Continuing our series of election reports in conjunction with Electoral Studies, the following post-election report on last month’s Belarusian parliamentary election is presented by Dr. Matthew Frear of the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK.
Parliamentary elections held on 23 September 2012 followed a familiar pattern. All deputies, elected through first-past-the-post, single-mandate constituencies, loyally support the Belarusian authorities. Based on official results no opposition candidates were elected, and the opposition itself was divided over tactics. International observers from the OSCE/ODIHR* criticised the election for its limited competition and lack of transparency.
These were the first national elections to be held since President Alexander Lukashenko’s own disputed re-election in December 2010 and the subsequent crackdown against opposition forces. While there was solidarity over political prisoners, attempts by the opposition to agree a joint plan of action in 2012 floundered. A ‘Coalition of the Six’, made up of the Belarusian Left Party (BLP) ‘Fair World’, the civic initiatives Tell the Truth and Movement ‘For Freedom’, the United Civic Party (UCP), the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) and the unregistered party Belarusian Christian Democracy (BCD), quickly descended into figurative and literal infighting.
The authorities registered more opposition candidates than in 2008, in part due to a simplification of the electoral code. Around 130 individual and party candidates successfully registered. Many others were still denied registration, usually for trivial reasons. Opposition forces were divided on what to do next:
- BCD, the civic initiative European Belarus and several youth organisations supported a boycott, arguing it was morally wrong to participate with a dozen political prisoners still in Belarusian jails.
- BPF and UCP successfully nominated 65 candidates between them and took advantage of the opportunity to campaign, but withdrew their candidates at the last minute to protest the unfair election process and the detainment of political prisoners.
- BLP ‘Fair World’ and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), with 40 candidates between them, participated fully in the election. Movement ‘For Freedom’ lent their support to a number of independent candidates that also did not withdraw, while around a dozen regional activists from Tell the Truth also opted to stand as independents.
As in previous years, the largest group of candidates (over 150) were those not affiliated to any party, the majority of which could be relied on to be loyal to the government. The largest party represented on ballot papers was the misleadingly named Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) with 70 candidates. Although it styles itself as an opposition party, it does not work with other opposition groups and is tolerated by the authorities in order to provide the semblance of competition. After the withdrawal of opposition candidates late in the campaign, a single candidate contested the election unopposed in 16 out of 110 constituencies.
In the formation of election commissions to oversee voting and counting, opposition parties were almost completely excluded, making up only 0.1% of the membership of commissions in polling stations nationwide. Commissions were dominated by pro-government bodies, particularly the public association Belaya Rus, as well as loyal parties including the Communist Party of Belarus (CPB), Republican Party of Labour and Justice (RPLJ) and Belarusian Agrarian Party (BAP).
The election campaign itself was extremely quiet. National news was dominated by the technicalities of the election and its smooth administration, but candidates themselves, of whatever stripe, were all but ignored. The Central Election Commission (CEC) chose to censor any opposition materials or broadcasts advocating a boycott of the election. Ironically, state TV reported on this decision, thereby informing viewers of the existence of a boycott campaign. Where the opposition could campaign, its focus was often on itself: their lack of representation of election commissions, political prisoners, and appeals for a boycott. Some independent candidates however did run grassroots campaigns more focused on issues relevant to voters in their constituency.
Independent opinion polling three months before the election highlighted public disillusionment. Only 37% thought the elections would be free and fair, and almost 55% did not believe the results would reflect actual voting. Nearly half of respondents doubted that the future deputies would represent the interests of the society, but only 38% believed that opposition candidates presented a credible alternative. Regarding the boycott campaign, 14% responded positively towards it, but twice as many had not heard about it at all.
With opposition calls for a boycott and a requirement for 50% turnout in a constituency for the result to be valid, the authorities were keen to ensure good turnout. With polling stations open for five days before election day itself, many students, soldiers and public employees were encouraged or forced to vote early. Encouragement came through appeals to civic duty or promises of extra days off, but managers, directors and dormitory supervisors could also enforce participation by giving time off work or class and providing transport to take groups to polling stations to vote.
According to official CEC results, turnout nationwide was 74.6%, although in the capital, Minsk, it was only 59.2%. A quarter of voters cast their ballot during the five days of early voting. No opposition candidates garnered enough votes to be elected deputy for the third successive election. In one constituency, where only a LDP nominee was standing, the candidate failed to be elected as most voted ‘against all’. In all other 109 constituencies, the deputy was elected outright in the first round. Loyal political parties secured only five seats – three for BCP and one each for RPLJ and BAP. The remaining 104 went to individual, pro-regime candidates. Only 20% of deputies had sat in the previous parliament.
BCD, which had backed a boycott, was quick to claim that actual turnout was half the official figure. Reports from opposition and independent domestic observers identified cases of inflated turnout, particularly during early voting. Counting and tabulation procedures were heavily criticised, with neither observers nor individual members of election commissions able to verify the fairness or accuracy of the count in many cases. Ballot counting was usually conducted in silence and with the decision on the final results resting solely in the hand of the commission chair, who was often the direct superior of the other members of the commission at their common place of work and therefore unlikely to be challenged.
Ultimately, parliament is of very little importance in Belarusian domestic politics. It has no say over the shape of government or nomination of the prime minister. It is merely a rubber-stamp body which almost never initiates its own legislation. Watching state news the day after the election, a viewer would hear nothing about who actually won the elections, with the focus instead on how smoothly and efficiently the election process had run. The elections exist to provide the veneer of electoral legitimacy to the regime, and equally important, to demonstrate that the opposition has been comprehensively beaten. Electing deputies to represent the collective will of voters is not a priority.
With 63 of the deputies in parliament now also members of the pro-regime public association Belaya Rus, there will be renewed calls for the organisation to be transformed into a ruling political party. Lukashenko himself has previously resisted such demands, unwilling to create either an unnecessary layer between him and ‘his’ public, or a potential rival power base. While the opposition were under no illusion that the authorities would actually allow them to win any seats, they once again failed to agree on either a strategy or a common platform which offered a coherent alternative to the electorate. They will now begin a new cycle of debate, disagreement and possible consolidation on the road to the 2015 presidential election. Finally, voters themselves remain highly apathetic towards, and disinterested in, both the authorities and the opposition.
* Frear was a short-term observer for the UK delegation on the OSCE/ODHR election observation mission.
[Photo Credit: Matthew Frear. Picture is of the Belarusian national library.]