Belarus: Country Headed For Another Phony Vote
By Jan Maksymiuk
Belarus will hold a presidential election on 19 March, in which incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will run for the third time in a row. Even the biggest optimists among the opposition do not dare to suggest that the Central Election Commission may announce anything else than a landslide victory for the incumbent. Why have polls in Belarus under Lukashenka become nothing more than frustrating exercises in simulated democracy?
On 8 February, Belarus's Central Election Commission said its territorial branches in Hrodna Oblast annulled ballot-access signatures collected for united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich in 10 of the oblast's 17 districts. According to the commission, more than 15 percent of signatures collected for Milinkevich in these districts were false or otherwise defective, which under electoral regulations in force disqualifies the lists altogether.
Alyaksandr Bukhvostau, Milinkevich's election team manager, said the annulment is a deliberate step by the authorities to discredit the united opposition candidate in his native region and undermine public trust in him. "We have Xerox copies of all signature lists and we are ready to check the authenticity of all the submitted signatures jointly with territorial election commissions, but have been told 'no' everywhere," he added.
Milinkevich reportedly submitted 198,000 signatures to support his presidential bid; that is, well in excess of the 100,000 required for his registration as a presidential candidate. But it's hard to say whether he is on the safe side during the ongoing checks of ballot-access signatures. If territorial commissions in Belarus's other five regions and the city of Minsk follow the example of those in Hrodna Oblast, he may simply be denied registration and eliminated from the presidential race.
The checking of signatures is only one stage of the tortuous process that opposition candidates face in order to challenge President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Since the opposition in Belarus has virtually no representatives in the power system, either at the central or regional level, it is completely at the mercy of the authorities, which not only set the rules of the electoral game but also interpret these rules in the way they want to. And no one can challenge these rules or their interpretations because there is no independent arbiter in the country. Belarus's judicial system is nothing more than a punishing arm of the executive.
Campaigning in Belarus is another problem. Campaigning is possible only after the registration of candidates, which is expected to take place close to 21 February, thus leaving the registered candidates only four weeks for promoting their bids among the electorate. Each of the registered candidates will obtain some $30,000 from the state to cover costs of his campaign. Exceeding this amount in campaign expenses is fraught with disqualification from the race.
Each of the candidates will also be offered two 30-minute appearances on state-run radio and another two on state-run television, where they may present their pre-recorded addresses to voters. If radio and television authorities deem the addresses inappropriate, they may ban them from being aired. Given Belarus's tight antidefamation legislation and lax rules of official interpretation of what defamation is, it is hardly possible for independent candidates to criticize the government of President Lukashenka during these broadcasts. There is no legal possibility for presidential candidates to place election advertisements on state-run television and radio apart from the above-mentioned appearances.>
Each of the registered candidates may also publish his election platform -- not exceeding 10,000 characters -- in seven nationwide state-run newspapers. And Central Election Commission Lidziya Yarmoshyna warned on 8 February that the candidates should not try to do so in non-state press. Yarmoshyna argued that giving a presidential candidate the opportunity to publish his articles in a non-state newspaper will be tantamount to providing illegal financial support, which in its turn may serve as a reason for the candidate's exclusion from the race.
And presidential candidates cannot meet with voters where they want. They may only meet at venues provided by local authorities. Of course, that's if the candidates are able to pay the rent without exceeding the authorized campaign fund.
Counting the ballots in Belarus is totally under the government's control. In theory, the electoral code allows political parties and nongovernmental organization to be represented on territorial election commissions. But in the practice of the past decade, the authorities did not let any meaningful group of opposition representatives or democratic-minded NGOs to participate in these commissions. This year they were extremely uncompromising -- out of 74,107 people selected for 6,586 precinct election commission, only two individuals represent the opposition parties.
Election observers, either international or domestic, do not add much to making the ballot counting more transparent and reliable -- observers are not allowed into the room where the process is taking place and may observe it only through an open door from an adjacent room. It has never happened in the past 10 years of Lukashenka's rule that the authorities allowed election monitors to recount the ballots at some precinct in order to compare their result with the official one. Indeed, even obtaining information about the number of eligible voters in a given precinct frequently proves to be an impossible task.
The strict campaign rules do not apply, of course, to the incumbent president. Lukashenka may advertise his presidential bid whenever and wherever he wants -- he may always claim that he speaks on election issues as the head of state, not as a presidential candidate. And he does not need to bother himself about his election fund. He simply does not have to pay for anything. And he may habitually call his political opponents "thug" (otmorozki) on television and describe them as mercenaries of the West, without bothering himself about defamation laws.
However, what the authorities are really concerned about is election turnout. The government does everything possible to show that Lukashenka's policies enjoy wide and enthusiastic popular support. Therefore, casting ballots in Belarus actually begins six days before the voting day, and people are encouraged by the government to vote early. And on the voting day the authorities at many polling stations offer vodka and sausages as well as other consumer goods at discount prices.
A poll taken by the Gallup/Baltic Surveys in the first half of January found that nationwide nearly 55 percent of Belarusians want to vote for Lukashenka and just 17 percent for Milinkevich. Practically, Lukashenka could win in a fully democratic ballot. But he has his own way of handling elections. His own pollster, the Institute for Social and Political Studies, immediately reacted by saying that in a poll it held in December, 77 percent of respondents said they wanted to vote for the incumbent. According to the presidential institute, support for any other presidential candidate did not exceed 2 percent. Some Belarusian independent observers, leaning on the experience of previous election campaigns in the country, have opined that 77 percent is the minimum that Lukashenka would tolerate to see as his result in the Central Election Commission's protocol after the 19 March vote.
Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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