Parliamentary Elections: Looking Towards the Not-So-Distant Future

by Viltali Silitski
Ahead of the forthcoming Parliamentary Elections (according to Central Election Commission, first round would be October 12, 2008), the Belarusian opposition is now starting to develop a strategy for the Parliamentary elections.  But these preparations may be well overshadowed by several surprise strikes by the authorities.

Ahead of the forthcoming Parliamentary Elections (according to Central Election Commission, first round would be October 12, 2008), the Belarusian opposition is now starting to develop a strategy for the Parliamentary elections. A question remains whether Alexander Milinkevich's “Za Svobodu” movement will take part in the elections as a separate entity, while currently it is their stated intention that Movement as a whole does not intend to put its candidates. However, it will support party and non-party candidates who they consider 'share the Movement's values' as well intending to concentrate on candidates training, information and nationwide campaign of presenting candidates to be members of electoral commissions. Such an approach, though, might be contradiction as it is hardly expectable that UDF will agree the “outsource” the campaign for “Za svabodu”. 
The bottom line is that many opposition activists are very hesitant about running in the elections, thus the opposition is expected to have hard to present credible candidates in all districts. Activists who have run in previous elections and have been defrauded of their wins in many cases see little sense in running in what they expect to again be falsified elections which they could not "win" anyway.
Meanwhile there are some opinions according to which the authorities may call elections early. In this case the current state of opposition unable to field candidates and continuing the internal disputes. The authorities may also come under further international pressure to change the electoral legislation. Indeed there is some speculation that the Belarusian authorities may try and create the illusion of a relatively free election, especially if they continue to see the opposition divided.
According to this logic, Lukashenka in particular wish to hold the elections before the Russian Presidential Election scheduled for March 2008 – as until then the eyes of the Kremlin will be focused on internal issues. Another push towards the early elections might be the attempt to improve the regime’s position in negotiations with the European Union: the parliament elected in a relatively free (but not fair) process - a la Russia might be a bargaining chip in the regime’s negotiations with the EU on the whole range of political and economic issues. Given the developing “Belarus fatigue” in the EU, such a move might be a perfect counterattack to convince Europe and many of its member states towards de-facto recognition and engagement (and dropping most of the sanctions) regardless of the real life progress on such issues as political liberalization, suspension of political repression, freeing the press, or respecting the rights of non-governmental organizations and trade unions. By relaxing a bit of the election rules and allowing some opposition members to be elected (most likely, such deputies will be carefully pre-selected among more inefficient opposition candidates or representatives of phony opposition parties like the Liberal Democrats, or some mixture of both), the regime will sacrifice a little in attempt to gain a lot. A “normally” elected Belarusian Parliament would and would pay the way toward the membership to the Council of Europe (CoE), where Belarus is the only non-member European country (what is basically the declared goal of the CoE). 
One hint that can point to such development is the formation of a new pro-presidential public association ‘Belaya Rus’ (White Russia) that seems to be an “adult” copy of the Belarusian Republican Union of Youth (BRSM). If the BRSM was created with a clear purpose to formalize control over younger generation, the regime definitely does not need such a body for older generations, for it possess more than sufficient mechanisms of control, such as contract system etc. The organization is also useless as an instrument of support mobilization for the Lukashenka’s regime controls the population by employing demobilizing mechanisms, such as propaganda and media spin. It is possible that the purpose of Belaya Rus is just to be one of those government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) that cheerlead for the government and create a semblance of a public support for it on the international arena and inside the country. Some of the regime with similar structure (or Vladimir Putin in Russia and Ilkham Aliev in Azerbaijan) use this strategy intensively to discredit and crowd out the real opposition. But this strategy is a part of the ‘imitating democracy’ project, something that Lukashenka in Belarus never did – he relied solely on his charisma and direct one-way communication with the society, not on the intermediaries, the very idea of whom was rejected by the philosophy of his rule. This way or another, we are approaching the beginning of Lukashenka’s own ‘imitation’ project, which hints at a serious, if not fundamental, transformation of the logic on which the Belarusian power operates.
So, the theory says, ‘Belaya Rus’ could have been created as a potential prototype for a presidential party in order to activate it once the regime chooses to call elections and even experiment with the party lists. The long list of luminaries and celebrities on the Belaya Rus roster guarantees at least a neutral to positive public perception of this organization compared to much-defamed opposition. Alternatively, ‘Belaya Rus’ may be presented to the society as a ‘constructive opposition’, in line with the recent announcement of the chairman of the pro-presidential Federation of Trade Unions Leanid Kozik that his federation is switching to the opposition to the government over the cancellation of a row of social privileges (but not president, of course, even though Lukashenka himself endorsed the reform of social privileges).Then, the political “pluralism” in Belarus will possibly consist of a competition between the presidential vertical, on one hand, and the “Belaya Rus” and the Federation of trade unions, on the other.
The stage for early elections may be set by the resignation or dismissal of the government of prime minister Siarhej Sidorski, who was “hired” to negotiate with Russia mainly. Technically, the arranged refusal of a House of Representatives to approve the candidacy of a new prime minister twice leads to automatic dissolution of the legislation. Alternatively, the parliament may solicit legislation in a Kazakhstani-style request.
Although this theory may be far-fetched, the experience with the March 2006 presidential elections shows it can not be discarded altogether. The price to be paid is completely disunited and disorganized opposition set to a failure similar to the one the opposition suffered in the January 2007 local elections. Such a scenario may drive a final nail into the coffin of the Belarusian opposition that will be abandoned by its following, donors, saying not about the society. The engagement with Lukashenka by the West on most unfavorable for Belarusian democrats terms in such case will be more than a certain scenario. The opposition has to understand that it is in its best interests to avoid it. Accordingly, it should plan for early elections, regardless of whether or not they will be called, right now and complete basic pre-election coalition arrangements by the end of September at the very latest.