Early vote period – digest of the 2016 parliament elections

The five-day early voting period of the 2016 Belarusian parliamentary elections took place from September 6 to 10. The main Election Day is Sunday, September 11. Polls are open from 8 AM to 8 PM. In these elections nearly seven million Belarusians are eligible to cast their ballots for one of the 484 parliamentary candidates running for 110 seats.

This report on early vote trends was compiled based on information published by governmental bodies, media, and social network users and information received directly from Belarusian parties, and observer groups.

According to official Central Election Commission (CEC) reports, 31.29 percent of Belarusians cast early ballots. Independent observer groups challenged official statistics citing major turnout discrepancies between observers and commissions. The early vote in Belarus is often described as the “most convenient time for falsifications.”

Major problems identified by observer groups include increasing turnout though forced and incentivized voting of students and workers, as well as artificially inflating turnout though protocol or voter list manipulations. Parliamentary elections in Belarus can be declared valid if more than 50 percent of eligible district voters cast their ballots. The security of ballot boxes and overall transparency of the early vote were major concerns of observer groups as well.

Domestic Early Vote Observation Efforts

The early vote was primarily monitored by two independent Belarusian election observation initiatives: “Right to Choose-2016” (R2C), a coalition of eight political forces (“Belarusian Christian Democracy”, Belarusian Social-Democratic Party Gramada, BPF party, United Civil Party, “For Freedom”, “Greens”, Party of Freedom and Progress, REP Labor Union), and “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” (HRD), an initiative of “Viasna” and “Belarusian Helsinki Committee”. In addition, “Tell the Truth” (TtT) campaign ran early vote observation in some parliamentary districts of their candidates. Incident reports from all of these groups were published on election monitoring crowdsourcing website Electby.org during the early vote.

Electby.org in partnership with HRD and R2C launched a mobile application “Vochy” to allow citizens timely and anonymously report violations. Citizens may also report violations directly on the websites of R2C, HRD, or Electby.org. Electby.org also acts as an observer aggregator publishing violations reported by citizens and the above mentioned election groups.

R2C deployed 764 observers to monitor 100 percent of 382 polling places in ten parliamentary districts during early vote. These districts will also have full monitoring coverage on the main election day. Monitored districts were selected based on where prominent democratic candidates from R2C member organizations are running (see R2C candidate page to find violations and turnout for a particular candidate’s district). HRD deployed 364 observers at 182 polling stations throughout the country. According to TtT they deployed 180 observers at 90 polling stations in three districts.

R2C reported 332 incidents and filed 225 official complaints regarding the Electoral Code violations in five days of early voting. Below is the R2C infographic reflecting the major types of violations recorded by independent campaign observers during the whole five-day early vote period.

Observers Identify Several Methods Used to Artificially Inflate Turnout

R2C conducted a parallel turnout count in the ten parliamentary districts where they had 100 percent observer coverage. During a parallel turnout count, observers at each polling station record each person casting a ballot continuously and without intermission.

As a result of their parallel turnout count, R2C found that official and observer turnout overlapped only in 69 of 382 observed polling stations, highlighting significant levels of artificial turnout inflation. The turnout discrepancies per fully observed parliamentary districts are noted in the table below.

 

HRD’s 364 observers recorded a 14 percent turnout discrepancy at the 182 polling stations where they observed.

Discrepancies at the individual polling station level are best reflected on the Electby.org website, which used R2C data to construct detailed infographics. As shown in the following Electby.org chart of parliamentary district #92 (Avtozavodskoy in Minsk), a number of polling stations inflated turnout, some of them significantly, like polling station #70, where on September 9 the official turnout was 187 voters higher than R2C observed.

HRD reported that in electoral district #14 in Bobruisk, an observer challenged 157 votes written in September 8 protocol, because she calculated only 37 voters that day. As a result, the protocol was edited. PEC staff recorded it as a “technical mistake”. The new vote total, however, still did not match the observer’s. A similar incident was reported by R2C at the polling station #32.

According to R2C reports, election commission efforts to boost their turnout percentage sometimes are a result of reducing the size of voter lists. At polling station #422 in district #103, observers noted a “voter list manipulation” on September 7, when the total number of voters was decreased without explanation by 879 people. At polling station #71 of district #18 in Vitebsk, the voter list was shortened by 191 people. These cuts resulted in an increase in the turnout percentage.

‘Carousel voting’ was reported as another mechanism used to increase turnout. Yuri Gubarevich, a parliamentary candidate from movement “For Freedom”, a R2C coalition member, informed observers about ‘carousel voting’ in his Kalinovskiy electoral district #108 in Minsk. He claimed a blue minivan brought the same group of people to vote at different polling stations.

Observers confirmed ‘carousel voting’ incidents at polling stations #631, #635 and #618. Some observers managed to take pictures of ‘carousel voters’ and confirm the same people voted at polling stations #616, 617, 618, 619, 631, and 632. An HRD observer at polling station #367 claimed to have spotted the same people voting on two different early vote days. She said her video documentation of this was seized by a police officer who took her camera.

Numerous Reports of Forced or Incentivised Early Voting

Certain social groups, such as students or workers of state-owned enterprises are most vulnerable to forced or incentivised voting during the early vote period. They tend to cast their ballot several days before the E-Day. Prior to the early vote, HRD appealed to the administrations of higher education institutions noting that “any form of forcing students to vote in elections is an unacceptable violation of the constitutional rights.”

The CEC Chair Lidia Yermoshina stated there is no forced voting, that school administration’s encouragement to vote early or vote for a particular candidate does not violate the law. However, observers often recorded that school administrations did not limit themselves to just voter encouragement. For instance, at polling station #42, Mogilev State University students had to sign in the dormitory administration’s list to confirm they voted early (the list was captured on video).

HRD reported cases of forced voting in Slutsk district #67 and Soligorskiy district #68.

An anonymous “Vochy” user reported that “Belaruskaliy” workers had two hours free from work to vote early. RFE/RL reported forced voting of convicts. In this case a policeman left a number of passports with the head of the local commission and returned later to pick them up. Some cases of organized voting were reported on Electby.org, including a photo of military conscripts heading towards the polling station.

At polling station #6 in Baranovichi, R2C observers reported than an ineligible 17-year old student of Baranovichi State University was brought by an elder of the student group to vote early on September 7.

Another effort to ensure a high turnout was the organization of parental meetings at schools during the early vote period. For instance, in Bobruisk gymnasium #2, where polling station #4 is located, parents were asked to attend meetings on the second and third day of early voting. The parental meeting was attended by a Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) representative who is also a proxy of a pro-governmental candidate. The proxy promoted her candidate and encouraged parents to vote.

Unsecured Ballot Boxes

R2C observers reported 185 incidents related to unsecured ballot boxes. According to reports, either the ballot boxes were not sealed properly or the room they were stored was not sealed. In some reports observers claimed police officers stayed overnight in the room with the ballot boxes.

A notable example of ballot stuffing was reported at polling station #625 of parliamentary district #108 (Kalinovskiy) in Minsk. An R2C observer took a picture of “tightly packed ballots” put inside the transparent ballot box. The existence of a “tight pack of ballots” raised his suspicion because ballots cast one at a time should be loose.

The Observer also emphasized that he counted 42 voters on Friday, while a PEC claimed 228. Later, the chief commissioner of the polling station rejected the ballot stuffing claim as a “provocation”. The chief commissioner also claimed the turnout discrepancy was the result of mistake by the commission secretary who wrote down the cumulative turnout instead of the daily vote total. Yermoshina said the “truth will be found after the vote count.”

Independent Observers Face Obstacles

R2C observers reported five incidents in which they were not able to properly conduct observation. In 19 cases local commissions refused to provide requested by observers information. On the left you can see a picture taken by an HRD observer titled “the place for observer in Belarus.” The image shows the observer was placed outside of the voting room.

R2C reported 23 of their observers were deprived accreditation. For instance, in Minsk, at the polling station #188 of the district #96, members of the election commission refused to accredit observers due to the absence of the commission chair. BCD candidate Olga Kovalkova reported that at polling stations #429 and #430 observers were denied the use of bathrooms.

Some independent observers could not begin the observation due to pressure. For instance, R2C reported that the administration of the Gomel State Technical University forbade students from observing elections on behalf of the R2C campaign.

According to campaign representatives, students were threatened with the expulsion from the university. In Grodno, R2C observer refrained from election observation claiming his wife was threatened with a job loss by the ideology department in a state hospital.

Authorities Get Ready for the Election Day

The Ministry of Antimonopoly Regulation and Trade of Belarus sent local authorities instructions how to please voters with food and other treats during the election day. The instructions were leaked to R2C and re-published by independent media. The same day, state media highlighted what food and entertainment will be available to voters at the polls.

Michael P. Murphy & Juljan Jachovic
National Democratic Institute (NDI)




Vote Counting and Election Assessment by Observers – Belarus Presidential Election Digest

Belarus held presidential election between 6 and 11 October 2015. Almost seven million voters were eligible to cast ballots at 6,129 polling stations during the five day early voting period and election day on 11 October. This update summarises important events that occurred following the close of polls on 11 October and through 16 October, when the official results were announced.

The main voting day, as well as the early voting period, was observed by local independent observer groups Right to Choose-2015 (R2C), Human Rights Defenders for Free and Fair Elections (HRD), and the youth initiative Election Observation Theory and Practice (EOTP). R2C deployed observers at 672 polling stations during the early vote period, and monitored 642 polling stations during election day.

HRD conducted observations at 400 polling stations during the early voting and election day period. Journalists and citizens also monitored and reported their observations on social networks, via the mobile phone observation app Vochy and the Ushahidi based crowdsourcing observation site Electby.org.

Key Points

  • The HRD and R2C election observation missions challenged the validity of the election results. They described the election as ‘non-transparent, not free and non-democratic’, citing evidence of both turnout and vote count manipulations. Over the course of early voting and election day, R2C observers filed 900 complaints and reported 1,573 incidents, many of them available for review on the crowdsourcing platform Electby.org. Amongst the most pressing election day problems noted by R2C and HRD observers was a lack of transparency and verifiability of the vote count process and final results.

  • In a joint statement the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) stated that problems with the vote counting and tabulation “undermined the integrity of the election.”

  • The Central Election Commission (CEC) of Belarus announced the official presidential election results: Alexander Lukashenko – 83.47 percent, Tatsiana Karatkevich – 4.44, Sergey Gaidukevich – 3.30, Nikolay Ulakhovich – 1.67, and Against All – 6.32 percent. Turnout announced by the authorities was 87.22 percent, of which 36.05 percent were attributed to the early vote period.

  • Tatsiana Karatkevich’s team announced she and her team would “fight for their votes” and appealed the election results to the CEC using R2C and HRD findings as evidence. Karatkevich claimed her campaign received between 20 and 35 percent of the vote. Karatkevich’s appeal was rejected by the CEC on 16 October. Karatkevich also announced her plans to continue building on her recent success. She and her team plan to organise a Nationwide Development Forum “For Peaceful Changes,” and began forming of a list of candidates for parliamentary elections.

  • Around 200 people attended a peaceful protest against the conduct of the election. Human rights defenders reported that five anarchists were detained near where the protest occurred.

  • United Civil Party Chair Anatoly Lebedko, former presidential candidates Nikolay Statkevich and Vladimir Neklyaev held a press conference in Minsk. They demanded non-recognition of the election results by the international community and announced the launch of the “Power to People” campaign, a new effort to fight for economic reforms, free elections and the preservation of the statehood and independence of Belarus.

Election Results

On 16 October the CEC announced its official presidential election results: Alexander Lukashenko – 83.47 percent, Tatsiana Karatkevich – 4.44 percent, Sergey Gaidukevich – 3.30 percent, Nikolay Ulakhovich – 1.67 percent, Against All – 6.32 percent.

According to official data, election turnout reached 87.22 percent, of which 36.05 percent was attributed to early voting. Officially this was the highest early vote turnout in Belarusian history.

HRD and R2C election observation missions questioned the validity of results and called the election non-democratic, citing evidence of both turnout and vote count manipulations. R2C stated that the presidential election “was not free and not fair, vote counting was conducted in a non-transparent manner”. HRD concluded, “the election process did not meet a number of key international standards for democratic and free elections.” The combined statement of OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE PA and PACE also raised questions as to the validity of the process, and particularly the vote count.

The official results provided by the CEC diverge significantly from the results of an independent poll conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) in mid-September regarding voter intention. As the charts illustrate, the election turnout and results nationwide and, particularly in Minsk where both expected turnout and Lukashenko's support are lowest, and are considerably different than the public sentiment a month before the election.

It should be noted, the most likely voters are strongly pro-Lukashenko, and thus the final vote percentage for Lukashenko would be expected to rise somewhat as a result of non-Lukashenko voters avoiding the polls. IISEPS noted that when extrapolating these results to the turnout of 80 percent, for Lukashenko would vote 56 percent, and for Karatkevich 22 percent.

Prior to announcement of the official election results, three exit polls were released. The exit polls were conducted by the Youth Laboratory of Sociological Studies, the National Academy of Sciences, and Evraziyskiy Barometr. All focus groups were either contracted or conducted by structures tied to the authorities, thus making their independence and stated results suspect. Each of these polls forecast Lukashenko would receive more than 80 percent.

Election Observation and Reports on Non-Transparent Vote Count

Domestic independent observers negatively assessed the election. R2C stated that the presidential election “(was) not free and not fair, vote counting was conducted in a non-transparent manner, and the results announced by the CEC are not trustworthy. All negatives practises that previously were criticised by national and international observers were continued this campaign.”

HRD observers concluded, “the election process did not meet a number of key international standards for democratic and free elections. This was due to the lack of equal access to the media for all candidates, the lack of impartiality of election commissions, use of administrative resources in favour of the incumbent, numerous facts of coercion of voters to participate in early voting, and the closure of some election procedures for observers. The most important reason for criticism is the lack of transparency of the vote count, which does not allow to consider the election results as a reflection of the will of voters.” In addition, both R2C and HRD campaigns developed recommendations to increase elections transparency.

During the main election day, R2C observed 643 polling stations. During the entire voting period R2C observers reported 1,573 incidents and filed 900 official complaints.

On the main election day R2C reported 419 incidents and filed 509 complaints.

In patterns similar to those noted during the early vote period, R2C observed artificially inflated turnout during the main election day. On 11 October R2C was able to conduct a parallel turnout count at 485 polling stations. At these polling stations R2C counted 374,809 people who voted, while official data indicated 395,863 voters, a discrepancy of 21,054.

In addition to inflated turnout, R2C observers identified several categories of incidents that took place on the main election day including: withdrawal of accreditation of observers, non-transparent vote count, refusal by commissions to provide voter list information and expulsion from polling places when observers asked commissioners to conduct an open vote count.

Issues in Vote Counting

R2C observers were present during ballot counting in 633 polling stations. R2C concluded the vote count was not open, and not transparent, and observers were unable to verify vote totals announced by commissions. At 141 polling stations vote counting was conducted without the required separation of ballot boxes by type of vote (early voting, mobile voting and main day voting).

According to HRD observers, more than half of their observers were put in positions that made it uncomfortable to observe the vote count. Seventy six point nine percent could not see what was written on the ballots. For instance, at the Centralny district polling station #25 in Minsk, domestic and international observers could not observe the vote count because of the distance between the ballots and the observers. R2C published a video demonstrating similar problems occurring in another polling station, as well as a series of pictures illustrating such difficult observation conditions.

At polling station #6 of Pervomayskiy district, Minsk, the commission built ‘chair barricades’ so observers could not monitor the count. Even at Minsk polling station #1, where Lukashenko cast his vote, a Naviny.by journalist reported the “vote counting procedure does not differ much” and observers did not see anything.

An anonymous commissioner from Vitebsk shared his vote counting experience with Euroradio. According to him, commission members signed a final report without actually seeing numbers. He witnessed Karatkevich being assigned 80 votes instead of the 581 counted. When the commissioner complained, his job was threatened. On social media, people posted pictures of protocols from polling stations, where observers were allowed to conduct observation.

A Naviny.by reporter, referring to his experience at polling station #63 in Minsk, noted “They have sorted all correctly, but wrote the report ‘as needed’.” In the final report Lukashenko got 11 times more votes than Karatkevich, although the ballot stacks looked similar (please see the picture at left).

An HRD observer from Gomel Soviet district polling station #25 noted the suspicious efficiency of an election commission which counted 2,500 votes in 20 minutes.

Election Assessment by International Observers

International observers from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) held a press conference on 12 October in which they released a statement drawing preliminary conclusions.The statement reads, “The 11 October election once again indicated that Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments for democratic elections…” there are “significant problems, particularly during the counting and tabulation, undermined the integrity of the election.”

Nevertheless, the Belarus CEC expressed satisfaction with the preliminary report noting some positive assessments. The European Union noted the “peaceful environment” in which the election was held. The EU also offered Belarus assistance “in its efforts to bring its election process in line with OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections.” The United States expressed disappointment “that the elections fell significantly short of Belarus’ international obligations and commitments for free and fair elections”.

Sergei Lebedev, the head of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) observation mission stated, “The election met democratic principles and were transparent, open and competitive.” The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) did not detect “a single violation of the national election laws.”

The Candidates and Other Political Forces on the Presidential Election Results

Tatsiana Karatkevich thanked voters for their support: “To all those, who believe changes in Belarus are possible and are ready to act. Do not believe in deceitful numbers. This is our victory! We are moving forward!”

On 12 October she held a press conference concluding her campaign, during which Karatkevich listed five major achievements of her campaign:

(1) she claims to have actually received 20-35 percent support from society, which will be proven with independent polls in October; (2) her team reached people “who for the last 20 years have not heard what alternative politicians are saying”; (3) the authorities became aware that people cast their votes for changes in Belarus; (4) their team drew attention to Russian plans to build an airbase in Belarus; (5) the campaign brought new faces to Belarusian politics. Karatkevich believes by announcing fraudulent figures “the authorities do not show respect to the people.”

Karatkevich’s team announced they would “fight for votes” and appealed the election results. Evidence of electoral malfeasance collected by R2C and HRD observers provided the basis for Karatkevich’s appeal. Lidia Yermoshina noted that the CEC has final decision on the appeal on the recognition of election results. An appeal can be made to the Supreme Court only if the CEC finds the results invalid.

The CEC rejected the appeal on October 16. CEC Chair Lidia Yermoshina claimed, “It is wrong to claim that acts of observers – are sacred cows and that commissions cannot justify themselves After examining the complaint, it is possible to say that the CEC has no grounds to recognize election results as void”.

Karatkevich also announced plans to organise a Nationwide Development Forum “For Peaceful Changes,” to give everybody an opportunity to voice problems and become a part of the movement for peaceful changes. The recruitment of parliamentary candidates for next year’s election will coincide with the forum.

Sergey Gaidukevich congratulated Lukashenko. He said all presidential candidates enjoyed equal conditions during the election campaign. Gaidukevich also announced his party would be headed by a new person in the near future, because he has led too long and there are too few youth in the party.

Nikolay Ulakhovich recognised the election results. He believes Lukashenko deserved victory, “We perfectly understand that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is one of the greatest patriots of our country. He once again proved his capabilities and showed that today he is irreplaceable on our Belarusian land,” said Ulakhovich.

On 12 October Alexander Lukashenko began receiving congratulations on his re-election. According to his press service, the President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping was the first to congratulate him. Lukashenko also received greetings from Russia President Vladimir Putin as well as the presidents of Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Venezuela among others.

Despite the fact that neither the only democratic candidate Tatsiana Karatkevich, nor other opposition leaders called people to protest, around 200 people came to the street on election eve. Former presidential candidate Andrey Sannikov called participants of the march heroes and thanked them for their dignity and bravery. Human rights defenders reported that five protesters from anarchist movement were detained, and two of them spent a night in a detention centre. In addition, a complaint against 17-year old Egor Skarbnevskiy was compiled by the authorities.

United Civil Party (UCP) Chair Anatoly Lebedko, former presidential candidates Nikolay Statkevich and Vladimir Neklyaev held a press-conference in Minsk. They demanded non-recognition of the election results by the international community. They jointly announced the start of a new campaign “Power to People.” Lebedko explained the campaign will have three directions of work: 1) Statehood and Sovereignty; 2) Free and Fair Elections; 3) Positive Economic Alternative. According to Statkevich, the first street action under the campaign took place on 10 October and the next one is planned for November to coincide with the anniversary of the day 1996 Referendum.

Michael Murphy & Juljan Jachovic

​National Democratic Institute




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?

Only a small percentage of Belarusian voters who reside or permanently stay abroad cast absentee ballots in Belarusian elections. Voters inside Belarus cast many more early ballots.

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.

At the district level, early ballots represented anywhere between 13 percent in Baranovichi district in southwest Belarus and 50 percent in Krasnapolle in southeast Belarus.

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

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.




Russian Elections: Déjà Vu for Belarusians?

In Russia's recent elections to the State Duma the ruling United Russia party won. The Russian opposition claims that the authorities falsified the results in favour of Putin's party. Similar to Belarusian authorities, the Kremlin put pressure on independent observers, falsified the results to a certain degree and temporarily blocked independent sources of information. But overall the Russian elections and handling of post-election protests were much more democratic than in Belarus.

What kind of changes will these elections bring to Russian politics and what consequences will they have for Belarus? Although the elections and post-election protests were an important political development for Russia itself, they will not be a game changer for Belarus-Russia relations. However, Russia's policy towards Belarus may change following presidential elections in 2012. 

Political Spectrum of the New Duma

Various observers note that despite quite convincing victory as provided by Western standards, United Russia lost a big percentage of support among the population as well as the absolute majority needed to adopt federal constitutional laws. According only to official data, the United Russia's vote share decreased by 15% in comparison with previous elections. United Russia enjoys the widest popularity in the North Caucasian republics – for example, in Chechnya it was supported by 99.51% of voters. Such facts pave the way for public speculation about massive electoral fraud, as it is hardly possible to achieve such a result without falsifications.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev headed the ruling party’s list during the elections and it seems that this helped United Russia to obtain 238 out of 450 seats. At the same time the Russian communist party wo 92 seats (19.2% of votes), Just Russia – 64 seats (13.25% of votes) and the Liberal Democratic Party with its irremovable leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky – 56 seats (12% of votes). 

A Right-Wing Failure

It should be mentioned that there is still no sufficiently large right-centrist party in Russia, where the middle class represents a big part of the population and there is a growing demand for changes among the people. The so-called Liberal-Democratic Party actually tends to favor nationalist positions. An attempt to create the Right Cause party with aluminum and nickel tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov as its head came to a grievious end for its leader who was forced to resign amindst scandal in September. The party suffered a crushing defeat subsequently in the elections, and nowadays its new leader Andrey Dunaev is seriously considering the option of emigration.

Therefore, the State Duma will not represent a huge part of the Russian population with liberal views and it undermines the legitimacy of the legislative body. The main ideologist of United Russia, deputy head of the presidential administration Vladislav Surkov paid attention to this fact just after the elections, stating that Russia needs a new party of “irritated urban communities”.

The election results clearly demonstrate that United Russia should move to make compromises and become more liberal although they will not significantly change the political spectrum represented in the Duma. If it does not change, it will increase the gap between the ruling elite and ordinary people. Citizens of big cities, especially Moscow and Saint Petersburg, are tired of the same faces in power for such extended periods of time and they actively expressed their voiced their opinions in the most recent elections. 

Similarities and Differences with Belarus

Russian elections were similar to Belarusian electoral campaigns in many ways: the same pressure on independent observers (“Golos” organization), the same means of electoral falsifications (frauds with absentee ballots, fabricating results, throwing additional ballots in ballot boxes), preventive detentions (Sergey Udaltsov), mass protest actions followed by the arrests of opposition leaders (Ilya Yashin, Alexey Navalny, Sergey Mitrokhin) and the blocking of independent sources of information (Ekho Moskvy radiostation site, “Big City” journal and Livejournal).

Nevertheless, elections were more democratic than in Belarus. There was no pressure on independent observers in the majority of voting stations, and opposition leaders could openly express their opinion in mass media and Parliament without any intervention from state authorities. This included well-known debates between Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Alexander Khinshtein, when Zhirinovsky harshly criticized United Russia, not troubling himself to be too careful with his choice of words.

What are the Implications for Belarus?

The Communist Party has strengthened its positions as a result of the elections. It traditionally advocates the interests of the Belarusian regime in Russia and personally Alyaksander Lukashenka. In its election program the party promises to defend Belarus from “Russian oligarchs”. It could mean a potential increase in the influence of the Belarusian lobby in Moscow.

However, this election is incapable of considerably altering the state of relations between Belarus and Russia. At the same time the importance of the Eurasian Union project may rise in importance in order to show the effectiveness of the Russian authorities' foreign policy, given a sharp fall in public trust in the ruling elite.

It creates favourable conditions for Belarus in the framework of cooperation with Russia and it means that Russia will close its eyes to various controversial events that take place in its neighbouring state. Particularly, one should not wait for new video appeals of the Russian president to revive the investigation of notorious political disappearances in Belarus.

Elections and Belarusian-Russian Relations

Russian presidential elections will have crucial importance for the future of this country with prime minister Vladimir Putin as the main candidate. It is hard to define what will be his level of support given mass demonstrations in Moscow and his native town of Saint-Petersburg. Today there are proposals in mass media to nominate a single opposition candidate – communist leader Gennady Zyuganov or blogger Alexey Navalny.

One will be able to define Putin’s true intentions towards the Eurasian Union and the level of Russia’s willingness to pay for further integration only after the 2012 presidential elections in Russia.  Then the Russian authorities will  finalize their domestic and foreign policy for a middle-term perspective (5-6 years). The dynamics of Belarusian-Russian relations depends exactly on these two issues that can either promote or undermine the European ambitions of Belarus.

It may be that following the presidential elections, the Russian authorities will increase the pressure on Belarus again to obtain its remaining assets in the absence of any competition from the West.  

George Plaschinsky

The text originally appeared in Russian on n-europe.eu