Sad Elections in Belarus

By Dzianis Melyantsou, BISS

This article was initially published in the Belarus Headlines pdf-magazine, a joint project by ODB, BISS, and Belarus Digest

During the early vote at one of the polling stations in Belarus. Photo by Siarhei Balay (

According to IISEPS, 54,5% of the respondents do not think their vote has any influence on the election results. Only 36,7% are convinced of the opposite. Asked in June 2012, 39,6% thought the coming elections would not be free and fair (36,8% assumed they would). 46,9% (against 39,1%) estimated to see only an imitation of candidate competition at the elections, presuming the seats to be distributed in advance by the authorities. At the same time, as early as in June 50,7% of the interviewed participants confirmed their intent to participate in the voting . Previous election campaigns indicate this number increases as the voting gets closer. So much for the question of whether the parliamentary election in Belarus actually took place. Nevertheless, compared to the 2008 elections this number of the potential voters has significantly decreased pointing to the general loss of interest for the elections.

It is worth noting, however, that the general lack of enthusiasm among the Belarusian people is not to be mixed up with the election boycott, which was supported by only 14,2% of respondents prior to the election. This way, voter passivity is not caused by their civil choice of refusing to participate in the rigged elections staged by the authorities, but rather by the lack of faith in the (1) (2) Traditionally, the Belarusian authorities have preferred to conduct parliamentary elections in “silent mode” to avoid the unnecessary mobilisation of the opposition and protesting voters. This year’s elections are no exception. An easily observed tendency among the Belarusian people is their growing disenchantment with the elections as a political institution. The opposition as a whole has used the elections to solve its internal questions and not for communicating with the voters. And the authorities have renewed the House of  representatives while securing its complete loyalty without using any repressive measures. The European Union still views the elections in Belarus as an opportunity for change and as a test for Minsk, which will either be rewarded by a lifting of the sanctions or penalised by their tightening.

Results for the public
Regardless of the voter turnout tradition dating back to Soviet times, the Belarusian public has a rather realistic view of the actual voting process and the degree of parliament’s significance as a government body. House of Representatives’ ability to solve their problems and the absence of a visible, clear and attractive political alternative (only 8,6% of the citizens were ready to vote for the opposition leaders).

Results for the opposition
None of the political organisations participating in the run-up to the parliamentary election believed in its fairness or any possibility to use it to influence the national political situation. This opinion, however, did not unite the opposition. On the contrary, three election strategies emerged: a boycott, participation, and restricted participation (UCP and BNF withdrew their candidates before the voting). This additionally contributed to the electorate’s disenchantment.

Not focusing on the reasons for choosing the boycott scenario (lack of resources has probably played a role), it can be noted that despite the assurances of this scenario’s backers about preparing a full-scale boycott campaign, only several rallies could be carried out, with the rest of the activity limited to publications in the opposition media. As was concluded earlier, this campaign did not have any influence on overall voter behavior.

The parties and movements that had more realistic goals in mind – increasing the number of their supporters by participating in the election – have at least reminded society of their existence. But in the course of campaigning even this opposition group has mainly raised questions of little concern for the regular citizen, such as human rights issues, political prisoners, state government reforms etc., which was unlikely to add to their popularity.
As a result, the political opposition emerged from the election as two enemy camps (proponents and opponents of the boycott) that are still embroiled in the discussions about boycott’s efficiency and the moral side of the participating in the elections under current political conditions.

This way, even though its individual members are working on broadening their social base, the opposition as a whole uses the election campaigns first of all as a tool to reshape power distribution within the opposition itself.
The majority of the election topics and issues raised by the opposition candidates touched upon the opposition discourse, and not the social or economic woes of the country that the citizens are mostly concerned with.

What the leaders and activists had in mind during their speeches was the reaction of their opposition colleagues, and not the opinion of their district’s voters.

Results for the authorities
The parliamentary election has smoothly followed the usual government scenario. The election commissions consisted of the individuals completely loyal to the authorities, administrative resources guaranteed a high percentage of advance votes, and the Central Election Commission did its best to neutralise all the positive changes made to the election laws in 2010.

All of this allowed the rapid formation of the new parliament after the first voting round without giving the mandates to any unwelcome individuals.
It is worth noting some particular points that are important for the assessment of the past elections.
First of all, the authorities feel safe enough not to make any serious concessions to the West and to wait for a more solid proposition than the one currently on the table. This confidence rests on the secure backing of Russia that prefers not to destabilize its relationships with Belarus until the new common block (Eurasian Union) is formed and finalised.

Secondly, the authorities have maintained their normal “routine” level of repression, unusual for the elections under the conditions of a “cold war” with the West. The reason might be a weak hope of a better assessment by the OSCE and, consequently, an improvement of relations with the EU. The registration of almost all of the opposition candidates and the appointment of the new foreign minister probably also serve this goal. Thirdly, the House of Representatives was significantly renewed, with only 19% of the delegates staying on from the previous term. It is also possible to view this as a tactical move to start the relations of the new parliament with the West with a blank page. On the other hand, if the status of a delegate is viewed as a middle-rank bureaucrat’s honorary appointment before retirement, the need to clear the space for a new batch of worthy loyal individuals seems only logical.

Results for the EU

Following tradition, the European Union has tied the review of the sanctions against Belarus to the elections, viewing them as some sort of test. However, it should be said, that Brussels puts too much weight on this spectacle, which, by itself, does not bear any indication about the intent (or lack thereof) of Minsk to improve the relations with the EU. Elections are the most dangerous and delicate period of life for any authoritarian regime, because it mobilises its proponents as well as opponents. It is therefore natural for the regime to strive for the highest efficiency in controlling this process. It is the reason for the increased repressions, the control over media and the omnipresence of
propaganda. Consequently, all the conclusions about Belarus linked to the elections will be of negative nature and will call for the increase of the sanctions. This will lead to an ongoing freeze in the Euro-Belarusian relations.

Therefore, to gain a more adequate understanding of the situation in Belarus and its dynamics the European Union would benefit from developing a more nuanced approach, which would periodically evaluate various parameters of the system without being linked to the elections. Brussels could also lay out more transparent and clear criteria for including or removing individuals from the “black list”, which could serve as an additional tool for stimulating positive changes in Belarus.