Local Elections in Belarus - 25th April 2010

Domestic Election Monitoring

Local Elections in Belarus - 25th April 2010
Report №1:

European Exchange and Belarusian Human Rights Defenders begin their Monitoring of the Local Elections in Belarus
In Belarus, elections to the local councils are being held on the 25th April. European Exchange is continuing its cooperation with the Minsk Human Rights Organisations – the Human Rights Center ‘Viasna’ and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee – which began during the Belarusian parliamentary elections in 2008. This year, it is again reporting on the developments of the elections. The election monitoring campaign, ‘Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections’, which was initiated in 2008, has since received the award ‘Civil Campaign of the Year 2008’ from the Association of Pro-Democratic Nongovernmental Organisations in Belarus.
This year, the campaign ‘Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections’, in which around 130 local experts, lawyers and journalists in all regions of the country are involved, should observe whether the election campaign is conducted in the correct manner. Because the international organisations are not sending a full-scale election monitoring mission to the local elections, the reports from the non-partisan, domestic election observers will be the central independent source of information during the entire election process in Belarus. The assessment of the local election campaign will also be a test for Lukashenka’s government ahead of the presidential elections, which are to take place in the winter of 2010-2011.
European Exchange will provide information about the events in Belarus and is sending a weekly newsletter in English and German to interested persons and organisations. This is being supported by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Warsaw and the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.

In the first edition, we will be reporting on the formation of the election commissions in the light of the newly amended electoral code, which was introduced in January 2010 in line with recommendations from the OSCE.
The political situation in Belarus on the eve of the local elections
Belarus has been governed in an autocratic manner since 1994. The opposition has not been represented in parliament since the 2004 elections. Of more than 5000 members of the regional and city councils, less than 20 represent the opposition. Nongovernmental organisations and opposition parties are subject to repression from Lukashenka’s government and the local authorities. Since the year 2000, not a single party has been officially registered.
In response to the release of political prisoners in August 2008, including the former presidential candidate and Lukashenka-opponent Alyaksandr Kazulin, the Council of the European Union relaxed its sanctions against Belarus. The ban on Lukashenka and other regime functionaries entering the EU was lifted for a trial period of six months on the condition that Belarus progress with its democratisation. This was done in spite of the parliamentary elections in September 2008 being manipulated and not receiving recognition from the international community.
The EU has decided to pursue its dialogue with Belarus in spite of unsatisfactory progression in its democratisation process. In May 2009, Belarus was, along with Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, accepted into the European Union’s Eastern Partnership. It should therefore come to benefit from the new instruments of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Since 2009, the International Monetary Fund has supported the Belarusian Economy, which has been affected by the worldwide financial crisis, with 3.5 billion US dollars of loans. However, the political liberalisation which the West is demanding is only moving forward very slowly. Arrests and questioning of members of the opposition and independent journalists, intimidation of the Polish minority which is critical of the regime, as well as the case of new political prisoners – Mikalai Autukhovich and Uladzimir Asipenka – describe the current situation in the country.
The amended electoral code – theory and practice

In January 2010, the Belarusian parliament accepted the amendments to the electoral code and in so doing at least partly implemented the proposals of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and of independent Belarusian experts, which had been made years ago. However, Belarusian election observers warn against a premature evaluation of the election campaign, which could assess the conditions as positive. It will only be seen whether the regime is genuinely prepared to allow substantial democratic reform ahead of the presidential elections, which are to take place by February 2011 at the latest, when the new rules are put into action during the local elections.
‘Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections’ bemoan the weak representation of opposition parties in the regional election commissions
According to the new electoral code, opposition parties and NGOs should be strengthened in the election commissions and the number of officials loyal to the regime should be reduced. This is ensured by allowing parties and NGOs on the one hand, and the administration on the other hand, to each provide up to a third of the members of the election committees. The remaining seats should be filled by representatives of the workers’ committees and by candidates who have collected at least 10 signatures. Those applicants who are not chosen are able to appeal against the responsible election authority’s decision in court.
In spite of these new rules, the domestic election observes are displeased with the disproportionately low number of parties’ representatives in the regional election commissions: 407 of a total of 16558 members of the regional election committees are representatives of parties (around 2,4 %). Whilst of the 379 candidates from parties loyal to the regime (including the Communist Party of Belarus and the Agrarian Party), 320 (around 84%) were appointed as members of the election commissions, only 87 of the 238 (around 37%) opposition applicants (including the Belarusian Party of United Leftists ‘Just World’, the Belarusian Social Democratic Party ‘Gramada’, the United Civil Party and the Party of the Belarusian National Front) were appointed to the election commissions. Parties and nongovernmental organisations were indeed able to occupy around a third of the seats in the election commissions but the vast majority came from organisations loyal to the regime: ‘Belaya Rus’, the Belarusian Republican Youth Union and the Belarusian Public Association of Veterans.
In addition, ‘Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections’ is criticising the rules of the electoral code, according to which parties can only present their candidates for regional election commissions via officially registered regional offices. “Many political parties do not have any registered structures in the regions” – explains Valiantsin Stefanovich, a legal expert for the Human Rights Center ‘Viasna’ in Minsk. “This meant that, for example, the Belarusian Christian Democratic Party, which is not registered, was unable to present candidates for the election commissions, and was therefore forced to nominate its representatives by way of the collection of signatures. In any case, of over 40 Christian Democrat candidates, only three managed to make it into the election committees”, says Stefanovich in Minsk.
The Belarusian election observers also draw attention to the fact that the decisions on the nominations of members to the election commissions lacked transparent criteria and were often taken behind closed doors by the regional executive committees. “Belarusian political parties are, just as before, excluded from participating in the work of the election committees” – comments Uladzimir Labkovich, a legal expert for the Human Rights Center ‘Viasna’. “In a situation where there are no criteria for the appointment of commission members and where the authorities responsible for the formation of the election committees cannot be brought to account, an appeal in the courts is also pointless” – says Labkovich.
State officials dominate in the election commissions
The Belarusian Human Rights Defenders also point to there being a disproportionately high number of employees of state administrative bodies represented in the election commissions. They are appointed by the means of collecting signatures as representatives of political parties or of civil society organisations. Due to this practice, which has already taken place at this early stage of the election campaign, the legally envisaged balance in the election commissions between one third of the seats for those loyal to and one third for those critical of the regime is destroyed. In addition to this, the domestic election observers report that the state-controlled local press is not announcing the actual positions of the state officials, so that their real number in the commissions cannot be determined. According to a statement from the Human Rights Defenders, the officials are generally appointed as members of the parties loyal to the regime (Communist Party of Belarus, Agrarian Party) or those nongovernmental organisations which are close to the state (‘Belaya Rus’, Belarusian Republican Youth Union, Belarusian Public Association of Veterans). “The election commissions find themselves under total governmental control” – declares Uladzimir Labkovich.
Structure of the Election Administration

Up-to-date election news, reports and comment can be found at any time on the internet sites of European Exchange in Berlin (www.european-exchange.org), the Belarusian Human Rights Center ‘Viasna’ (www.spring96.org) and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee in Minsk (www.belhelcom.org).
In the next newsletter, we will be reporting on the coming stages of the local election campaign in Belarus: the registration of candidates’ supporter groups and the nomination of candidates to the precinct election commissions.
The European Exchange, Human Rights Centre 'Viasna',the Belaruski Helsinki Committee