Local Elections in Belarus: the Easiest Campaign to Forecast
On 24 February the coordinator of the "Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections" initiative Valiantsin Stefanovich called the upcoming 23 March 2014 local elections in Belarus "an invisible campaign."
His point is not without merit, when considering the total passiveness, apathy and predictability surrounding the electoral process in Belarus.
While the authorities prepare themselves for the usual re-appointment of members of local councils, the opposition has little to respond with. It appears that, finally, society completely understands the profane nature of the whole process and yet, by ignoring the elections can create another set of problems for the authorities, this time – psychological ones.
Authorities Prepare their Usual Performance
Local elections have never been real issue for the authorities. In 2010 they even allowed the opposition to occupy ten out of 288 places in the nation's local councils. The government has little to be afraid of here because local councils have extremely narrow competencies and nearly no influence. In most cases their job is to approve the decisions of local executive committees, the heads of which are appointed by Alexander Lukashenka directly.
This time the authorities seem not to be conceding hardly anything to their opponents. The results of how the district electoral committees (DECs) are being formed and respective candidates registration in the elections shows this rather explicitly.
|Organisation||Members in (DECs)||Denials||Candidates registered||Denials|
|Loyal forces||Federation of Trade Unions||8,736||7%||No data|
|"Belaya Rus"||4,189||8%||No data|
|Women's Union||4,010||4%||No data|
|Belarusian Republican Youth Union||3,354||11%||No data|
|Republican Party of Labour and Justice||699||11%||48||6%|
|Unclear position||Liberal-Democratic Party||0||125||22%|
|Opposition||Belarusian Left Party "A Just World"||12||94%||88||26%|
|United Civil Party||3||97%||81||26%|
|Belarusian People's Front||6||91%||28||21%|
|Belarusian Social-Democratic Party (Hramada)||2||50%||52||48%|
|"Tell the Truth" campaign||No data||103||79%|
|"For Freedom" movement||No data||38||56%|
|Belarusian Christian Democracy||No data||43||67%|
This data speaks for itself: opposition candidates and representatives are registered or placed in DECs far more seldom than their pro-governmental counterparts. Even these figures provided above can be deceptive: many activists belong to several oppositional organisations at any given time and there may be double counting on these lists.
Local elections have never caused any tensions or even notable political activity in Belarus. Hence, the government tries to use this opportunity for purely reputational purposes: legitimisation in the eyes of its supporters, a demonstration of their position to credulous and politically indifferent people, while swaying them away from getting involved in the political process and keeping up maintenance of the government's projected image of unity between the people and the state.
Opposition: Exhausted and Divided
Only 1% of more than 22,300 registered candidates are representatives from the opposition. This indicates not only the authorities' strategy to turn their opponents down during registration is at work, but also the general weakness of the opposition and a lack of interest in taking part in the upcoming elections. Given the 20-80% denials' ratio, less than 300 registered candidates throughout the country means that far too few activists even have a hope of getting into office.
Most of the oppositional parties do not hide that they merely use the local campaign as a phase in their more general political strategies. The coalition from the "Tell the Truth" campaign, Belarusian Social-Democratic Party (Hramada), Belarusian People's Front and Movement "For Freedom" use the legal possibility of collecting signatures during elections to promote their "People's Referendum" project. Another coalition – "Talaka" (Belarusian Left Party "A Just World", United Civil Party and several smaller initiatives) continues its campaign of free and fair elections.
The only area where the opposition has managed to form a broader coalition is election observations. Seven oppositional forces including four participants of People's Referendum coalition, Green Party, Party of Freedom and Progress and the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy party have organised the "Right to Choose" campaign.
They plan to send out no fewer than a thousand observers to districts where oppositional candidates are running to observe the voting process. However, the legal restrictions of the observers' work (barring them from entering vote-counting areas, denying all of their complaints and their regular removal from the voting stations) leave few chances for the necessary observational control to be placed over the balloting process.
The latest polls have shown a further decline in Belarusians' trust and support for the opposition. Therefore, their prospects during the upcoming elections would not have been very good even if they managed to submit and register a large number of candidates. But in the present situation (having only 1% of all registered candidates) almost nobody, including the opposition themselves, seriously expect a successful outcome.
New Headache for the Government
In fact, the Belarusian authorities do not even need to resort to any kind of manipulation during the upcoming campaigns to make their results easy to predict: the average competition for a membership in a local council is 1.2 person per seat. This means that almost 80% of all electoral districts will undergo a one man race.
The absence of real power in the hands of local governments combined with the general political apathy in society and the expected rigging of the results have created a new sort of headache for the government. Whereas previously the opposition was the main irritant, now it is Belarusian citizens participation .
Before the previous 2010 local elections, the authorities removed an attendance barrier from the electoral code, foreseeing the passivity of voters. After the elections independent observers reported about a 40% attendance at polling stations, while the government announced 79%.
The December IISEPS survey also indicated than only 44% of respondents plan to vote. But "planning to vote" when asked by sociologists is not the same as actually leaving home and visiting the voting booth on Sunday.
Alexander Lukashenka himself addressed this issue at his latest press-conference in January. He called on people to vote, regardless of who it was, but be sure to go to the ballot box.
High attendance reflects the involvement of society in the political process, the people's recognition of the existing order. When the masses ignore the elections, authorities see that as a sign of citizens' rejecting the government's carefully orchestrated performance.
Through decades of gradual pushing opponents out of politics and the annihilation of any real local governance, Lukashenka has set for himself a trap: he remains politically interested in people's passiveness, but psychologically needs them to come to show their loyalty and recognise the validity of the existing order.
However, this does not change anyone's election forecasts. The March 2014 local elections will be invisible and apolitical because society has little interest in taking part in them. And neither the opposition, nor the government has the tools to make people show up.
Belarus Local Elections Update – One Month Until Election Day
On March 23 votes will be cast for over 20,000 seats in regional and local councils in Belarus.
These elections are unlikely to be any more free, fair or competitive than recent parliamentary and presidential elections, or the 2010 local elections in which only ten opposition activists, primarily in villages, were able to take council seats.
Belarusian authorities appear determined to undermine a competitive electoral process by denying opposition candidates access to the ballot, monopolising positions on election commissions, and creating an atmosphere of intolerance for dissenting political voices.
Within this context, the primary motivation of parties, movements and independent candidates participating in these elections is to use the legal opportunities provided by local elections to engage citizens, strengthen political structures, promote national platforms and push local advocacy efforts.
Campaigning also provides an opportunity to highlight limits on public participation in decision-making and the absence of free elections in the country.
Seven of Belarus’ major political parties and movements, including Belarus Christian Democrats (BCD), Belarus Popular Front (BPF), Belarus Social Democrats-Gramoda (BSDPG), For Freedom Movement (FFM), Green Party, Party of Freedom and Progress (PFP) and Tell the Truth, have joined forces under a poll watching and observation campaign known as Right to Choose.
The Right to Choose campaign will seek to deploy a minimum of 1,000 observers in districts where independent candidates are running. They will observe the voting process and advocate against electoral fraud. Their campaign will also seek to educate the public about the true state of the elections and encourage greater citizen involvement in defending the vote.
Other organisations monitoring these elections include Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections, Election Observation Theory and Practice, Electby.org and observers from Just World, United Civic Party (UCP) and a number of other regional organisations. The monitoring efforts of these groups are strengthened through joint coordination and information sharing.
Ballot Access Restricted
The candidate registration process closed on February 20. Belarusian opposition political parties and movements report large numbers of their candidates were denied registration and access to the ballot.
According to the poll-watching partnership Right to Choose, candidate disqualification was particularly high in districts where their candidates were planning to deploy election monitors. 109 of the 218 candidates participating in the observation effort (exactly 50%) were denied registration. According to Right to Choose representatives, most of their strongest candidates were refused ballot access.
In Homel, the authorities were particularly restrictive. Local authorities rejected 31 out of 36 Right to Choose candidates. In total, they rejected 61 candidates intending to run for city council. In addition, Homel authorities denied registration to grassroots activist and For Freedom parliamentary candidate Halina Kravchenko.
The official reason cited for Kravchenko’s registration denial was falsified signatures. Kravchenko, who collected signatures herself, will appeal the decision. The Homel parliamentary seat has been vacant since 2012 due to a corruption scandal.
Reports from individual political organizations show that candidate registration ranged from 21% on the low end (Tell the Truth) to 74% on the high end (Just World).
Candidates have until February 24 to appeal the district election commissions’ decisions. Many political parties have announced plans to appeal (BCD – 20 appeals, FFM – 10 appeals, Just World – 11 appeals, and Tell the Truth – up to 200 appeals). Results of the appeal process will be announced by February 28.
Election Commission Formation
As in previous elections, the majority of opposition parties’ nominations to election commissions were rejected. Political parties Just World, BSDP-G, UCP, BPF, BSDPG nominated commissioners to Territorial Election Commissions (TECs) and District Election Commissions (DECs). Out of 42 commissioners nominated to TECs, only five were accepted; only eleven out of 185 were registered to DECs.
The seven political forces participating in Right to Choose nominated 21 Precinct Election Commissioners; only eight were accepted. As a result, the vast majority of election commissions will operate without representation from opposition candidates and parties. In Minsk, for the first time, none of the democratic parties’ commissioner nominees were included at any commission level.
Changes to the Election Code
A distinguishing feature of these local elections is that they will be held in accordance with the newly revised Election Code. The new Election Code prohibits public funding for candidate leaflets. Instead, the commissions will now print informational brochures about each candidate and deliver them directly to the voters without any input by the candidates.
New provisions also allow registered candidates to set up private campaign funds and raise small amounts of money during the month between registration and Election Day.
In a small positive development, the Central Election Commission interpreted the new Election Code to allow national offices of parties and NGOs to nominate observers to serve at any polling place in the country. Previous interpretations suggested that the new Election Code would limit observers to monitor only their home districts.
Michael P Murphy
National Democratic Institute – Belarus Program