This year’s campaign before the Belarusian parliamentary elections, scheduled on September 23, was not highly popular. Neither the government nor the President, who at that time had other problems, were interested in its running. As usual in this time of year, Alexander Lukashenko has been touring across the country with so-called working visits to numerous farms, speaking on crop and criticizing (or praising – depending on the need) the heads of state agricultural enterprises. And all that, of course, he did for the sake of citizens, to provide them with cheap bread and milk.
There are more important things than elections
However, this activity did not address more things that are really important to ordinary Belarusians, who are still feeling effects of last year’s economic crisis. Minsk residents with their highest salaries in the country can somehow manage, but the situation in the regions looks dramatic. Although, according to official figures, an average salary is 3.6 million rubles (about 330 euros), it is not possible to find such a well-paid job. People have to survive for 1,5-2 million rubles, and it is very difficult to provide for family with such a sum, especially since inflation constantly eats incomes of Belarusians.
The Belarusian society was not interested in the campaign. Politics completely lost to potatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables, which more than once saved Belarusians from hunger. In any case, nobody had any recipes for improving material conditions of people – neither the government nor the opposition, whose activities it is difficult to notice. The following law worked here: if citizens cannot rely on the state, then in turn the state cannot rely on citizens. People, however, must have been determined, for they were ready to start first protests. Workers of western Belarusian enterprises (Grodno and Brest regions) organised strikes demanding higher wages and better working conditions. There was also a small protest against building of a nuclear power station. It indicates that Belarusians are getting more and more tired of what is happening in their country – a price rise on essential commodities and constant struggle for survival. Nevertheless, the number of strikes is still relatively small in comparison to the scale of Belarusian economic problems, while in conversations with people you can still feel the fear of repressions similar to those following the presidential elections on 19 December 2010.
Belarusian opposition had not found its feet in the whole election process. It can be justified by the fact that it is still feeling the effects of the defeat it suffered after the presidential elections a year ago. However, activists of various parties were not able to overcome mutual enmity and join forces for the second most important (at least in theory) political event in the country. The problem regards defining the strategy during the election campaign. Some parties believed that participation in the elections would mean not only recognition of regime’s legitimacy, but a betrayal of political prisoners. Others argued that if political parties want to convey their message across to voters, they should participate in the campaign and at the most withdraw just before the voting, to show their disagreement with actions of Belarusian authorities. Consolidation of forces would be particularly desirable not only due to a positive image of opposition, but also from a pragmatic point of view – parties did not have enough local activists. Preparations of the programme were also not so good and, as a result, opposition lost the chance to convey it to people. The programme could help ordinary Belarusians to realize that in their country there are still political prisoners and human rights violations.
Teddy Troops and other alternative topics.
The most powerful act in the campaign was performed probably by Swedish “Teddy Troops”, when a light aircraft illegally crossed the Belarusian border and dropped teddy bears with democratic slogans. Initially, Belarusian authorities denied that the incident occurred in reality, but later Alexander Lukashenko dismissed the head of the State Border Committee and the Commander of the Air Force, and in addition the Minister of Defence, Chief of Staff, Secretary of the Security Council and the head of the KGB all received warnings. The teddy bears also caused a falling off in the Belarusian-Swedish relations. Belarus denied a visa extension for the Swedish Ambassador, Stefan Eriksson. In response Swedes did not give accreditation to the new Belarusian ambassador in Sweden and recalled other members of their embassy in Minsk. Sweden and other Scandinavian countries are currently represented by Estonia, whose embassy in the capital is the smallest of all the EU embassies.
Another event that overshadowed the parliamentary election campaign, were changes in the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs. Sergei Martynov, who had held this position since 2003, was replaced by Vladimir Makey, the former head of the Presidential Administration. And the place of the head of the Presidential Administration was occupied by a former ambassador of Belarus in Moscow (formerly the Deputy Prime Minister), Andrei Kobyakov. Thus, it was only a technical exchange and the rumours that Mackey’s promotion was stimulated by the KGB have not been confirmed. Initially, the appointment of Mackey could be perceived as a surprising step – the Minister of Foreign Affairs, whose role is to maintain relations with the EU countries, was not permitted to enter the Schengen area. However, the first reaction of Brussels, which claimed that it would cooperate with Makey just like with its predecessor, shows that the one of the Lukashenko’s trustees most likely will be eliminated from the black list. Makey’s main task seems to be, as it was in 2008-2010, restoration of relations between Belarus and the EU.
The portrait of a candidate
The lack of significance of the Parliament in the Belarusian political system is also obvious due to the fact that the very status of the House of Representatives member is not particularly valued. Only 365 candidates were contesting for the 110 seats in Parliament (interestingly, in 2008 the Central Election Commission registered the same number of candidates). From opposition parties there were registered candidates from the Liberal Democratic Party (93), the United Civic Party (48), Belarusian Left Party “Fair World” (32), the Belarusian National Front (33) and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party “Gramada” (15 ). However, several opposition candidates – including leader of the movement “For Freedom” Milinkevich and representative of the movement “Tell the Truth” Mikhail Pashkevich – were refused registration. The reason that was pointed out, was, for example, an error in a tax return.
An average candidate portrait reflects a middle-aged man working in the public sector. Only 5.8 percent of candidates currently hold the position of a deputy, also among them there are 19 percent of women (despite the recommendation of President Lukashenko that they should constitute one third of candidates) and only 9 percent of all candidates are under 30. Among the potential deputies there are 8 percent of pensioners, almost 9 percent – unemployed, and the majority of the rest works in the public sector and public enterprises. This does not bode well, neither for institutional continuity of the Belarusian parliament nor for the quality of new members’ work, which is likely to turn again to direct execution of presidential decrees.
It’s counting that matters, not voting itself
Apparently, Belarus has an extremely liberal electoral code. Anybody who collects 10 signatures, including family and friends, can easily become a candidate. However, problems begin even before the official registration. Independent media warned that fraud began right ahead. As one of the opposition candidates claimed, she was denied registration on 22 August – the day before the end of the procedure. That day the Central Election Commission had already published the ballots in the electoral district № 91 in Minsk.
Though, this was not the only trouble for opposition candidates. As we all know, the key is the moment of voting. Yet election commissions would not include opposition representatives who could monitor the vote count. Also serious concerns appear around the process of early voting (at night it is virtually impossible to control what happens to the ballot box, therefore anything can happen, including a full replacement of casted votes) and voting abroad. And all citizens who depend on the state apparatus are forced to participate, especially in the early voting. Soldiers, students living in dormitories, public sector, workers of state enterprises (most common for Belarus) – everyone is urged to vote in advance by their leaders, bosses and teachers. In addition, there are surprising methods of forming the lists of voters, for example in Orsha invitations to the elections were sent even to dead people, which draws to suspicion that their presence on the lists can be used for rigging and getting fake votes on their behalf. Therefore, it is unlikely that any candidate from the opposition can be elected.
Probably the saddest part of it is the fact that everybody understands the facade role of the Belarusian Parliament. The institution, which should be the center of political life, remains in the shadows of the presidential palace, and during the last four years MPs have exercised the right of legislative initiative only three times.
The author is an analyst of PISM, the Polish Institute of International Affairs.