Belarus on the Eve of the Parliamentary Elections on 11 September
This coming Sunday, Belarus is holding parliamentary elections for the 6th convocation of its National Assembly. 110 deputies of the House of Representatives (the lower chamber) will be elected in a direct popular vote in single-mandate constituencies, where first-past-the-post voting takes place. In a parallel process, six regional legislative councils and the legislature of the City of Minsk as well as president Aliaksandr Lukashenka will delegate 64 members to the Council of the Republic (the upper chamber), each selecting 8 regional representatives.
As the Belarusian political system is heavily dominated by the president, both chambers of the parliament play an insignificant role. Political debates are almost non-existent. Out of the 110 outgoing members of the lower chamber, only five represent political parties. The legislative power of the House of Representatives, which it shares with the Council of Ministers and the president, is limited: The outgoing MPs initiated only three(!) draft laws during their four-year term.
Nevertheless, both Minsk and Brussels see the upcoming parliamentary elections as an important milestone. It is the last major political campaign in the country before the 2020 presidential elections and will, thus, have a medium-term impact on the developments in Belarus-EU relations.
The parliamentary campaign is taking place against a challenging situation in the region. The crisis in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, as well as the geopolitical tensions in the relations between Russia and the West, have considerably impacted on public and government discourses in Belarus. Minsk has been actively pursuing rapprochement with the EU and the USA since the end of 2012 (before that relations saw a steep decline as a result of the crackdown on demonstrators in December 2010 and a series of diplomatic scandals), with events in Ukraine clearly giving a strong additional impetus.
In August 2015, President Lukashenka pardoned the last remaining political prisoners and, thus, removed the main obstacle on the way to an enhanced dialogue with the West. The presidential elections in October 2015 were peaceful and even saw some minor procedural improvements. In addition, at the height of the presidential campaign the president went public with rejecting the idea of deploying a Russian airbase in Belarus – in spite of widely circulated statements by Russia’s government and Ministry of Defense that agreement on the airbase had been reached.
In February 2016, the EU lifted almost all sanctions vis-à-vis Belarus, which Minsk perceived very favorably and as an opening of a new chapter in Belarus-EU relations. Official Belarus now aims at broadening the agenda of the relations and sees two main items as priorities:
1. Prospects for easing the visa regime (the Belarusian government is expected to adopt a law granting visa-free entry to EU citizens wishing to stay in Belarus for up to 5 days);
2. Prospects for starting negotiations on a bilateral agreement (Belarus remains the only Eastern Partnership country without a bilateral agreement with the EU).
The Belarusian authorities extended invitations to the OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to send long- and short-term election observers. The OSCE/ODIHR alone will have some 50 long-term and 400 short-term monitors on the ground.
Domestic Political Background
In the Belarusian political system, the role of political parties, both pro-governmental and oppositional, remains minimal. Besides multiple restrictions that the system imposes on political parties and movements, most of them fail to use even the limited opportunities that do exist for promoting themselves. For example, as an analysis of party platforms and programmes reveals, the majority of political parties either do not have fully-fledged party programmes at all or their quality leaves much to be desired. Not surprisingly, therefore, most party candidates find it difficult to debate concrete policy issues, including during the ongoing elections campaign.
Recent years have seen a further marginalisation of opposition parties, which are experiencing an identity crisis. Some of their traditional slogans (for example about independence, the Belarusian language, and national history) are being gradually taken over by the government. Moreover, continuous internal fighting and scandals have plagued coalition-building attempts.
Against this background, a relative achievement has been demonstrated by an informal ad hoc center-right oppositional coalition: the United Civil Party, the For Freedom Movement (unregistered) and the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party (unregistered). Given the registered status of the UCP, some candidates from the FFM and BCDP are running as UCP candidates. The three organisations are also coordinating some of their election activities.
Pro-government political parties and big NGOs are traditionally active in elections and government-sponsored campaigns (where they delegate candidates and representatives to election commissions), but remain largely unknown to the general public. A noteworthy trend of recent years has been an obvious attempt by the biggest pro-government parties and NGOs with political ambitions (first of all, the NGO Belaya Rus) to lobby the strengthening of the party system (including by reforming the electoral system). Interestingly, this idea is now gaining presence in the state media.
There are no freshly available data on public opinion and political constellations on the eve of the elections. The latest relevant poll took place in June and only a few elections-related questions were asked. In particular, about 52% of the voters said they were planning to cast their vote.
As the level of recognition of the political parties is extremely low, the pollsters asked a particularly-designed question to find out electoral preferences:
“What kind of candidate do you prefer to support?”
One who supports President Lukashenka: 25.0%
One who is in opposition to President Lukashenka: 26.4%
Another candidate: 24.5%
Don’t know/No answer: 24.1%
Election Code and Organisation of the Elections
The Election Code, which is often an object of criticism by the opposition and international observers, was adopted in 2000. It was last significantly amended in 2013 (the absolute majority system was replaced by relative majority and, thus, no second rounds are held any longer; a ban on calls for an election boycott was introduced) and 2015 (election-related foreign funding was criminalised).
In February 2016, an Inter-Agency Working Group was set to consider prior OSCE/ODIHR recommendations on improving the electoral process. Up to date, the group submitted seven recommendations to the Central Election Commission related to various technical aspects of the elections. The CEC accepted some of the recommendations and stated that a more serious consideration of OSCE/ODIHR recommendations can take place after the elections (as some of them will require legal amendments that cannot be implemented close to the election date).
Another novelty of this campaign is the establishment of the Media Supervisory Board under the CEC to oversee the coverage of the campaign in the media and review media-related disputes. The Board consists of eight members (including the Chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, which is considered by the government as an opposition-minded NGO). The Board may issue non-binding recommendations to the CEC.
The following procedural issues are among the biggest concerns expressed by the opposition and international monitors:
• Lack of a centralised voter register.
• The role of the executive in the appointment and work of election commissions;
• The regulation and transparency of signature collection and verification procedures;
• The grounds for candidate deregistration;
• Dispute resolution.
Candidates Nomination and Registration
Candidates can be nominated by one (or more than one) of the following means:
1. By political parties;
2. By labor collectives;
3. By an initiative group of at least ten voters through the collection of 1,000 supporting signatures.
Out of 630 nominated candidates, 521 were initially registered. More than 20 registered candidates have withdrawn so far.
In spite of the overall marginal status of political parties, they are actively participating in the current campaign. Out of the 521 initially registered candidates, 331 are party-affiliated candidates (some oppositional contenders have indicated a possibility of withdrawing a day before the vote).
However, the campaign itself is not very visible. There is little activity in constituencies, especially in regions. Candidates’ appearances on TV, radio and in newspapers are mainly limited to the time and space guaranteed by the Election Code: 5 minutes of air time for each candidate, 5 minutes of debate time for each candidate, and the right to publish each candidate’s programme in a local newspaper.
On the opposition side the parties (and unregistered movements and campaigns) with the biggest number of candidates are: the United Civil Party, the Belarusian Popular Front, the For Freedom movement, the Tell the Truth campaign, the United Left Party Fair World, and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party “Hramada”.
On the pro-governmental side the most active are: the NGO Belaya Rus (which has a long-standing ambition to become the ruling party), the Communist Party of Belarus, the Republican Party of Labor and Justice, and the Belarusian Patriotic Party.
In contrast to the 2012 parliamentary campaign, the current elections look slightly more competitive. Four years ago it was easy to guess who the winner in each constituency would be by simply looking at the candidates’ lists – the so-called “winning candidate” was easy to single out (it would be a pro-government candidate with a typical professional and personal background). This time, many constituencies have several contenders that look like a “winning candidate”. In this way, it has become less obvious to project the election outcome in each constituency. It might be the case that the authorities are trying to increase the level of electoral competitiveness among pro-government candidates.
As always, the most intriguing question is whether, at least, a single oppositional candidate will make it into parliament. Such a probability remains low. At the same time, the number of party-affiliated MPs in the new convocation of both chambers of the parliament is expected to go up.
If no major scandal breaks out on or after the voting day, the OSCE/ODIHR monitors are likely to produce a report similar to the one circulated after the 2015 presidential elections. The latter’s gist can be summarized in the following lines:
“Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments for democratic elections. This underscores the need for the political will to engage in a comprehensive reform process. Some specific improvements and a welcoming attitude were noted.”