Early Voting: the Secret to a Successful Authoritarian Election?
The official date for Belarus’s presidential election is 11 October. But if past elections are any guide, every third Belarusian will vote during the so-called “early voting” period, between 6 and 10 October.
In fact, 30 percent of Belarusians cast their ballots by the evening of 9 October, according to the Central Election Commission of Belarus.
It is a well-known secret that early ballots facilitate electoral fraud. Unsurprisingly, districts with higher prevalence of early voting in the 2010 presidential election demonstrated not only greater turnout, but also greater support for President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. But we know little about the parts of Belarus where citizens turn out to vote early. Examining the distribution of the early vote in the 2010 presidential election reveals some interesting patterns.
The media frequently cites students, “herded” to the ballot boxes by university administrators, as the main victims of early voting pressures. Yet in the 2010 election remote agricultural districts with larger elderly population and with lower education levels demonstrated the greatest incidence of early voting. Such remote rural locations fall under the radar of international election observers.
Who votes early?
Indeed, any citizen can vote early – no proof of being unable to vote on the official election day is required. This may explain why Belarusian pensioners, who would appear to have fewer time constraints than the working-age population, constitute an important group of early voters.
Students vote early under the pressure of university administrators. This week, Poland-based Belarusian language TV channel Belsat reported that at polling station number 52 in Minsk, located in one of the Belarusian State University dorms, every third student voted on the very first day of early voting. Early voting is also widespread among the police, military, and government officials, urged to vote by their employers.
Getting out the Early Vote
Interpreting the official electoral results based on early voting cannot reveal the true levels of support for the incumbent president or the opposition candidates. Nonetheless, district-level figures on early voting in the 2010 election, published by the Central Electoral Committee, do tell an interesting story about the regional dynamics of elections.
In the 2010 election, 32 percent of Belarusians voted early. The share of early ballots was largest in provincial areas. In Minsk, a city with over 30 institutions of higher education and a student population of nearly 200 thousand, only 22 percent of votes were cast early, which is below the national average.
Krasnapolle is a remote agricultural district in eastern Belarus. Its centre, a sleepy town of six thousand, lies 52 kilometres away from the nearest railway station and 120 km away from the nearest regional centre, Mahileu.
According to the official electoral results, 89 percent of Krasnapolle voters supported Lukashenka in 2010. As the elections commenced, local authorities organised numerous festivals and celebrations to encourage participation.
Nine other districts where nearly half of all ballots were cast early in 2010 are Byeshankovichy, Bykhaw, Dubrowna, Kas'tsyukovichy, Ms'tsislaw, Pastavy, Shchuchyn, Shumilina, and Voranava. Like Krasnopole, these districts lie far away from Minsk and specialise in agriculture.
All districts with high incidence of early voting have higher shares of pensioners. Lukashenka’s most devout supporters; the elderly need no pressure to vote early. In the 2010 data, 10 percent increase in the share of the population above working age is associated with 7 percent increase in the share of early ballots from the total number of ballots cast.
The share of the early vote also correlates with the share of the population with secondary education at the district level. Areas with just ten percent more people with university diplomas have a 5 percent lower share of the early vote.
What explains the negative relationship between education level and early voting? One possibility is that people with lower education have fewer outside employment options and face greater risks for disobeying employer orders. Another possibility is that people with college degrees are less likely to support Lukashenka and therefore do not turn out to vote early, or at all.
Why vote early?
The state goes to great lengths to encourage early voting. In Minsk, Belarusians are reminded that they can perform their civic duty any day even while riding the metro to work.
This year’s notable early voters included the head of the Presidential Staff Marianna Schetkina and the head of the Central Electoral Commission Lidzia Yarmoshyna. Surrounded by a crowd of journalists as she cast her ballot, Yarmoshyna said that while some observers and journalists frown upon early voting, the Belarusian people “come to vote early with pleasure.”
At polling station number 48 in Minsk, where Yarmoshyna was casting her ballot on 7 October, first-time voters as well as voters with children received presents, including watches and crystal bowls and ornaments sponsored by Minsk-Arena.
It is no secret that Belarus encourages early voting because it facilitates the manipulation of the electoral outcome. The Belarusian legislation requires nothing more than the presence of at least two members of the precinct election commission for the early ballots to be valid.
As of 5 October, Belarusian Electoral Commission accredited 910 international observers to monitor the 2015 presidential election. Of these, 382 observers represent the Commonwealth of Independent States and 344 observers represent the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Pro-Lukashenka political parties and organisations within Belarus supplied another 28,578 observers.
An observer was sent home on the pretext that her accreditation documents mentioned only the official Election Day 11 October Read more
The international observers have started trickling into the country as the election began, but most will arrive to monitor on the official election day. Few will reach remote rural areas such as Krasnopolle, especially within the early voting period.
Domestic observers who do arrive at the polling stations during the early voting period encounter unexpected obstacles. Volha Katsiankova, an accredited observer from Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian People's Front, visited the polling station located in Minsk’s School No. 7 on 8 October. She was sent home on the pretext that her accreditation documents mentioned only the official Election Day, 11 October.
The few observers who manage to penetrate register numerous irregularities. Just a day into early voting this year, observers from the “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” campaign, organised by the Human Right Center “Viasna,” along with the RHRPA “Belarusian Helsinki Committee,” have pointed out that their turnout estimates differed by 5.5 per cent from those provided by the authorities.
Many more violations will be revealed as the election continues. But whatever the final tally of votes, Lukashenka seems to have won the remote agricultural districts with elderly uneducated population well before the official election day.
Opinion: Polls and the Belarusian Reality
On 11 October, Belarusians go to the polls in the fourth election in Belarus since Aliaksandr Lukashenka was voted president in 1994. The current campaign shares many of the features of its predecessors. As earlier, Western observers have focused on opinion polls, but in Belarus few are reliable. Thus NISEPI's publications take on special significance.
Yet during and after every election, opposition leaders have criticised and raised doubts about its conclusions. A typical example was in an article of 6 October on the Naviny.by web site, where Vitali Rymasheuski, a 2010 presidential candidate, maintained that Independent Institute of Social-Economic and Political Research (NISEPI) surveys serve to legitimise Lukashenka.
Are such critiques valid? How should one evaluate the current campaign?
The Rules of the Game
As with his relations with the European Union, Lukashenka has mastered the rules of the game. Just as his release of remaining political prisoners appears to respond sufficiently to EU demands for withdrawal of sanctions, so every five years the appearance of the façade of a democratic election rather than the reality, replete with Electoral Commission and requisite candidates (few or multiple) implies that there is the possibility of change.
Siarhei Haidukevich reappears at five-year intervals to lose elections “elegantly” Read more
This time there are four candidates, only one of which, Tatsiana Karatkevich of the People’s Referendum, opposes the president, albeit in a relatively mild and polite manner compared, say, to the ebullient TV performance of Uladzimir Kazulin in 2006 or the eloquent denunciations of Uladzimir Niakliaev in 2010.
The others are closet if not overt supporters of Lukashenka: Siarhei Haidukevich, who reappears at five-year intervals to lose elections “elegantly” and Mikalai Ulakhovich of the Patriotic Party, which is so obscure that its web site rarely functions.
The opposition remains weak and divided, with the key question whether to boycott the elections or take part. As for the election issues, the two major ones are the economy and national security. Since he has failed in the former, the president emphasises the latter, namely that only he can ensure stability and peace. As formerly, he plays no part in election debates on television and has hardly campaigned, the underlying assumption being that he remains preoccupied with pressing affairs of the state.
NISEPI’s September Poll
After the 2010 election, NISEPI researchers concluded that Lukashenka received at least 50% plus one of the overall vote. The statement prompted some critics to comment that in this way it provided legitimacy to the Lukashenka presidency. The September poll suggests that his rating is 45.7% (those who are “prepared to vote” for him) but given the likely turn out of 72.5%, the actual vote would be 64%. Karatkevich’s support, respectively is 17.9% on paper and 25% at the polls.
NISEPI adds that these figures mask the fact that support for Lukashenka is solid, comprised of committed voters, whereas that for Karatkevich includes voters who may ignore the elections altogether. Thus 64% represents a minimal figure for Lukashenka—in fact the authorities would perceive such a low figure as demeaning.
Yet elsewhere the poll elucidates a population concerned about falling living standards, a collapsing ruble, and a drop in both the GDP and real wages. As Leanid Zlotnikau points out in Belarusian Analytical Workshop 19, rather than the anticipated wage of $1,000 monthly, the average for Belarusian workers in September was $420, or almost $100 less than in 2010. Significantly, Zlotnikau attributes the current decline less to world recession than to a decline in export prices and the fall in competitiveness of Belarusian manufacturing.
Most voters, however, do not acquire their information from such sources; they rely on television and to a lesser extent social media. The overriding feature of any election campaign is the demeaning of opposition candidates on national TV.
The authorities choose to tolerate Karatkevich, however, suggesting the threat is minor Read more
Interestingly, NISEPI posed the question in its September poll: if you knew of someone who could run successfully against Lukashenka in the presidential elections, would you vote for this candidate or Lukashenka? The response was 38.7% for the unknown candidate and 32% for Lukashenka (with 28.1% undecided).
Should one conclude that the current opponent, Karatkevich, then, is simply unconvincing to voters? In 2010, official media denounced more vocal opponents such as Sannikau and Niakliaiev as “enemies of the people.” Their subsequent arrests and incarceration amid accusations of an armed putsch likely solidified that perception.
In general, the frenzied attacks on those who dare to oppose the “people’s president” render candidates opponents of the regime, even a security risk to the future of the state. The authorities choose to tolerate Karatkevich, however, suggesting the threat is minor.
Explaining the Inexplicable
Elections for most Belarusians are less about democratic process than safety, job security and the future of families Read more
Opinion polls generally are not about consciousness and motives; they employ carefully formulated questions with yes or no answers. In this respect they conceal a myriad of factors that are difficult to express: not least voters’ insecurities, possible fear of repercussions (KGB repressions peaked in 2011 but few have forgotten them), and general passivity.
Elections for most Belarusians are less about democratic process than safety, job security and the future of families. Polls rarely emphasise—nor could they—the highly authoritarian nature of Belarus and its dependence on state-run industries that achieved past growth simply by borrowing or relying on Russian subsidies (Zlotnikau’s conclusion).
Yet Lukashenka, whose victory is assured, fiercely declares his independence from Moscow and poses as a maverick free agent standing up for his people. In this way polls can appear misleading. NISEPI seeks to elucidate what people think, not why they think how they do. Such surveys have value and NISEPI is an honest broker, but its simply constructed questions should not define our analysis. The regime, based on such criteria, succeeds. Yet by all the indices used to measure progress, it is failing.
David Marples and Uladzimir Padhol
David Marples is Distinguished University Professor, Department of History & Classics, University of Alberta.
Uladzimir Padhol is Belarusian political scientist and journalist, editor and publisher of Narodnyi televisor. Tsitaty i baiki A.G. Lukashenko [People’s Television: Citations and Stories of A.G. Lukashenko], which is now in its thirtieth edition.