Belarus: Presidential Election Campaign Ready To Start In Earnest
By Valentinas Mite
On 17 February Belarus will officially announce the names of people registered to run for election in the 19 March presidential poll. Of the four likely candidates, two are opposition figures -- Alyaksandr Kazulin and Alyaksandr Milinkevich. Some opposition supporters might have hoped the two would join forces, putting forth a single candidate who could provide more of a threat to incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. But Kozulin and Milinkevich are keeping their campaigns separate.
PRAGUE, 16 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Candidates for the March poll will be announced Friday, marking the start of a cramped campaign period that will last just one month.
Analysts expect four candidates will compete for the highest post in the country. They include incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Liberal Democratic Party leader Syarhey Haydukevich, and Social Democratic leader Alyaksandr Kazulin.
It may be a quiet campaign. Kiril Poznyak, the editor in chief of "Belaruskye novosti," says the candidates will have to ask permission to organize rallies.
"They will have the right to communicate legally with the population. They will be allowed to meet voters," Poznyak said. "However, restrictions are already being imposed. Authorities in Minsk have announced that in order to meet voters, they will need to get permission. However, the election law says no such permission is required."
The opposition considers this move unconstitutional.
A poll taken by the Gallup/Baltic Surveys in the first half of January found that nationwide, nearly 55 percent of Belarusians intend to vote for Lukashenka. For Milinkevich, that figure is just 17 percent.
Advantages Of Office
Poznyak says Lukashenka enjoys many advantages as an incumbent president.
"[State-owned] newspapers, radio [and TV] clearly favor Lukashenka, giving him the most attention. Practically some 70-90 percent of the media's focus is given to Lukashenka," Poznyak said. "Reports about him in the newspapers and on TV are largely positive. The attitude to opposition candidates is largely negative."
Officially, the candidates are prohibited from campaigning until their final registration is announced on 17 February. But authorities say Lukashenka's wave of media coverage is related not to the campaign but simply to information about his current presidential duties.
At the same time, Poznyak says, the state-owned media appears to be stepping up its critical coverage of the political opposition overall and the individual candidates in particular.
As the president, Lukashenka also has the protection of antidefamation legislation, which makes public criticism of him almost impossible.
Where's The Opposition?
Even without the support of the media, Lukashenka is likely to win the race. The odds are so overwhelmingly in his favor that many observers are wondering why the opposition was unable present a more serious challenge.
Valery Karbalevich, an analyst with Strategy, a Minsk-based political analysis center, says the political ambitions of Kazulin, a former rector of Belarusian State University, are to be blamed for the failure.
"From the very beginning, Alyaksandr Kazulin and his team did not participate in the opposition's coalition games. Their theory was that the opposition did not enjoy the support of society," Karbalevich said. "[They suggested] that some new people and some kind of third force should appear to oppose both Lukashenka and opposition."
Ambitions Outweigh Cause
Karbalevich says that Kazulin has continued along this path despite the fact that his popularity has registered at just 3 percent.
Poznyak of "Belaruskye novosti" says that both Kazulin and Milinkevich have put their ambitions ahead of the opposition's cause. He says both politicians suggested different scenarios for possible unification, but offered terms that were unacceptable to the other.
In the end, however, Poznyak says it is difficult to understand why Kozulin has chosen to go it alone.
"It is clear that both have ambitions. Of course, a stronger force is behind Milinkevich -- the united opposition," Poznyak said. "As far as Kazulin is concerned, he is supported only by one force -- the Belarusian Social Democratic party."
Both Milinkevich and Kozulin have repeatedly said that they will not entertain the idea of a partnership with the third candidate, Liberal Democratic Party leader Syarhey Haydukevich.
They say Haydukevich, a lawmaker in the House of the Representatives, is too close to President Lukashenka.
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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