Elections or Boycott as Elements of the Opposition Zugzwang

By Dzianis Melyantsou, Alexei Pikulik (BISS)

http://interpolit.net/upload/news1326710279.jpgBelarus’ forthcoming parliamentary elections have sparked a debate over the format of the participation/non-participation of the opposition in the elections. Both the opponents and advocates of the election boycott are finding sufficient reasons to substantiate their positions. However, neither side is capable of breaking away from the electoral rules of the game, imposed by the authorities, and admitting that both the boycott and running for seats in the lower chamber are no-win scenarios for the opposition.

At the same time, a nationwide campaign by the opposition with the use of legal instruments offered under the framework of the elections, but conducted under its own initiative and with clearly defined objectives

Vital Rymasheuski, Anatol Liabedzka, Siarhei Kaliakin, Aliaksandr Milinkevich.
Photo by interpolit.net

will be the only chance for the opposition to struggle out of the long-term opposition “ghetto”. A campaign to collect signatures to call a national referendum on an issue that would mobilise Belarusian society could become such a nationwide effort for the opposition (these could be issues ranging from the elective office of the regional governors and heads of city administrations, to a limitation on the number of presidential terms). Only this policy can help the opposition avoid a losing-strategy and the “prisoner’s dilemma” from game theory.

The opposition’s dilemma
In the existing political context, the approach of the Belarusian opposition to the parliamentary elections slated for this autumn is a very hard dilemma: participation in the elections or the staging of a boycott.

Participation in the parliamentary elections holds both benefits and risks for democratic forces. The main advantages are the opportunity to
communicate with voters legitimately, test “muscles” and structures and to train young party members, and to facilitate inflows of additional funds.

The drawbacks of participation in an election campaign are manifested in the moral argument imbued by the existence of political prisoners.

Other risks lie in legitimising the authorities and contributing to the illusion of a competitive electoral process, in addition to losing the “opposition electorate” and seeing the opposition defeated. Boycott supporters demonstrate the need to make the moral choice between the forces of “good” and “evil”, saying that it would be unacceptable to participate amid repeated stealing of elections, repression and the existence of political prisoners.

There are serious counterarguments to a boycott. We believe that the main one is the self-elimination of the opposition from the political
The idea of an “active boycott” can only be good as an idealistic construct that is capable of dealing with the dilemma of the
collective action of the opposition and can serve as a perfect excuse. A boycott will come to banal idleness and passive observation. A boycott is therefore a means to communicate within the opposition, not with society. Second, in the current political framework an election boycott is hardly feasible. In order to persuade 30%-40% of voters not to go to polling stations, the main objective of the boycott, the opposition needs to enjoy massive support, which it clearly lacks now. Moreover, the opposition parties cannot agree on a single election-boycotting or participation campaign, whereas the unanimity of their approaches is an indispensable condition for efficient canvassing. Third, non-participation of oppositionists in the election will make life easier for the authorities, who will not have to resort to ballot rigging. This helps the regime deal with the problem of holding a model election campaign to showcase it to the West. Fourth, there is little need to prove to the population that the reality differs from the pictures broadcast by the regime, another major objective of the boycott.

So, the boycott of the elections and engagement of the opposition parties both appear to put the opposition in zugzwang in chess terms: any move weakens its position. The boycott adds to the marginalisation of the opposition, whereas the involvement in the elections legitimises the election campaign and further weakens the opposition, leading to another defeat and post-election depression.

The authorities’ dilemma
The Belarusian authorities have a dilemma of their own to deal with: the choice between a possible, albeit currently unnecessary, good-will gesture meant for the West (a liberal campaign, although with a predictable result) and keeping the political freeze and total control of the situation.

A liberal campaign similar to that conducted in 2008 might help partially restore the balance in Belarus’ foreign policy, the more so because the relationship with Russia may regress after the March 2012 presidential election in that country. This is connected to the inevitable pressure of the integration projects. On the other hand, “loosening the grip” too much when the economic situation might further deteriorate can have unpredictable consequences, especially during the elections.

One should not think that everything is predetermined – the hegemony of the regime calls for an active adjustment of institutions, and changes may be sudden and inconspicuous. Properly speaking, the regime and the opposition are playing a complex prisoner’s dilemma. However, the authorities are trying to make the opposition play an internal game of participation=betrayal vs. boycott=stupidity.

Neither the elections nor the boycott

In our opinion, to deal with this zugzwang situation, the opposition needs to revise the objectives of its activity and break away from the scenario imposed by the regime. First, it is important to abandon the election discourse. The opposition cannot influence the rules of the game, therefore, it should give up the term “election” at all, when speaking about the 2012 campaign, in order not to mislead themselves, their supporters and the population.

Second, it can and it must use the legal possibility to communicate with the population within the official election campaign. This communication should not take the form of election agitation but should be done in the framework of a nationwide outreach campaign of the opposition, which is connected neither thematically nor terminologically with the parliamentary elections.

Third, in the scope of this campaign, the opposition should set itself clear and specific objectives and targets that are realistic and public.

Fourth, the nationwide campaign of the opposition should finally let go of its traditional set of accusations of the regime and instead focus on bringing an alternative vision of the country’s development home to the population, a vision that is understood by the voter and shared by all opposition entities engaged in the campaign. The real objectives for the opposition must be a) to search for support among 60% of the population who according to recent polls trust neither the authorities nor the opposition, and b) to preserve and strengthen party structures.

Winning over at least a quarter of this non-aligned 60% would alone be a true achievement.

However, this scenario envisages certain preconditions for the campaign to achieve positive results:
1. The opposition players should join their efforts and appear before
the population as a united force.
2. The opposition should set forth a common political and economic platform, ideally a single Belarus development strategy that all the
participants in the campaign should share.
3. When embarking on this campaign, the opposition should enlist the support of civil society and independent media.

pikulik@belinstitute.eu, dzianis@belinstitute.eu