Electoral Reform in Belarus: Liberalisation or Window-Dressing?
On 6 August 2013 Alexander Lukashenka held a meeting with top officials on the proposed changes to the Election Code. Some of the announced changes could potentially serve to further tighten the government’s control over elections.
Meanwhile, the officials’ rhetoric concerning electoral reform implies that they intend to carry out these vague legislative amendments as if they were implementing Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) recommendations.
If the OSCE wants to avoid such window-dressing from the Belarusian government in future, the organisation should reconsider its approach to drafting these recommendations.
Government Solves its Problems
The first alarming aspect of the current electoral reform is the way the government is working on it. The Central Commission on Elections (the Election Commission) announced its plans to amend the Electoral Code at the end of 2012. Since then, the public has not been given access to any draft with regards to this reform.
Some politicians have accused the Election Commission of intending to “surprise” the opposition with unexpected changes on the eve of the local elections of winter 2013-2014.
The sparse information that has been presented by state-run media reveals some amendments that the Electoral Code will probably undergo.
the amendments would place a prohibition on campaigning to boycott any elections Read more
First, the amendments would prohibit campaigning to boycott an election. During the most recent parliamentary elections of 2012, some opposition candidates used their right via state-run media to call upon citizens not to vote. This irritated the authorities, who censored most of their agitation.
Second, it would introduce the removal of budgetary support for candidates’ campaign funding. When the changes enter into force, the candidates will have to establish their own “electoral funds”.
This measure could create problems for candidates who are not wealthy. Openly donating to the opposition can also be quite problematic in Belarus. During a presidential meeting held on 6 August, officials did not conceal the fact that they introduced this measure to control the candidates’ funds more effectively.
Third, the proposed reform will establish an additional level of electoral committees: territorial. This way, the government argues, it will become easier to administer the elections. Opponents are convinced that this is just another obstacle, planned to lessen the number of complaints sent to the Election Commission in order to hide the real scale of complaints from foreign observers.
Another procedural novelty relates to defining the winner during parliamentary elections. There will be no need to receive more than 50% of the ballots; victory with just a simple majority will be enough. Again, opponents suspect the government is making the work of falsifiers easier; this way, they will not need to “add” too much support to the pro-governmental candidate.
All in all, the proposed reforms seem unlikely to ease campaigning. On the contrary, the government may use them as further restrictions on independent candidates.
The Election Commission Head Lidia Yarmoshyna used interesting rhetoric to convince Lukashenka of the necessity of the changes and, in particular, of enabling candidates in local elections to generate their own funds: “Let them establish their own funding; they will not do it, but it is for the sake of democracy”.
Leaving aside the idea that the permanent Head of the Belarusian Election Commission cares about democracy, one can conclude that imitating democratisation before Western observers has become the major purpose of these reforms.
This is in line with the statements made by the Election Commission spokesman Mikalai Lazavik after every election which received an OSCE report: “We will implement the OSCE recommendations in part“.
After the 2008 parliamentary campaign, the government adopted a group of amendments to the Electoral Code, in order, they announced “to comply with the OSCE recommendations that followed the elections”.
The changes included:
- the removal of the requirement for parties to have regional offices to field candidates in these districts (a minor procedural improvement);
- adding the word “substantial” to the mistakes in application documents that lead to candidates’ removal from the campaign (with no further explanation of what it means);
- entitling candidates to appeal the decisions of the electoral committees in court (which are heavily dependent on the government in Belarus);
- giving candidates access to state media for speeches and debates (sometimes followed by censorships, e.g. in the case of calling for boycott)
In other words, the government has introduced very limited reforms, including purely technical improvements or those that will not influence the general transparency and fairness of the elections. The authorities omitted truly significant changes. The OSCE report also pointed out several other issues, including: non-transparent ballot counting, restrictions on observers’ work, biased coverage of the opposition in the state media, the closed nature of the procedure for announcing results, the uncontrolled mass preliminary voting system, etc.
The OSCE went on to officially welcome the progress Belarus had made in its electoral reforms, but also shared its concern and regret that the work had not been fully completed. This was enough for Belarusian state propaganda to proudly proclaim something along the lines of: “Look, we are slowly progressing; the EU does not want to take notice of our progress and places unfair sanctions on us.”
The OSCE’s technical, procedural and essential recommendations were thus mixed together into one convoluted report and followed by a “balanced assessment” of the progress made by Belarus. This provided the perfect grounds for the Belarusian authorities to interpret their critics’ advice in their own favour.
The rhetoric that has followed the deliberations of the new amendments, the focus placed on reforming the candidates’ election funds (as the OSCE recommended inter alia in its latest report) without addressing significant gaps in the legislation means that the government may again plan to use its strategy of cherry-picking from Western recommendations to clean its hands.
How to Adjust the OSCE’s Approach
The OSCE has little power to correct its participating states’ policies. However, by modifying its approach towards its evaluation of Belarusian elections, it can at least stop giving a free hand to state propaganda to interpret these assessments in an improper way.
When drafting the post-election reports, the OSCE should avoid the simple thematic division of recommendations (e.g. in the fields of media, registration, voting, counting, campaigning). Instead, OSCE experts should firmly divide all the recommendations into Fundamental, on the one hand, and Technical/Subsidiary, on the other, with a sharp boundary established between them.
It is also better to avoid providing overly abstract recommendations that can work as guidance only for those governments willing to advance democratic changes. Instead, the OSCE should include only specific steps that are assessable, the progress of which can be easily measured afterwards. While assessing the legislative amendments, particularly in cases where no fundamental changes have occurred, it would be better to stress this fact.
Otherwise, the government may cherry-pick the softest recommendations and proclaim “partial compliance with the OSCE critics” while still ignoring all the essential problems.
Half of Belarusians Earn Less than $500 a Month – Belarus Civil Society Digest
Why is a controversial ex-mayor of Kaunas considering Belarus seeking political asylum? The Centre of Legal Transformation appeals for a public hearing on the legislative project “On Alternative Military Service”.
The National Statistical Committee of Belarus (Belstat) has recently revealed that half of Belarusians earn less than US$500 a month. For the first time Hrodna Medical University is offering its students to study in Belarusian. How many students will decide to use this opportunity? “Levada Centre” checks out how the attitudes of Russians towards Belarus have changed over the past years. It shows that 88% of Russians have a positive attitude towards Belarusians – the highest rating in 10 years.
Ex-mayor of Kaunas is seeking asylum in Belarus: According to Lithuanian media, after being detained by the police on July 27 for disorderly conduct during a sex-minority parade in Vilnius, Vitautas Shustauksas is looking at ways to find asylum in Belarus to avoid being persecuted by the police “for minor misconduct”.
Lawtrend addresses the Government of Belarus to hold a public hearing on the “Alternative military service” bill: The Centre of Legal Transformation has appealed to the chairman of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus Vladimir Andreychenko, as well as to the heads of the parliamentary committees with the requirement to “declassify” the legislative project “On Alternative Service”, which is to be introduced to the Parliament in October. According to Lawtrend, the bill is classified as “for internal use only”, which means it may not be discussed with any other interested parties.
15 European Parliamentary deputies are demanding from Minsk to release political prisoners: Fifteen deputies from the European Parliament, Germany and Switzerland have addressed a collective request to GOB regarding the human rights situation in Belarus with a demand to “immediately and unconditionally release and rehabilitate all political prisoners, as well as a impose a moratorium on the death penalty in Belarus”.
Capacity Building Marketplace announces the second NGO Capacity Building Fair: The Fair is to take place on 1 November 2013 in Minsk. The event is aimed to represent the Belarusian market of organisational development services, as well as gather CSO’s from all regions of Belarus in one place. The deadline for the submission of applications from consultants is August 12, 2013.
Antimak on light drug abuse among youth: Aleksandr Shpakouski from the AntiMak campaign, along with other actors in the field, gave an interview to SB.by on the issues of “light” drug abuse among youth in Belarus. The experts discussed the level of popularity of smoking mixtures among students, the easiness of legalization of light drugs, the dealers’ business models, the values of youth today and measures to be taken to prevent and fight drug abuse in Belarus.
Gomel Democratic Forum has been officially been registered: The regional development centre “Gomel Democracy Forum” has obtained official state registration on August 1, 2013. The goals of the new organisation includes providing non-commercial informational and consulting services, support for citizens in the spheres of education, business, culture, civic activity, as well as the facilitation of economic and socio-cultural development of Belarusian regions.
“Green Schools” program has been included into extracurricular activities for Belarusian students: The program has been approved by the Ministries of Education and Natural Resources of Belarus as part of the Republican eco-educational project within the framework of a larger UN cooperation program. The program is aimed at filling the gaps in children’s knowledge about the nature and ecological problems of Belarus, as well as encouraging the proactive position of children, their parents and teachers in solving them.
Some Interesting Statistics
Hrodna Medical University offered its students the chance to study in Belarusian. So far, only 6 out of 440 first-year students have agreed to study in their native language. According to the university, whether there will be a Belarusian-language group or not, will only be known by the end of August. But as of now, most of the students and their parents have not taken up the proposal to study in Belarusian.
Public opinion survey: Russians’ attitudes towards Belarus have improved: Russian independent research organisation “Levada Centre” has surveyed Russians on the subject of their attitudes towards different countries of the world. According to the survey results, 88% of Russians maintain a positive attitude towards Belarus (which is the highest rating it is had since 2003, when it was at 90%) against 7% who think of Belarus negatively. The “champion” of negative attitude of “the Northern neighbors” is the USA – 36% (as opposed to 43% positive), while the European Union in perceived negatively by 24% of Russians (against 64% of positive attitudes). The news gained nearly 2,000 comments on TUT.by.
Most Belarusians are satisfied with the quality of their healthcare services. The media has reported that Belstat published survey results, which suggest that 62.4% of Belarusians are more or less satisfied with the public healthcare services, while 88% are more or less satisfied with private healthcare. Last year, 77.8% of Belarusians were satisfied with public healthcare. According to Belstat’s findings, the number of dissatisfied citizens is close to the statistical error – 2.6%. Notably, private medicine is favoured more by lower-income citizens.
Belstat: half of Belarusians earn less than $500: Official data published by Belarus Statistics Committee reveals that 48% of Belarusians earn less than country’s average salary of $500. Notably, half of those who earn over $500 monthly, live in Minsk.
Where do Belarusian immigrants wend their way in Russia? Internet-newspaper “Zautra.by” has analysed Russian Federal “Demographic yearbook 2012” and found out the most popular destinations for Belarusian immigrants in Russia. The largest increase in immigrants from Belarus was registered in the Smolensk and Tyumen regions. Moscow and St. Petersburg are in the top 5.
The Institute of the Ministry of Economics suggests switching from directive planning to indicative targeting for government-owned enterprises. This idea has been voiced by the vice-director of the Ministry of Economics Research Studies Institute Viktor Pinigin. According to Mr. Pinigin, the weak side of directive planning is its “lack of real economic mechanisms for stimulating enterprises to meet the directive targets”. The Ministry representatives believe that indicative planning will provide for better performance of the manufacturers, since it will determine their income. In the meantime, economists note that this is not the first attempt to switch to indicative economic planning – the first attempt to adopt relevant draft law was failed in 2011.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.