By Dr Alastair Rabagliati
The Belarusian authorities ran the elections taking no chances to ensure the maintenance of the political status quo. Opposition candidates who offered even the hint of a threat were not registered, some TV debates were not broadcast to prohibit any advocating of an election boycott, while the traditional manipulation of the vote count and turnout was widespread.
Meanwhile, the opposition was unable to capitalise on the chance offered by the campaign period to change their existing status quo. In particular, the opportunity to transform their perception in society from dissidents focused only on opposing the state - to a political opposition providing a realistic alternative to the current regime, was largely missed.
The elections did, however, allow an assessment of the potential and capabilities of the opposition in Belarus today.
Three Strategies of the Opposition
Opposition political parties and groupings were split three ways on their strategic approach towards the elections – although there were nuances in the paths taken by the different groupings.
Firstly, Just World and the candidates representing Tell the Truth and For Freedom sought to maximise the opportunity provided by the elections and run full campaigns until polling day.
A second group, headed by the United Civic Party, wished to use the legal opportunities to campaign, including access to TV and radio, by running candidates. However, they planned from the start to withdraw their candidates before the five-day early voting period to protest against the unfair nature of the campaign.
Other groups argued for a full boycott of the poll, including the Christian Democrats and the “European Belarus” movement linked to former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and Charter 97.
The different tactics chosen were not necessarily a problem for the opposition. Sufficient common ground existed on messages about the need for change and responsive government to improve lives – only the call to action on election day was different.
Problems for the opposition emerged when leaders stopped focusing on common ground and instead attacked each other for divergent approaches. Boycotters were blamed for helping Lukashenka win the election without any effort, whereas the “run till the end” candidates were accused of helping Lukashenka show that the elections were democratic after all.
The election campaign was also beset with various conspiracy theories – most of which were summarily destroyed, such as the whispering campaign that Milinkevich had done a deal to get elected into Parliament, which quietly disappeared when he was not even registered.
This infighting within opposition ranks and attacks against those who had different strategies played into the hands of the authorities and helped to weaken overall public outreach of the democratic opposition. Ultimately it was this trend – more than the actual differences in strategies – that hurt the opposition in the end.
Opposition Campaign Highlights
Some highlights did emerge from the margins of the campaign, with individual opposition figures and groupings coming out with more credit and reputations boosted. Tell the Truth confirmed their status as the most active political organisation in Belarus today, while Anatoly Liabedzka turned out to be the most eloquent and visible proponent of the boycott initiative.
Meanwhile, some independent candidates such as Andrei Yurkou in Gorki and the Social Democrats (Hramada) can also be considered to have used their campaign wisely, while Alexander Milinkevich made a splash return to politics and prior to his non-registration his team was among the most active in the country.
Another positive was the “For Free Elections” partisan observation effort where the different opposition groupings came together in different regions to work on a common project, even while mutual accusations were aired in the online media.
This demonstrated that constructive collaboration amongst democratic forces is possible, especially as the observation included political groups boycotting as well as those running. Dependent on grassroots activists to observe and multi-partisan teams to coordinate data collection, they were able to work together towards a common goal with little in-fighting or controversy.
Why Low Turnout
Clearly, though, the electorate was also not entirely naïve about the electoral process. Many people were indeed convinced that they did not have a choice. Even the official turnout – at 74.3% - was the lowest in recent times.
Yet, it is difficult though to attribute the low turnout recorded by independent observers in many polling stations directly to parts of the opposition calling for a boycott. Signs of heightened political interest which elections usually generate in the population were missing.
There was almost no political advertising across the country, and nothing in Minsk at all to suggest that there was an election on – undoubtedly a response to the authorities wish for a passive electorate.
Indeed broadly people were simply not engaged in the campaign and many were simply not interested in voting for (or even deliberately boycotting elections to) a parliament which they perceived would do nothing for them.
In part due to the non-registration of key candidates – alongside the wider electoral climate – very few points of interest on election-day remained – especially as in 16 electoral districts government supported candidates stood unopposed.
Such points of interest were limited to observers’ attempts to document cases of inflated turnouts, whether observers would be able to see the vote count and how the authorities would deal with the curious case of one electoral district (Gomel 36) where the official government candidate withdrew discredited by a corruption scandal and only a Liberal Democratic Party candidate remained.
Official Election Results
The official results showed that 109 of the 110 constituencies had their seats filled with government supporters. Belaya Rus, the pro-government movement, later claimed that 63 of these were their members. The remaining seat was Gomel 36 where the LDP candidate lost by a landslide to “against all” and the election will be re-run only in 2014 to coincide with the Local Government elections.
As for the transparency of the vote count, the OSCE/ODIHR observers were not given a meaningful opportunity to observe the count in 37 per cent of polling stations, a slightly higher figure than in 2010, a clear indicator that there was no improvement in the transparency of the electoral process. Domestic nonpartisan observers, meanwhile, were as restricted as in previous elections.
Failure to Capitalise on Election Campaign Opportunities
The opportunity for the opposition to argue that they were the answer to people’s concerns and the choice for the country was largely missed.
The vast majority of the opposition was unable or unwilling to move the agenda beyond the boycott or outright opposition to the regime to issues that votes care more about, such as the economy and price rises, health care and education, and present themselves as a credible alternative.
As a whole, opposition leaders all too often seemed to be targeting Western media, observers, and politicians– attempting to reinforce their arguments about the unfair environment – rather than connecting with the electorate in Belarus.
Whichever tactics or strategies the opposition takes in the period ahead, it is in the interest of the opposition to remain focused on reaching out to the population with concrete messages, rather than generic anti-Lukashenka rhetoric.
Looking ahead, and in spite of the lack of major progress during the parliamentary election, the challenge for the opposition remains unchanged – to push for increased space in Belarus free of the state.
This would be a step in the direction of a more open Belarus and a way to create momentum towards change in the future. To accomplish this, opposition groups should find ways to work together instead of attacking each other and reinforce each other’s efforts to promote a democratic Belarus.