POLLING MEMO: Occupy the Middle

By BISS, Minsk
                                                                 Key Conclusions

http://www.rusolidarnost-msk.ru/uploads/posts/2011-12/1324031962_question11.jpgThe latest data provided by the Independent Institute for Social, Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) in December 2011 completed the picture of Belarus in 2011. The year started with the post-election crackdown and repressions against politically active citizens, continued with the terrorist attack in the Minsk metro, and concluded with a broad financial and economic crisis, bringing about a complete change of mood in Belarusian society compared with 2010.

In late 2011, 70% of respondents thought it was important to have changes in Belarus (less than 1/5 of respondents felt it was important to maintain the current state of affairs) and 2/3 of respondents said Belarus needs market-oriented reforms. In December 2011, 58% of respondents said things in Belarus were moving in the “wrong direction”, while “right direction” answers dropped from last year's 54% to 26% this year. Compared with late 2010, all those shifts correspond with the strong and prevailing opinion that Belarus was deeply in crisis in late 2011 (80%), while a clear majority (57%) said the worst is yet to come. Thus, the grounds for economic reforms are stronger than ever.

Starting from the first quarter of 2011, Aliaksandr Lukashenka has been facing a considerable loss of trust. Although in December he has recovered part of his electoral rating from its historical low (20.5% in September 2011), Lukashenka`s December 2011 rating (24.5%) still constitutes a major loss of support compared with December 2010 (51%). The recent minor recovery indicates some ability to improve ratings via macroeconomic stabilisation and attempts to fix the 'social contract' that got shattered by the economic crisis.

Thus, December's polling results support the trend of the year – the formation of a new majority of Belarusians politically staying “in the middle”, being represented neither by the incumbent, nor by the opposition. The opposition is highly unlikely to occupy the middle ground. Firstly, the opposition is being pushed into the 'ghetto' by the repressive state apparatus. Secondly, the issue of political prisoners paralyses opposition activity: they cannot move forward without dropping the issue of political prisoners, nor do they have significant resources to help free their colleagues who remain in prison. At the same time a new “alternative” candidate could beat Lukashenka with 47% support. As Belarusians think the crisis will persist in 2012, either Lukashenka will have to move towards the political center with the help of new political tools, or he will continue using repression to keep the opposition in their ghetto, and keep the political middle ground unoccupied.

Detailed Findings

In the last 12 months, Belarusian society has become disillusioned with the ability of Lukashenka and the regime to solve problems. In late 2011 it became clear that without significant changes on the side of the government (or, to a lesser extent but still valid, the opposition) this major shift in mood by Belarusian society is unlikely to be reversed.

This can be concluded not only based on the “isolated” data considering Lukashenka's halved electoral rating – 24,5% in December 2011 compared with 51% in December 2010 (according to IISEPS). It should also be mentioned that 1/5 of those respondents who said in December 2010 they had voted for Lukashenka, a year later even denied this. In late 2011, the majority of respondents (52%) said Lukashenka does not understand the problems and distress of people like them (less than one third - 31% - said he does not understand); and almost 2/3 of respondents assumed Lukashenka lost his electoral rating compared to that in presidential elections in December 2010. All this data could indicate an increasing psychological “awakening” (collective consciousness) of the majority convinced that Lukashenka's supporters (and voters) became a real – and clear – minority. (Compare with the data from a year ago when a majority of voters, even some of those who did not vote for Lukashenka thought that he had won a majority.)

The latest polling data again proves that the Belarusian majority rejects a “revolution” (and also mass protest as a tool for bringing about changes). However, the demand for significant changes seemed huge in late 2011 and the readiness for achieving changes by democratic procedures (elections) became more relevant.

In December 2010, after the elections and the consecutive crackdown, still a majority (54%) said things in Belarus were moving in the “right direction”. Compare this with the mere 26% in December 2011. At the same time, just one third - 33% - said things in Belarus were moving in the “wrong direction” (December 2010) – and compare this to the 58% that indicated a “wrong direction” in December 2011.
A year ago 50% said that maintaining the current state of affairs in Belarus (just 38% for change). A year later, in late 2011, 70% of respondents said it was important to have changes in Belarus (less than 1/5 of respondents felt it is important to maintain the current state of affairs). In addition, 2/3 of respondents said Belarus needs market-oriented reforms. All those shifts correspond with the prevailing opinion that Belarus in late 2011 got stuck in a crisis (80%) and 57% said the worst is yet to come.

Although in December 2011 a majority of respondents (54%) still did not believe in the prospect of significant change in Belarus in the next five years (deeming such change “unlikely” or even “impossible”), and half of respondents (50%) did not believe things would be better if Lukashenka left (31% believe this), 47% said they were prepared to vote for an “alternative” presidential candidate (in the next elections). A further 33% stated they would be prepared to consider voting for such a candidate.

The considerable mood shifts within Belarusian society in the last 12 months did not affect geopolitical preferences in late 2011. If

Belarusian citizens were able to choose (vote in a referendum), 41% would vote for integration with Russia, 39% for integration with the EU. These answers do not show significant changes compared with those from December 2010 (38% vs. 38%). To Belarusians, geopolitical issues matter much less than policymakers might think in both Brussels and in Moscow. However, one could see a slight decrease of those who said in December 2011 they would vote against integration with Russia (43%), which is 4% less than a year ago, but still comparable to the results of three years ago (and twice more than ten years ago).