Conduct and outcomes: digest of the 2016 parliament elections
The Belarusian elections concluded on 11 September. They were condemned as “not corresponding to a number of key international standards” and “not a credible reflection of the will of Belarusian citizens” by the domestic election-monitoring groups “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections (HRD)” and “Right to Choose-2016 (R2C)”.
The findings of domestic observers corresponded to those by observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which emphasised in its preliminary conclusions the “long-standing systemic shortcomings” of the elections as well as “serious procedural deficiencies, inconsistencies and irregularities were observed during early voting, counting and tabulation.”
By some measures the organisation of the elections could have been worse. Some may cite improved rates of registration for opposition candidates, expanded debates on state TV, or the much touted ‘reforms’ to ensure observers would be able to stand within three metres of the counting table and that at least one side of the table would be unobstructed.
Unfortunately, as observers’ reports make clear, such improvements amount to little more than a veneer over a highly flawed election featuring massive voter turnout inflation and culminating in the same nontransparent and questionable vote count reported in past elections. Domestic observer groups captured concrete evidence of massive nationwide efforts to inflate turnout totals during the five-day early vote period (6-10 September ) and on election day (11 September ). The Central Election Commission (CEC) stated parliamentary turnout was 74.8 percent, but observer reports particularly from parallel turnout counts suggest voter turnout was far lower.
In the first days of the early vote period, observers noted many cases of forced or incentivised voting in which students, convicts or state workers were subject to pressure from administrators or managers to cast an early ballot. As the elections progressed, there were reports of “carousel voting,” ballot stuffing, and a significant number of unsecured ballot boxes.
The most significant form of turnout inflation was conducted through blatant protocol manipulations in which turnout was artificially increased. The joint election monitoring coalition of political parties, R2C covered every polling station in nine specific parliamentary districts. This allowed them to conduct a parallel turnout count and document artificial turnout inflation at the precinct and district-wide level.
As the following chart shows in seven of the nine districts observed by R2C, their observer reports conclusively show the elections were invalid because they failed to reach the 50 percent turnout threshold (see a R2C table below).
Tell the Truth observers conducted a full parallel turnout count in Oktyabrskiy district #97. This is the much discussed district of Tell the Truth candidate Tacciana Karatkievič, a former presidential candidate and United Civic Party (UCP) candidate Hanna Kanapackaja, who was selected to serve in parliament.
According to observer data the total turnout for the district was 40.6 percent, nearly ten percent below the required turnout threshold, which if not met requires a new election. The commission reported turnout at 59.7 percent. Tell the Truth’s count uses official turnout for mobile voting since observers could not observe the procedure and assumes 100 percent turnout in two polling stations where observers were stripped of accreditation.
In their final report, the civic election observation group Human Rights Defenders (HRD) shows how turnout discrepancies between PECs and observers’ turnout counts skyrocketed during the last day of early vote as commissions, particularly in Minsk, faced the looming possibility of failing to reach the required turnout threshold. R2C parallel turnout counts show similar pattern of surging artificial turnout in some of their observed districts on the last days of early voting as exemplified in the following chart.
Both HRD and R2C reports showed that final efforts to ensure a high turnout were made on election day through abuse of mobile voting mechanisms. At Oktyabrskiy district #97, polling station #230, a Tell the Truth observer claimed the PEC had two lists of mobile voters and the discrepancy between the two constituted 176 people. In district #85 in Mahilioŭ, R2C noted that 12.8 percent of voters (7,981) cast their ballot by mobile ballot boxes on election day.
95.31 percent of their observers described the vote count as not transparent Read more
The third major point of observer concerns in addition to organised voting and inflated turnout, was the vote count and tabulation process, which was described by HRD as “non-transparent for observers,” by R2C as “an unacceptable system” and by OSCE, which emphasised that the “tabulation process was assessed negatively, primarily due to procedural irregularities and a lack of transparency.”
Two of the CEC’s touted reforms, allowing observers to be three metres from the counting table and promising that the observers would have a clear view of one side of the table were not followed consistently. Even when PECs left one side of the table unobstructed and allowed observers to monitor the vote count from the three-metre distance, the transparency of counting process remained flawed.
The OSCE preliminary report stated, “ballots were counted by each PEC member separately rather than collectively,” thus making it difficult for observers to understand the votes allocated to a particular candidate. The decision not to count “collectively” – by holding up a ballot and announcing the results – did not come as a surprise, as the CEC Chair had announced before the election that this form of counting is not provided for in the law.
HRD concluded that 95.31 percent of their observers described the vote count as not transparent, particularly since observers were unable to see the content of ballots due to their distance from the count and the chaotic nature of the counting table. On election day, Tell the Truth observers who covered 27 of the 29 precincts in district #97 where UCP candidate Hanna Kanapackaja was selected for the parliament, described the count as “not transparent” in 22 of the polling places.
Efforts to control and verify the vote count were further complicated when observers were ejected from polling stations prior to the count. Reasons for dismissal included “creating a nervous atmosphere” and “drinking.” R2C reported 30 incidents of observers being barred from PECs on election day.
After twelve years, opposition to the parliament: what does it mean?
Much of the attention following these elections has centred around the surprise move of the authorities to select two opposition candidates for the parliament, ending a twelve year opposition hiatus from parliament. The two candidates who were selected to assume seats in parliament are independent candidate Aliena Anisim and United Civic Party (UCP) candidate Hanna Kanapackaja.
The conventional wisdom suggests placement of two oppositionists in parliament was a “gift to the west” in hopes Belarus might receive a more positive assessment of the elections and as a result speed a recent warming of relations. Foreign analysts described the move as an act of financial desperation to secure loans. If the parliamentary policy shift was indeed meant to improve perceptions of Belarus abroad, then the short term results are mixed.
The move has generated a series of positive stories in Reuters, Time, Associated Press and other western media suggesting that the political placement of opposition in the parliament is a sign of an improved electoral process in Belarus. This will likely be welcomed by the Belarusian authorities and may be promoted as a significant achievement by those advocating closer ties with Belarus and the West for any number of reasons.
Hanna Kanapackaja’s selection for the parliament was far from predictable Read more
It seems, however, to have had no significant effect on the assessment of elections provided by experts, as in the OSCE’s preliminary election report or the post-election statement by the US State Department in Minsk. These more appropriately focused on the overall conduct of the elections, which deeply flawed.
In addition to speculations of how Lukashenka is using the appointments in his geopolitical balancing game, there is internal speculation as to the reasons these two parliamentarians were selected. Aliena Anisim was discussed as a potential selectee to the parliament after the sudden withdrawal of the leading government candidate. Hanna Kanapackaja’s selection for the parliament, however, was far from predictable.
Her party, UCP, is a traditional opposition party described as populist and provocative by the authorities and whose long time leader Anatoĺ Liabiedźka was imprisoned after the 2010 elections. Kanapackaja’s opponents included a government candidate, who was promoted through state media, and former presidential candidate from Tell the Truth, Tacciana Karatkievič, who some believed would be given the seat. A blog post by political scientist Ihar Drako published three days before the election titled “How to ‘Finish’ Karatkievič” accurately predicted Kanapackaja’s victory.
Drako described the government’s likely the motives as 1) to show the west the opposition made it to parliament, 2) to mute local critics like UCP and 3) to diminish the political status and influence of Karatkievič, but to do so by letting another opposition candidate, rather than the authorities, defeat her. Former parliamentarian Siarhiej Skrabiec attributed her selection to added leverage the authorities would have over her because of her and her families business success, “if she would press the wrong button, not only her business would be under threat, but also the business of her father, her friends…”
Profiles of the two opposition parliamentarians
The first of the two selected candidates, Aliena Anisim, ran as an independent candidate in her native Staŭbcoŭski district #70 in Minsk region. Anisim is a respected linguist and part of the national-orientated intelligentsia. She works as Deputy Chair at the “Belarusian Language Society” and at the Linguistics Institute of the Academy of Sciences.
Anisim also hosted the program “Belarusian Language” on the state TV channel ONT. She was born in 1962 to a family of teachers. She studied at the philological faculty of Belarusian State University, and was active in the youth union “Majsternia,” one of the first Belarusian organisations (1980s) aimed at revival of Belarusian language and traditions.
The second opposition candidate, United Civic Party (UCP) member Hanna Kanapackaja was born in 1976. She is a lawyer and the owner of a successful private legal firm. She has been a UCP member since 1995 when the party held its first founding convention.
She ran at Oktyabrskiy district #97 in Minsk. Her father Anatol Truchanovič, also a UCP member, is a businessman and was among the first official millionaires in Belarus. Kanapackaja's parliamentary campaign was primarily built around UCP’s national platform “Million New Jobs” and was supported by her professional background as a successful business owner and lawyer.
Both candidates announced they will accept their seats in parliament. In her first interviews after elections, Anisim declared that she will initiate a law on state support for the Belarusian language and ask parliament to found a national university with Belarusian the language of instruction. Aliaksiej Janukievič, head of the Belarussian Popular Front (BPF party) revealed his excitement at the new opportunities presented by Anisim’s success to advance the status of the Belarusian language.
Kanapackaja stated that she will use her mandate to implement UCP’s proposals and will work in parliament as a party member. She plans to propose amendments to improve electoral legislation so more opposition candidates could get into the parliament. She will seek the realisation of the “One Million New Jobs” program, including changes in entrepreneurship and unemployment tax laws and public administration.
Kanapackaja announced she would take the parliamentary seat only after extensive consultations with UCP party leadership. During a September 13 press conference announcing her decision, Kanapackaja stated there are no free elections in Belarus, but if such elections were held, she would win her seat. In a Facebook post she went further citing problems with manipulated turnout and a non-transparent vote count.
Kanapackaja stated that she will use her mandate to implement UCP’s proposals and will work in parliament as a party member Read more
UCP did not conduct observation at her district, though Tell the Truth did, and according to their observers, as noted previously, the count was highly non-transparent, and turnout failed to reach the threshold required by the election code. Tacciana Karatkievič, her competitor from Tell the Truth, did not contest the results and instead urged Kanapackaja to take the seat and work in the Parliament.
Composition of the new parliament
Anisim and Kanapackaja will be joined in the parliament by a who’s who of bureaucratic insiders representing state hospitals, regional executive committees, the military, state schools and other aspects of the authorities structure. Ninety six percent of selected parliamentarians were predicted to take their seats by the independent media Naša Niva.
Sixteen of the 110 parliamentarians will represent five parties, including UCP, and the Belarusian Patriotic Party headed by former pro-governmental presidential candidate and Cossack Ataman Mikalaj Ulachovič. The absolute majority of MPs are non-party. Seventy-three MPs are members of the pro-governmental association “Belaja Ruś” association. It is rumored “Belaja Ruś” will transition to a political party in the future.
In keeping with tradition, the parliament will have a relatively high percentage of female parliamentarians at 35 percent. Twenty seven of 28 incumbent MPs retained their seats.
Michael P. Murphy & Juljan Jachovic
National Democratic Institute (NDI)
Belarus delegation brings Russian flag to Paralympics: solidarity or calculation?
On 7 September 2016, Andrei Fomachkin from Belarus became famous for appearing with a Russian flag during the opening ceremonies of the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Upon his return to Minsk, the Russian media hailed Fomachkin, a bureaucrat from the Belarusian Ministry of Sport, as a hero.
The reaction of the Belarusian people, however, was more ambivalent. Over the past year, Belarus has experienced a gradual turn towards soft Belarusisation. Traditionally embroidered clothing and its modernised versions have become a popular trend, infiltrating even official sports: this summer, the national football team started using folk-inspired designs on its uniforms.
However, the regime is carefully balancing this policy with signs of reverence towards Russia, hesitant to antagonise its powerful eastern neighbour. Belarusian authorities were quick to praise the Paralympic solidarity à la Fomachkin, most likely staged to curry favours from Russia.
“Born in the USSR”
The Belarusian delegation made headlines during the opening ceremony of the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil, as one of its members raised the Russian flag at the Maracana stadium. This was a gesture of protest against the disqualification of Russian athletes.
As it turned out, the person who smuggled the flag to the opening ceremony was a certain Andrei Fomachkin, who was not even an official member of the Belarusian Paralympic team.
A native of the Krasnodar region in Russia, Andrei Fomachkin has been working in various bureaucratic capacities for the Belarusian Ministry of Sport and Tourism since 2007. He is currently in charge of winter sports at the ministry and came to Rio as a guest of Aleh Shepel, the chair of the Belarusian Paralympic Committee.
Stripped of his accreditation after the incident in Brazil, Fomachkin proudly returned to Minsk and denied any political undertones of his actions in the media. Instead, he stressed his own patriotism and support for the disqualified Russian athletes.
Fomachkin admitted that although he realised the consequences of his actions, he was also aware that his guest status would preclude any sanctions against the Belarusian team. Aleh Shepel added that the Belarusian Paralympians wholeheartedly backed the idea.
Surprisingly, the Secretary General of the Belarusian Paralympics Committee, Mikalaj Shudzejka, who was in charge of the Belarusian delegation in Rio, reacted with more reservation. In an interview with The Guardian on 9 September, he revealed that not all the athletes supported Fomachkin. Shudzejka also noted that the state took advantage of the Paralympic Games for political purposes. Belarusian TV later dismissed this interview as “speculation and provocation,” claiming that it was fake.
Solidarity or courage at the expense of others?
President Lukashenka's spokeswoman Natallia Eismant stated that initially, athletes on wheelchairs were to appear with the Russian flag. According to her information, security strictly forbade this, thus forcing Fomachkin to turn to “plan B.” Lukashenka praised the stunt as a sign of solidarity, adding that his actions reflected the “official stance of the state.”
In this way, the authorities gave their blessing for the controversial, but in no way spontaneous act. In fact, Aleh Shepel was already openly discussing the possibility of displaying the Russian in Rio on 23 August 2016.
How exactly Shepel planned to implement this plan remained unclear at that time. The International Paralympic Committee immediately warned that sanctions against the athletes would follow should they engage in political protest during the Games.
Ultimately, Belarus managed to kill two birds with one stone. By relying on a ministry employee, authorities minimised the risk of harming the entire Belarusian Paralympic team. On the other hand, the publicity gained from this expression of solidarity with the disqualified Russian athletes allowed Belarus to uphold its image of loyalty to Russia.
Political analyst Andrei Parotnikau in his commentary for Naviny.by suggested that Belarusian authorities might take advantage of the flag incident to extract material dividends from Russia. Valer Karbalevich concurred, noting that in this way Belarusian authorities “caved in” to Russia.
Belarusian social network users used more explicit wording to express their anger, saying they felt “ashamed for their country.” Others pointed out that the state blatantly ignored the interests of the disabled athletes, placing their participation in the Games at risk.
However, others doubted the grounds for disqualification of the entire Russian Paralympic team and supported Fomachkin. For instance, the famous Belarusian swimmer and 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medalist Aliaksandra Herasimenia praised Fomachkin's courage in supporting the athletes, who she believed were unfairly deprived of realising their Olympic dreams.
Spreading white wings: Belarusisation in sports
Just one day before the Rio incident, on 6 September 2016, the Belarusian national football team played the 2018 World Cup qualifying game against France in Barysau. Belarusian football fans had several reasons for celebrating that day: besides an unexpected draw, strict stadium rules were unexpectedly liberalised.
For the first time in years, security did not harass fans sporting national white-red-white flags and the historical coat of arms (Pahonia). Moreover, prior to the game, the Belarusian Football Federation presented each of the 13,000 fans with custom-made t-shirts of the national team. In contrast, in October 2015, authorities arrested and persecuted football fans just for wearing scarves with Pahonia.
Thus, in less than a year, national symbols suddenly found their way into mainstream sports fashion. In July 2016, the Belarusian Football Federation decided to rebrand the national team in an effort to enlarge its fanbase. In particular, the Federation opted for uniform designs featuring elements of traditional folk ornament.
Given the position of sports in Belarus as prestigious state-run domain and a tool of propaganda, this can not be a coincidence. Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014, the regime has increasingly been focusing on controlling groups of ultras, which have expressed their support for Ukraine at sporting events. In this context, a turn towards Belarusisation can serve as a soft power tool to foster loyalty to the current regime.
Yet the flag incident in Rio shows that Belarus remains reluctant to antagonise its eastern neighbour too much. It tries to balance gradual Belarusisation with symbolic counter steps. Such steps are not necessarily oriented towards long-term policy but rather at attracting publicity.
Being economically dependent on Russia for resources, the regime is trying to improve its negotiating position in order to receive more discounts, especially as oil and gas prices are currently being negotiated.