Belarus Election Campaign Breaks Mold

Anyone who thinks that this presidential election campaign in Belarus has been like any other over the past 16 years - tightly controlled and largely uneventful with a preordained outcome - hasn't been following closely.

Authoritarian incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will almost surely win a landslide victory once again on 19 December, but the campaign has been both far more interesting and more 'democratic' than at any point since Lukashenka started his long reign in 1994.

For a start, the nine challengers - a record for a Belarusian presidential election - have made for a vibrant campaign that presents a real choice to Belarusians. Candidates vary from nationalists to pro-Russian candidates; a businessman to a poet; former state officials to long-term Lukashenka critics; and party veterans to political neophytes. Adding to the spirited atmosphere is the controversial "Tell the Truth" movement of renowned writer Vladimir Niakliaev, which emerged this past spring to challenge Lukashenka, but has been dogged by rumors of financing by wealthy businessmen close to the Kremlin and accused of buying other opposition activists.

For the first time since 1994, the candidates took part in a highly entertaining television debate in early December - or rather most of the candidates. Lukashenka refused to take part, while main challenger Niakliaev walked out after a few minutes, saying the show was a farce without Lukashenka's participation. The rest of the candidates, however, made the most of the opportunity. Despite moderators obviously handpicked to bait the candidates into bickering and embarrassing themselves, the presidential hopefuls resisted the trap and surprised many doubters with their articulate answers. Some Belarusians called the show one of the best programs ever on Belarusian state television, known for its fawning attitude toward the president and criticism of the opposition.

Staged competition

Critics say, however, that this 'competition' is hardly impressive, and presents no risk to the authorities. "In many ways, this campaign looks freer than the previous one," says Andrei Khrapavitski, a researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences, a Belarusian think tank registered in Vilnius.

"Opposition candidates, indeed, have much more liberty to address voters, to hold meetings and so on," he said. "Still, most of these liberties are very superficial. There's no fairness in how much airtime is given to the incumbent and the rest. Opposition candidates are portrayed by the state-run media as a bunch of rascals having nothing to offer Belarusians but trouble."

Various 'administrative resources' (such as the tradition of organizing state employees, the military and others to vote for the president) guarantee that a large part of the vote will go in his favor anyway.

With so many weapons at Lukashenka's disposal, it is generally agreed that only a united opposition candidate, who could count on the votes of a wide range of groups, could seriously challenge the president. Even the very well-funded "Tell the Truth" campaign, which has hired top-rate professionals and enlisted thousands of supporters to fan out throughout the country, has generated opinion poll numbers that lag far behind those of Lukashenka.

The opposition, has, however, failed to unite. It is a far cry from 2006 when Alyaksandr Milinkevich, a regional NGO leader, ran as a common candidate after having been selected the year before at a Congress of Democratic Forces that collected more than 800 representatives of political parties, NGOs and other civil society groups. The effectiveness of the campaign behind Milinkevich and the widespread protests that followed the manipulated 2006 election should have set the stage for a coordinated strategy for taking advantages of that success and preparing for parliamentary elections in 2008 and this year's presidential vote. Instead, personal and party ambitions have derailed those hopes.

"What really saddens me is that Belarusian opposition has never been so divided during the presidential campaign," said Khrapavitski. "So many candidates confuse the electorate - in fact, it confuses even long-standing opposition supporters." That has made some wonder if the authorities surprisingly presented few obstacles toward registering so many candidates for precisely that reason.

Balancing act

Still it would be incorrect to assume that Lukashenka would lose a fair election. The most important issue to the vast majority of Belarusians remains the economy, and throughout the upheaval experienced elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, Lukashenka has managed to avoid economic freefall. Belarus may not resemble its neighbors Poland or Lithuania, but living standards have consistently improved. Despite predictions to the contrary, the archaic Belarus manufacturing model - heavily dependent on Russian raw materials and subsidies - has survived.

That stability has been achieved partly through Lukashenka's skillful balancing act between Russia and the West. When the economy seemed on the verge of collapse, the IMF stepped in with a $2.46 billion financial rescue package in January 2009. Lukashenka - the longtime pariah, often labeled the last 'dictator' in Europe - almost overnight recast himself as the man who would modernize Belarus and bring the country into the West. The president also instituted a series of liberalization reforms, though they have not done much to change the overall repressive atmosphere. The country even received an invitation to the EU's Eastern Partnership program. While Lukashenka still rails against western interference in Belarus' internal affairs, the relationship is no longer as black and white as in the past.

The same can be said about Russia. Over the past year, Lukashenka has publicly bickered with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev; the Russian state media have lampooned Lukaskenka; and during the campaign, other candidates have called for improved relations with Russia, while Lukashenka has tried to discredit Niakliaev by talking of his supposed Russian backers.

Yet last week, Lukashenka announced that Russia would not charge duties on the oil supplied to Belarus, saving the Belarusian regime up to $4 billion. The two countries, plus Kazakhstan, also pledged to create a customs union by 2012. "Medvedev said at the dinner, 'Lovers' quarrels are soon mended,'" Lukashenka, quipped, according to The Moscow Times. "Our relations worsened unexpectedly and will improve unexpectedly," he said. "We'll find the time to reconcile even if we fall out."

What comes next?

That Lukashenka will win the elections is a foregone conclusion. The question remains what will be an acceptable percentage for him and whether he will be tempted to order ballot boxes to be stuffed to ensure an ever larger victory that will 'demonstrate' that his power remains as strong as before. Even with OSCE election monitors present for the vote count for the first time since 1994, election fraud would be difficult to prevent: Not only do members of opposition parties comprise only a tiny fraction of electoral commissions, but tens of thousands of votes will likely be cast early (allowed under Belarusian law) and not under the glare of the observers.

A relatively clean election, on the other hand, would likely earn more points with the West and be another major step toward reconciliation and the likelihood that the West, with all its other problems at home and in the world, would tolerate a stable, semi-authoritarian state on its borders that inches toward greater freedoms for its citizens. Then again, last week's deal with Russia might have convinced Lukashenka that the financial benefits that would come with liberalization are no longer all that necessary.