Report №7: Domestic election observers criticise unfair election campaign conditions
Early voting has been taking place in Belarus since Tuesday 20th April. In the precincts where, according to domestic election observers’ estimates, up to 40% of voters have already placed their votes, it is impossible to rule out election manipulation. Also, the initiative ‘Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” is reporting acts of discrimination and repression from the local authorities against opposition candidates. Furthermore, state media are withholding information about the elections – this has been proven both by domestic human rights defenders’ observations and by independent surveys.
Domestic election observers fear election manipulation during the early voting process
Early voting began in Belarus on 20th April. Although the new electoral code envisages that the ballot boxes be sealed daily and that the election turnout in each electoral precinct also be made public every day, the domestic election observers claim that election manipulation can be expected even during this year’s local elections. It is true that the number of voters should be better controlled, which should reduce the possibilities for falsifying the ballot papers, but the remarkably high election turnout, which was being seen in some electoral districts by just the second day of the early voting process, is an indicator of possible irregularities. For example, the domestic election observers in Vitsebsk report that on Wednesday, in some electoral precincts, as many as 30% of voters, mostly students at the Vitsebsk State Technological University, were evidently being forced to submit their votes early. In this electoral district, the director of the university in question is being forced to compete for voters’ approval against a strong candidate from the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democratic Party. Similar cases of disproportionately high election turnouts between 10 – 40% are also being reported from other regions of the country. This also points to forced early voting and possible later acts of manipulation.
Cases of numerous voters who worked at state companies or public institutions being forced to take part in the early voting process were already reported during the previous elections. This meant that every day the ballot papers could be checked and, where necessary, falsified in the ballot boxes. “In the eyes of the state apparatus, this kind of election manipulation already proved its worth at the last elections – the new electoral code alone cannot change that”, says Valiantsin Stefanovich, legal expert at the Human Rights Center ‘Viasna’ in Minsk. “The ballot boxes are not transparent, so no one can see whether the published figures correspond to reality. Also, the ballot boxes have been constructed so that they can be opened from underneath at any time, without having to break the correct seal”, explains Stefanovich, describing previous methods of manipulation during the early voting process.
Opposition candidates bemoan acts of harassment and repression during the election campaign
The new electoral code relaxes restrictions on the election campaign by stating that, in all places determined by the local authorities and the election commissions, election campaign events which are organised in enclosed spaces only have to be registered and no longer approved. The electoral code does not however dictate that such places have to exist in all electoral districts. In addition, election campaign events which are organised outdoors are still subject to the restrictive law governing large public events.
According to domestic election observers, such legal restrictions often prevent opposition candidates’ election campaign activities from taking place. “The local authorities use the law to push the election campaign away from the centre and out to deserted areas on the edge of the city. There is often only one place in the whole city – a stadium or a park – where election events are permitted”, explains Valiantsin Stefanovich. In addition, it is very often the case that a candidate cannot hold his election event in the electoral district where he is standing. “We are certainly looking at a curios situation when the candidate can’t speak to his voters”, states Stefanovich.
In the cities of Magiliou, Baranavichi and Saligorsk, opposition candidates have already registered complaints against the local authorities’ decisions regarding the designation of places for the election campaign, and have managed to force a positive reaction from the central election commission. “Unfortunately, this barely changes the general situation in most regions of the country”, comments Stefanovich. “Even after the intervention of the central election commission, there are, in Magiliou for example, still only three places which have been designated for election campaign events, in spite of the fact that there are dozens of electoral districts in the city”, says Stefanovich.
Censorship and restrictions affect the distribution of election campaign materials by candidates critical of the regime
Since the start of the election campaign, the domestic election observers have been reporting on a multitude of cases of unlawful restriction on the production and distribution of election campaign materials. According to experts from the initiative “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”, the financial resources provided by the law are insufficient for a candidate to conduct an effective election campaign. “According to the new electoral code, candidates are only allowed to use their own finances, whether they come from voter donations or out of the political parties’ or civil society organisations’ budgets, during presidential and parliamentary elections – not however during local elections”, explains Valiantsin Stefanovich. According to the law, the state budget provides each candidate for a seat on a council with funds for the production of election campaign materials: at the village level this is up to 35,000 Belarusian Roubles, BYR (around 9 €), at the rayon level up to 140,000 BYR (approx. 35 €) and on the regional level (including the capital city council in Minsk) up to 280,000 BYR (approx. 70 €). “We have received many reports from opposition politicians who have, with the money provided by the state, only been able to produce election campaign materials for between 10 and 40% of the potential voters in their electoral districts”, emphasises Stefanovich.
From the Berastse (Brest) and Magiliou regions, the domestic election observers are reporting on state printing houses refusing to print election campaign brochures and posters. This exclusively affected those candidates who are critical of the regime, whereby the heads of the publishing houses claimed that the content had to first be checked by the responsible authority. In addition, the publishing houses have, in some cases, printed election campaign brochures with either false or incomplete contact information for the opposition candidates. This has made the election campaign even more complicated for them than it already was to begin with.
The election monitors from the initiative “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” also point to unfair conditions for the distribution of printed advertising materials, depending on whether a candidate is loyal to or critical of the regime. Whilst opposition candidates are often unlawfully forbidden from distributing flyers and posters in public places, or their printed materials are even confiscated, candidates loyal to the regime remain unrestricted as they continue to receive unofficial support from state-controlled companies such as the postal service, which, for example, delivers their flyers and brochures to the houses of potential voters as a supplement with the state newspapers they subscribe to.
State media withhold information about the elections
The domestic election observers are bemoaning the lack of information in the state-controlled press about the course of the elections and about the political programmes of the opposition candidates. “The election campaign is practically non-existent in the state’s printed media coverage”, remarks Valiantsin Stefanovich. “The state newspapers are only required to publish the official information about, among other things, the candidates registered for the elections, the submission of voter lists, or the boundaries of the electoral districts. But even this information is rarely published completely in full on time, not to mention the lack of any extensive coverage which should normally contribute to the usual voter education”, comments Valiantsin Stefanovich.
At the same time, the state publications in all regions of the country have, since the beginning of the election campaign, been exclusively advocating the election of candidates loyal to the regime. Covert campaigning can be found in numerous interviews and portrait features of such candidates. The representatives of the opposition find themselves, by contrast, misrepresented or ignored.
A similar situation exists at the regional radio stations. “There have been many cases of censorship in the state-controlled media”, says Valiantsin Stefanovich from the Human Rights Center ‘Viasna’. “Although the candidates each have just five minutes for their radio appearance, many critical broadcasts have either been pushed into inconvenient time slots or not aired at all”, he adds.
Surveys confirm the lack of information about the elections
At the start of April, the Belarusian Independent Institute for Social Economic and Political Studies NISEPI, based in Vilnius, had already presented the results of its survey from March 2010, according to which 76.5 % of voters had, a month after the official start of the election campaign, still not heard anything about the candidates standing for election. 36 % of those asked were, just one month before election day, unable to name the date of the local elections. Two thirds of those asked did not know who the candidates in their electoral districts were, whilst 46.2 % of the voters were convinced that the work of the local councils fails to have any influence on their lives.
The previous editions of the newsletter can be found on the European Exchange website:
Report 1: Human Rights Defenders Start Monitoring the Local Elections
Report 2: Alterations to the Electoral Code
Report 3: Few Members of the Opposition in the Local Election Commissions in spite of the New Electoral Code
Report 4: Members of the Opposition Boycott the Elections