PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS IN BELARUS
The March 19 election gave President Alyaksandr Lukashenka an overwhelming victory according to the official election results; incumbent president will remain in office for a third five-year term. According to the results published by the Central Election Commission 5,501,249 people, or 83 percent of those who took part in the ballot, voted for current President Alyaksandr Lukashenka; 405,486 people (6.1 percent) for Alyaksandr Milinkevich; 230,664 people (3.5 percent) for Syarhey Haydukevich (a member of the House of Representatives and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party who profiles himself as a „loyal opposition” to President Lukashenka and has participated in the previous elections as well) and 147,402 people (2.2 percent) for Alyaksandr Kazulin, with total turnout being 92,9 %. (In 2001 the turnout was 83,86 % and incumbent president received 75,65 % of the votes.) President Lukashenka praised the results as a victory over foreign pressure.
Neither Free Nor Fair
The presidential election which took de facto place on 14-19 March (because of the widespread early voting) failed to meet standards of democratic elections. It can be more likely described as a tool of mobilization of the state structures and loyal citizens and confirmation of the current regime than a process of democratic choice. „Arbitrary use of state power and widespread detentions showed a disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression, and raise doubts regarding the authorities' willingness to tolerate political competition,” said the OSCE Election Observation Mission statement. Elections can be described as undemocratic for several reasons, e. g. the following:
1. Overall Atmosphere
State media fully dominate over the remaining sources of independent information in Belarus and the opposition has therefore not been able to communicate with substantial part of the voters. President Lukashenka dominated all the state media.
Besides this, both united democratic candidate Alexander Milinkevich and another opposition candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin (backed by Belarusian Social
Democratic Party /Hramada/) and their teams had been constantly harrased by the authorities. (E. g. Alyaksandr Kazulin as well as Vincuk Viachorka and Anatoly Labyedka, leaders of democratic opposition and representatives of Alyaksandr Milinkevich were detained. There were numerous cases of harrasement of opposition campaigners, seizure of equipments and official election leaflets etc.) By 18 March, for example, 8 of 30 authorised representatives of A. Milinkevich were under detention or administrative arrest, together with up to of 100 his campaign activists.
As OSCE puts it: “A statement by the security services, accusing the opposition and civil society of planning to seize power and associating them with terrorism, contributed significantly to a climate of intimidation and insecurity. This was further exacerbated by harassment and detention of political and civil society activists.”
2. Electoral Legislation and Process
Legal framework for the election (Election Code) did not meet international standards - for example early voting lacked necessary safeguards, the law does not provide for effective monitoring of the election process etc. Independent opposition organizations were almost totally excluded from electoral commissions; those consisted mainly of state officials.
Situation was similar with the “domestic observers” - those were mainly representatives of such institutions as trade unions, pro regime youth association etc. Independent domestic observers often faced obstructions from the authorities. Besides this, eight international OSCE/ODIHR observers and 19 OSCE parliamentarians were either denied entry or visas and thereby prevented from participating in the election mission.
On the other hand, there was a large CIS monitoring mission lead by Russia, which de facto supported the regime with its statements and also received appropriate positive media attention. Coverage of the OSCE/ODIHR mission in state media was rather negative.
3. Early Voting
The current election code provided for six days of non transparent early voting. Early voting, originally meant to be a exceptional option for those who can not vote on the election date, was massively used by the authorities in order to make as many people as possible vote before March 19. This applied especially to such groups as university students, soilders and state employees in general (state employees form an overwhelming majority in the society) who often voted early under pressure from the authorities. As a result over 30 % of voted during the early voting.
4. Election Process
The process itself was very calm, but there were numerous problems observed, such as unauthorized persons present at the precincts, sometimes directing the work of the commissions, problems with voters lists etc. Most serious violations were observed during the counting of votes and aggregation of results at territorial electoral commissions. Those processes were totally non-transparent and observers were usually not able to observe them effectively. In many cases observers were denied information and faced obstruction and even intimidation during their work. There were probably election results for every region planned in advance so that the commissions only had to “fulfil the plan”, that’s why in many cases the election results at the precincts were completed in pencil only. The number of votes for President Lukashenka was definitely substantially raised upward (according to some surveys the rating of current president is some 50 % - 60 %).
No Jeans Revolution So Far
The Belarusian opposition tried to borrow the know how and symbols from the previous „coloured revolutions” (Georgia and especially Ukraine), although it is clear that the internal conditions in Belarus fundamentally differ from those in Ukraine. But it has to be stressed that compared with previous presidential election in 2001 the democratic opposition has been doing better in terms of uniting ahead of election and finding a solid common candidate – A. Milinkevich.
The „united opposition” (political parties and other democratic organisations) was also able to make substantial part of Belarusian society familiar with the person (or at least the name) of A. Milinkevich, even under enormously complicated conditions, including limited period of time available (not mentioning his popularity in the West). Under such conditions, even the official result (6.1 percent) might me considered a succes (it is obvious that the real number of votes must have been higher).
Alyaksandr Milinkevich even claimed that he received 31 percent of the vote while Alyaksandr Lukashenka received 42 percent. These numbers must be doubted because under current situation in Belarus it is hard to gather any relevant data. However it is clear that particularly in Minsk and big cities Milinkevich has done quite well; in some election precincts he has most probably won over Lukashenka. Among his supporters there were definitely members of the intelligentsia, the urban elite as well as young people.
The situation is of course different in rural areas, where real support for incumbent president is still very strong (however the regime fully controlled the election process and results in such areas too). The position of the Belarusian opposition in general remains quite weak with Minsk and other cities being an exception. Also the number of active participants in the opposition demonstrations was relatively low.
As some commentators put it, the opposition thanks to election campaign and demonstrations in Minsk after the election „has scored a victory over fear”. Also the fact that Alyaksandr Milinkevich and Alyaksandr Kazulin were able to work together in the days following the election is promising. It is unclear, however, how long the democratic forces will remain united.
The manifestation on March 25 (the 88th anniversary of the creation of the Belarusian Democratic Republic), was dispersed by the police using brutal violence. Hundreds of people, including Alyaksandr Kazulin, were jailed. This probably marks an end of an intensive post-election public campaign of the democratic forces. (The commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster on April 26 might become another opportunity. There will be also elections to local soviets held this year.) Now, Belarus might once again disappear from the Western media for the activities of the opposition (as well as repressions of the regime against them) will become less spectacular. At the same time, the opposition forces will face an uneasy task of remaining united and working in unfavourable and probably further deteriorating conditions. Further repression against remaining independent media, opposition parties and NGOs and their leaders might be expected. Both the domestic opposition and the Western governments and NGOs should prepare for another long period of day to day work.
Presently there seems to be no internal opposition within the ruling regime. As long as the economy remains more or less stable (first of all thanks to continuing support of Russia) substantial part of the Belarusian society will be satisfied with the current stability and will have no reason to support changes. Another long term problem related to this is the existing information blockade of substantial part of Belarusian population (current European and Polish iniciatives regarding independent radio broadcast are a good step forward in this direction). In this respect, neighbouring states (EU Member States and Ukraine) can play substantial role and close cooperation with them (including open dialogue with Russia) is necessary.
As for the West, the time has come to discuss new sanctions against the regime but also ways of helping Belarusian citizens and facilitating their contacts with Europe (e. g. European Parliament cals for an extension of the travel ban for high-ranking Belarus officials, while at the same time easing visa procedures for representatives of the Belarus civil society and setting up additional youth exchange programmes).
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