. 47 per cent believe that political reform is necessary to achieve this. Meanwhile, 32 per cent say they would vote for the "change candidate" or one not put forward by the state.

These figures underline the tremendous potential opportunity for outreach that the election presents for the opposition, particularly if they can communicate with voters the link between the painful economic situation in the country and the need for increased citizen control over the authorities. The wider public currently sees no alternative to the current regime and is not well informed or supportive of the opposition.

81 per cent of the Belarusian population opposes the idea of a boycott of elections, and 74 per cent plan to vote in the election. These polls have facilitated a small shift in approach from some opposition groupings, and a common recognition that the elections should be used to communicate with voters as the best way to build up support for the future.

However, tensions, distrust, and in particular differences in electoral tactics, remain, with some groups set on boycotting or planning to withdraw candidates before election-day.

Coalition of the six

Within the Coalition of the Six, politicians from six major political groupings have taken small steps to work together, including creating a common team for election observation, agreeing to develop common campaign messages for use by all groups, and understanding the need to avoid pointless mutual criticism.

Each of the political parties has different internal dynamics, with different electoral strategies and priorities based on the current focus of their membership and their ability to run innovative campaigns

Just World of Sergei Kalyakin is the only party currently committed to run throughout the parliamentary election campaign, rather than proposing to withdraw or boycott. They recognise that not running a candidate in the presidential elections and re-branding from their former Communist Party banner has reduced significantly their name recognition amongst the Belarusian population.  As a result, they wish to avoid making the same mistake again. In coalition discussions, they have therefore argued against any common agreement that all opposition candidates would withdraw together at a designated time.

The Tell the Truth campaign is hindered as some key leaders (such as former presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyaev and movement coordinator Andrei Dmitriev) are currently ineligible to be candidates due to their post-detention status. While the movement appears to currently be the most dynamic and seemingly best funded opposition political force in the country, this limitation has contributed to the movement’s decision not to run candidates nationally under a Tell the Truth banner. In spite of this they plan to support candidates affiliated with the movement using a common Tell the Truth message. This is designed to reinforce the idea of citizen control over the authorities' decisions, and would be utilised by activists even in districts where candidates are not running.

This message would build on recent issue-based campaigns around a "citizens’ control" theme. An example is their guiding support of the civic campaign to pressure the government into revising plans for the construction of a large Chinese industrial park in Minsk. This particular campaign has already had an impact, with regional authorities entering into a dialogue with the protestors on the construction plans. Critics suggest that while Tell the Truth is good at creating noise in the media by launching a new campaign almost every fortnight, the actual results of their campaigns are not as impressive as they claim.

The Belarusian Popular Front is planning to nominate as many members as possible for registration as candidates for the election, and is also working on a campaign to change the electoral code. Their election strategy is likely to include withdrawal in the last days of the campaign to protest against the unfair conditions.

For Freedom is planning to support parliamentary candidates who share their values. It is still undecided whether the organisation’s leader Aliaksander Milinkevich will run in the election, but if he does, it will probably be in a Minsk district.

The United Civic Party have argued that all opposition candidates should withdraw before the beginning of the five-day early voting period. The party intends to follow a strategy where a candidate should pledge in writing that he or she will withdraw from the race five days before the end and will not use state funds to finance the campaign. This strategy is led by Anatoly Lebedko who was re-elected as party chair in a tense meeting in March.

The Belarusian Christian Democrats (BCD) are taking the hardest line view amongst the coalition, following an internal vote for a boycott. With their co-chair Paval Seviarynets in jail alongside an angry and principled membership, they have launched a boycott campaign, as their earlier conditions of the release of political prisoners, amendments to the electoral law, and registration of the BCD were not fulfilled. The latest and fourth attempt to register the party was rejected by the Ministry of Justice in February 2012 on spurious and clearly politically motivated grounds.

While the BCD was the party which took the last local elections most seriously and also ran a party candidate in the presidential election, their internal vote means that they are not prepared to run on this occasion – even though some leaders recognise that this may stall the party’s momentum. To mitigate this, they plan to recruit district coordinators to campaign about the elections not being genuine and also to promote their party.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties are united in a For Fair Elections election observation campaign. Led by Sergei Kalyakin and Viktor Karnienko, it aims to be a common effort involving all the active political parties and groupings, building on the achievements and experience of the 2010 presidential elections.

Other groups

Formally outside the Coalition of the Six, the Social Democrat Hramada of Iryna Veshtard is also regaining activity as an opposition party with a number of more dynamic young members, especially women. They plan to submit candidates for the election although it is unclear if they will remain in the race through to the end. They are having problems registering their current leadership with the authorities. A third party congress in the last two years was held in March, as the conclusions of the previous congresses that elected Veshtard as their leader were not recognised by the Ministry of Justice.

A boycott campaign was launched on 14 January by the unregistered Belarusian Movement of Viktar Ivashkevich, the organisers of the (generally unsuccessful) Narodny Skhod (People’s Assembly) rallies held at the end of 2010. The boycott is primarily supported by Team Sannikov, such as the Charter 97 website and the civil initiative European Belarus, as well as the independent trade union of the radio-electronic industry workers. It is not directly linked to the BCD campaign.

They argue that the only way to express distrust in the system is to boycott the election (as there is no party of power as in Russia to vote against) and are set to take the position than anyone who has not voted, has voted against. No figures have been specified, though, about what level of turnout they would consider a successful boycott. Indeed the strategy is very similar to that of Sannikov and Charter 97 before the 2008 parliamentary elections. Critics of the boycott campaign, including from members of the Coalition of the Six, see it as a harmful attempt to divide the Belarusian democratic forces into supporters and opponents of the "election".

Other groupings include the opposition-minded Party of Freedom and Progress of Uladimir Navasiad (a member of parliament from 2000-04) which has indicated its intention to run. Meanwhile the pseudo-opposition Liberal Democratic Party of Siarhei Haidukevich declared in January that they will nominate 245 members as candidates, ensuring representation in all 110 electoral districts for the forthcoming elections.

Candidates supporting the authorities will likely run as independents as in previous elections. However, there remains strong pressure from public officials of various levels to create a party of power based on the Belaya Rus movement, to defend their interests. As a step towards this, its chairman, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Alexander Radkov, has said they will support ‘like-minded’ candidates along with candidates affiliated with the movement.

With over 100,000 members, Belaya Rus has plans to appoint members to election commissions, establish an election campaign HQ as well as carry out campaigning – although the scale of this will depend on a signal from Lukashenka. While support of these officials is vital to Lukashenka during election time, he has consistently rejected their proposals to create a political party, seeking to limit their influence.

Targets Achievable by the Opposition

Ultimately the elected candidates – as on previous occasions – will almost certainly be drawn from a list prepared by the authorities. Given this reality and the hurdles that the opposition will inevitably face during the campaign, they should find other ways to measure success.

A positive outcome to the electoral campaign for the opposition would include higher levels of support for the democratic cause, a positive impression being registered in society by opposition candidates, higher levels of recognition of opposition leaders and parties, and also a demonstration that the opposition has the ability and capacity to plan and implement a successful campaign.

Dr Alastair Rabagliati

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