Parliamentary Elections – No Chances Taken
The Belarusian authorities ran the elections taking no chances to ensure the maintenance of the political status quo. Opposition candidates who offered even the hint of a threat were not registered, some TV debates were not broadcast to prohibit any advocating of an election boycott, while the traditional manipulation of the vote count and turnout was widespread.
Meanwhile, the opposition was unable to capitalise on the chance offered by the campaign period to change their existing status quo. In particular, the opportunity to transform their perception in society from dissidents focused only on opposing the state – to a political opposition providing a realistic alternative to the current regime, was largely missed.
The elections did, however, allow an assessment of the potential and capabilities of the opposition in Belarus today.
Three Strategies of the Opposition
Opposition political parties and groupings were split three ways on their strategic approach towards the elections – although there were nuances in the paths taken by the different groupings.
Firstly, Just World and the candidates representing Tell the Truth and For Freedom sought to maximise the opportunity provided by the elections and run full campaigns until polling day.
A second group, headed by the United Civic Party, wished to use the legal opportunities to campaign, including access to TV and radio, by running candidates. However, they planned from the start to withdraw their candidates before the five-day early voting period to protest against the unfair nature of the campaign.
Other groups argued for a full boycott of the poll, including the Christian Democrats and the “European Belarus” movement linked to former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and Charter 97.
The different tactics chosen were not necessarily a problem for the opposition. Sufficient common ground existed on messages about the need for change and responsive government to improve lives – only the call to action on election day was different.
Problems for the opposition emerged when leaders stopped focusing on common ground and instead attacked each other for divergent approaches. Boycotters were blamed for helping Lukashenka win the election without any effort, whereas the “run till the end” candidates were accused of helping Lukashenka show that the elections were democratic after all.
The election campaign was also beset with various conspiracy theories – most of which were summarily destroyed, such as the whispering campaign that Milinkevich had done a deal to get elected into Parliament, which quietly disappeared when he was not even registered.
This infighting within opposition ranks and attacks against those who had different strategies played into the hands of the authorities and helped to weaken overall public outreach of the democratic opposition. Ultimately it was this trend – more than the actual differences in strategies – that hurt the opposition in the end.
Opposition Campaign Highlights
Some highlights did emerge from the margins of the campaign, with individual opposition figures and groupings coming out with more credit and reputations boosted. Tell the Truth confirmed their status as the most active political organisation in Belarus today, while Anatoly Liabedzka turned out to be the most eloquent and visible proponent of the boycott initiative.
Meanwhile, some independent candidates such as Andrei Yurkou in Gorki and the Social Democrats (Hramada) can also be considered to have used their campaign wisely, while Alexander Milinkevich made a splash return to politics and prior to his non-registration his team was among the most active in the country.
Another positive was the “For Free Elections” partisan observation effort where the different opposition groupings came together in different regions to work on a common project, even while mutual accusations were aired in the online media.
This demonstrated that constructive collaboration amongst democratic forces is possible, especially as the observation included political groups boycotting as well as those running. Dependent on grassroots activists to observe and multi-partisan teams to coordinate data collection, they were able to work together towards a common goal with little in-fighting or controversy.
Why Low Turnout
Clearly, though, the electorate was also not entirely naïve about the electoral process. Many people were indeed convinced that they did not have a choice. Even the official turnout – at 74.3% – was the lowest in recent times.
Yet, it is difficult though to attribute the low turnout recorded by independent observers in many polling stations directly to parts of the opposition calling for a boycott. Signs of heightened political interest which elections usually generate in the population were missing.
There was almost no political advertising across the country, and nothing in Minsk at all to suggest that there was an election on – undoubtedly a response to the authorities wish for a passive electorate.
Indeed broadly people were simply not engaged in the campaign and many were simply not interested in voting for (or even deliberately boycotting elections to) a parliament which they perceived would do nothing for them.
In part due to the non-registration of key candidates – alongside the wider electoral climate – very few points of interest on election-day remained – especially as in 16 electoral districts government supported candidates stood unopposed.
Such points of interest were limited to observers’ attempts to document cases of inflated turnouts, whether observers would be able to see the vote count and how the authorities would deal with the curious case of one electoral district (Gomel 36) where the official government candidate withdrew discredited by a corruption scandal and only a Liberal Democratic Party candidate remained.
Official Election Results
The official results showed that 109 of the 110 constituencies had their seats filled with government supporters. Belaya Rus, the pro-government movement, later claimed that 63 of these were their members. The remaining seat was Gomel 36 where the LDP candidate lost by a landslide to “against all” and the election will be re-run only in 2014 to coincide with the Local Government elections.
As for the transparency of the vote count, the OSCE/ODIHR observers were not given a meaningful opportunity to observe the count in 37 per cent of polling stations, a slightly higher figure than in 2010, a clear indicator that there was no improvement in the transparency of the electoral process. Domestic nonpartisan observers, meanwhile, were as restricted as in previous elections.
Failure to Capitalise on Election Campaign Opportunities
The opportunity for the opposition to argue that they were the answer to people’s concerns and the choice for the country was largely missed.
The vast majority of the opposition was unable or unwilling to move the agenda beyond the boycott or outright opposition to the regime to issues that votes care more about, such as the economy and price rises, health care and education, and present themselves as a credible alternative.
As a whole, opposition leaders all too often seemed to be targeting Western media, observers, and politicians– attempting to reinforce their arguments about the unfair environment – rather than connecting with the electorate in Belarus.
Whichever tactics or strategies the opposition takes in the period ahead, it is in the interest of the opposition to remain focused on reaching out to the population with concrete messages, rather than generic anti-Lukashenka rhetoric.
Looking ahead, and in spite of the lack of major progress during the parliamentary election, the challenge for the opposition remains unchanged – to push for increased space in Belarus free of the state.
This would be a step in the direction of a more open Belarus and a way to create momentum towards change in the future. To accomplish this, opposition groups should find ways to work together instead of attacking each other and reinforce each other’s efforts to promote a democratic Belarus.
Dr Alastair Rabagliati
Language of Democracy and Language of Dictatorship – Digest of Belarusian Analytics
Belarusian analysts discuss the role of language in Belarusian society, media barometer, abolition of death penalty, European and Eurasion integration among other topics.
Language of Democracy and Language of Dictatorship – brief but probably the most popular article of the week authored by journalist Siarhei Dubavets states that the Belarusian democracy remains the only value – Belarusian. Language (Belarusian or Russian) is the main criterion for distinction opposition and the government, democracy and dictatorship, independence and provinciality, genuine culture and serving at the tsar's table. Dubavets says he is speaking the humiliated in Belarus but his native language of democracy while Russian speaking opposition activists use the colonial language of dictatorship forced upon them.
The creation of the “sixth column”? – Belarusian Security Blog notes the increasing of activity of the pro-Moscow “initiative” in Belarus which "buys" local activists. The experts see that Moscow supported groups are working mainly in the free mode, and have the main task of the increasing the number of activists. More strict and clear requirements for their activities will appear near 2015, when presidential elections are to be held. As a result, Alexander Lukashenka may well face a rival far more powerful than even the candidate from the united national democratic opposition.
BISS Political Media Barometer №1 – Belarusian Institute for Political Studies (BISS) presents the first public issue of a new quarterly report— BISS Political Media Barometer covering April-June BISS designed this product with one major goal in mind: to scientifically analyse the quality of the political communication between the Belarusian democratic political forces and the society, and contribute to its improvement. The new BISS product has already got some feedback of the politicians.
Lukashenka is running out of arguments in public speeches – Alexander Zimouski, media consultant and former head of Belarusian state television and radio company, states that Alexander Lukashenka goes to the public "archi poor" prepared. The expert refers not to rhetoric, but content of the speeches, which contain only a set of old templates. Zimovski suggests that the president's associates cannot grasp the new rapidly changing trends and therefore not able to offer a new image of the father of the nation.
What Could be a Transition to Democracy? – a politician Vital Karatysh notices that the transition to democracy in the current Belarusian context does not mean a change of power and the existing laws, but only change of the vector of the existing political system in Belarus. Accordingly, he believes that "any strategy of the opposition, which claims to be effective, must include the achievement of the unity of the democratic forces. Their leaders should always remember that the art of politics is the ability to enter into agreements and to reach a compromise".
Opposition Politics: the Art of the Possible – political analyst Dmitry Kukhlei notes that the official results of the parliamentary elections of 2012 consolidated the trend of the last twelve years, according to which the electoral campaign does not cause changes in the political system. The election showed that neither the leading opposition force, nor an independent civil society did not demonstrate the capacity to mobilize people and create a pole of attraction for the supporters of the changes that have recently dominated in Belarusian society.
National Security Brief: September 2012 – Belarusian Security Blog has released its monthly brief paper covered the national security issues in September. In particular, the experts note that the recent parliamentary campaign demonstrated the authorities' loss in the domestic field. The regime was unable to mobilize the population to ensure the necessary turnout that confirms the idea of a low level of trust of the population to the government.
Abolition of Death Penalty in Belarus is not Realistic – defender Vyachaslau Bortnik speculates if it's possible that Belarus will abolish the death penalty. The expert gives an unambiguous answer: this question is political, and Belarusian authorities use it as a tool for dealing with foreign and domestic policy issues. Accordingly, its abolition is not realistic in the foreseeable future.
European Integration Index for Eastern Partnership Countries – The second edition of the European Integration Index for Eastern Partnership Countries has been published – a study aiming to explore the process of convergence between the six Eastern Partnership countries and the European Union. The work involved over 30 experts from various institutions in the EU and Eastern Partnership countries. Belarus was represented by the BISS who have participated in the preparation of the Index.
BISS Launches Research in a New Field, to Analyze Eurasian Integration – the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) launches research in a new field in order to provide its expert analysis of Eurasian integration, taking into account that this is becoming a reality, which cannot be ignored and requires a thorough analysis by the expert community. The first paper authored by Maksim Karliuk centers on the institutional structure of Eurasian integration.
Belarusian Monthly Economic Review, No.10, October 2012The IPM Research Center released its monthly analysis of Belarusian economy. The October issue covers the following topics: Belarus held parliamentary elections; sharp slowdown in industrial growth; problems of external borrowing come to the fore; growth of imports outpaced growth of exports.
What Model of Social Policy is Needed in Belarus? – Belarusian social policy shows a number of successes, but it has a certain inconsistency, and the government's participation is too large. Such an assessment was given by Oksana Yerofeeva, Head of Department of Economics and Finance of The Belarusian State University, during her report at the 2nd International Congress of Belarusian Studies.
Belarus Researchers Shared Their Knowledge Outside the Country – TUT.BY journalist describes his impressions of the 2nd International Congress of Belarusian Studies held on September 28-30, in Kaunas. The author believes the event the largest Belarusian Science Conference in the Humanities, organised by NGOs. Particular emphasis is placed on the fact that the Congress is above politics and its main task is to give opportunity for scientists and researchers to share their knowledge.
Results of the II Congress of Belarusian Researchers: Expected Topics and Unexpected Conclusions – Natalya Ryabova elaborates at length on key results of the II International Congress of Belarusian Researchers, which took place in Kaunas on September 28-30, 2012. The author suggests that the Congress is becoming a ‘happening’ for Belarusian academic community, while establishment of national scientific data base of research and citation.
Organizational Development: the Situation is Stable, but Need to Keep a Hand on the Pulse – representatives of non-profit organisations positively perceive the idea of the First Capacity Building Fair, that's confirmed with a blitz survey of the Fair participants. The event takes place on October 12 and brought together representatives of CSOs interested in receiving consulting services in organizational development, and consultants who are ready to offer their services.
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.