By David Marples
Elections to the House of Representatives, the lower house of the two-chamber parliament, are to be held on September 28 in Belarus. As with previous election campaigns, there is intense international interest in the nature of the campaign, how democratically it will be conducted, and how opposition candidates will be treated and given access to the official media.
Once again the Central Election Commission (CEC) is headed by Lidziya Yarmoshyna, a close associate of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who rarely refrains from politicized comments. She has already noted that as the electorate shows little interest in political parties, the candidates from such parties, mainly from the opposition, are unlikely to win seats. In 2004, 28 of the 274 people nominated by the opposition were accepted to the district electoral commissions that supervise the registration of candidates, while this year the CEC has accepted 38 out of 118 nominees, a somewhat better share, though only about a one-third acceptance rate (www.naviny.by, July 18).
By late July 448 candidates had declared their intention to run for office, an average of more than four per seat in the 110-seat lower house. Of these, 334 candidates do not have any party affiliation. Of the remaining 114, the opposition political parties’ totals are as follows: Belarusian Popular Front, 22 candidates; Party of Communists of Belarus, 18; Social Democrats supporting Alyaksandr Kazulin, 18; and Social Democrats supporting Stanislau Shushkevich, 6.
One candidate only is running for the Liberal Democratic Party led by Syarhey Haidukevich, although this party has declared that its priority is the presidential election campaign anticipated to be held in 2011 (Belorusy i Rynok, July 28-August 4).
The opposition is divided into four wings. First, the United Democratic Forces (UDF), which comprises the Popular Front, the United Civic Party, the Party of Communists under Syarhey Kalyakin, and the Kazulin-led Social Democrats. Second, the unregistered movement “For Freedom” led by former presidential UDF candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich. Third is the Euro-alliance led by Mikola Statkevich. Finally, there are the Social Democrats under former parliamentary chairman Shushkevich (1991-1994). Both the Popular Front and the Kazulin Social Democrats suffer, however, from internal splits. Both have congresses in the coming week that could clarify these problems.
The opposition in general has found it difficult to meet the cost of running candidates, which is about 10 times higher than in the past. Both Shushkevich and Popular Front leader Lyavon Barcheuski have threatened to boycott the elections. The former expressed his frustration that several “prominent persons” had been denied a position on the electoral commissions (www.naviny.by, July 18), while Barcheuski suggested that if the proceedings clearly violated democratic practices, the UDF could impose a boycott just prior to the vote. At least one Popular Front candidate, Svyatlana Lapitskaya, has already withdrawn from the contest because of what she perceives as the cynical attitude of the authorities and the preordained results in favor of the ruling party (www.charter97.org, August 1).
On July 31 the CEC announced the rules for campaigning, which appear somewhat more tolerant than in past elections. Candidates are permitted to publish their programs, up to a maximum of 4,000 characters, in official newspapers, including Zvyazda, Narodna hazeta (the official parliamentary newspaper), Respublika, and Belorusskaya niva, as well as in oblast and rayon-level newspapers. Statements on radio and television must be pre-recorded, perhaps to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing (to the government) TV appearance of Kazulin in the 2006 presidential election (www.naviny.by, July 31).
Seven hundred international observers, divided equally between the OSCE and the CIS countries, have been invited to monitor the elections. Of the OSCE representatives, 50 are long-term and will start to arrive in Belarus on August 11 and 12; the remaining 300 will arrive shortly before the election date. The CIS long-term observers arrived in Belarus on July 29 (http://law.by/work/EnglPortal.nsf/0/A1F7ED5FE94888FFC2257490004C5877? OpenDocument).
Belarus is making some efforts to give the appearance of a more democratic election than in the past. This is a calculated risk. Polls suggest that those candidates supporting the policies of Lukashenka have a clear advantage and are also more popular than candidates clearly associated with the opposition (about 50 percent and 18 percent, respectively, in terms of popular support, according to Gallup). Thus, permitting some leeway to opposition candidates in an election that is unlikely to make much difference to the existing power structure seems to be a good way to acquire more international sympathy, particularly from the EU. The acting head of the U.S. Embassy in Belarus, Jonathan Moore, has also said that if the elections are perceived as democratic and fair, the United States may review its current policy toward Belarus, which includes sanctions on the petrochemical company Belnafttakhim and a ban on travel by Lukashenka and his cabinet (www.charter97.org, July 7).
For the opposition, the elections are an opportunity to address the public and a dry run for the presidential elections in three years. However, the plethora of different camps does not augur well for the future. The unity of 2006, which caused serious problems to the presidential campaign of Lukashenka, appears to have dissipated. The opposition may yet recognize that despite its obvious malevolence and cynicism, the statement by Yarmoshyna rings true. The best hope for the opposition lies in unity that is outside the spectrum of factionalized political parties, which have few grassroots connections.