Election Presidential Elections in Belarus. Ascribing Meaning to a Pre-Determined Outcome
On 11 October 2015, Belarus held presidential elections for the fifth time since independence from the USSR in 1991. The outcome was never in doubt: it was clear from the outset that the incumbent, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, would be re-elected. The real questions surrounding the election related to what processes would be triggered in the aftermath of the election. Time will tell whether the political theater of the presidential elections will succeed in helping Lukashenka avoid the further clientization of Belarus to Russia.
Published on balticworlds.com on november 13, 2015
On 11 October 2015, Belarus held presidential elections for the fifth time since independence from the USSR in 1991. The outcome was never in doubt: it was clear from the outset that the incumbent, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, would be re-elected. Indeed, some pranksters even announced him the winner on Swedish Wikipedia already a month before Belarusians even went to the polls. The real questions surrounding the election related to what processes would be triggered in the aftermath of the election.
The previous presidential elections, in 2010, were followed by popular protests in the capital. These were suppressed brutally, and over the following months number of opposition figures were imprisoned – including the presidential candidate who came second, Andrei Sannikaŭ. Since then, however, the geopolitical situation of Belarus has changed dramatically. Balancing the gravitational forces of Russia and the European Union has become more of a challenge for Lukashenka, particularly since the overthrow of neighboring president Viktor Yanukovych and the subsequent Russian intervention in Ukraine, annexing Crimea and fomenting armed rebellion in Donbas.
Even if his role as host of the negotiations the produced the fragile Minsk Agreements may give the impression of Belarus as a stable, neutral part, the reality is that Lukashenka has many reasons to feel vulnerable and exposed due to the simmering Ukraine conflict. There has been increased pressure on Minsk to allow the Russian armed forces to allow a permanent airbase on Belarusian territory. This is part of the Putin’s gambit in trying to counter the stationing of deterrent forces in the Baltic states and Poland. In early September, Russia announced that its location of choice for the airbase was Babruisk, near the heart of the country.It can also be viewed as a reaction to actions by Lukashenka to distance his country, if ever so slightly, from a rigid military–security union with Russia. Amongst other things, Belarus has sold military hardware to the post-Yanukovych government in Kyiv, as well as reinforcing its border against Russia – both actions which can easily be interpreted as evidence of distrust of its Russian partners in the Union State.
Even more sinister was the intensification of rumors in the run-up to the elections, that the Kremlin might use the elections as an excuse to intervene in Belarusian politics, for example using provocateurs to stage a fake “Maidan” as a way of justifying the replacement of Lukashenka with someone more complaint to Russia’s interests. Even though rumors and conspiracy theories do not always have a basis in truth, in the politics of semi-autocratic regimes they can play a significant role in affecting public opinion. Furthermore, there is a tradition in the region of scare stories even being planted bythe authorities in order to achieve desired societal outcomes –ranging from tsarist-era pogroms to Stalinist denunciations. As such, the increased circulation of these rumors in conjunction may not be entirely coincidental.
Thus, during the campaign period – if one can call it that in such an uneven contest – domestic problems such as the slumping economy and standard of living for average Belarusians were overshadowed by the issues of the geopolitical situation of Belarus. Indeed, the economic malaise is connected to the slowdown in Russia due to Western sanctions and a stubbornly low oil price. Even the decision to award Svetlana Alexievich the Nobel Prize in Literature just days before the election was criticized from both pro- and anti-regime voices from the perspective of Belarus’ uneasy balancing act between Moscow and Brussels.
Aside from the incumbent and expected winner, Lukashenka, three other candidates were allowed to register. Mikalai Ulakhovich, a self-proclaimed Cossack “general”, was nominated by the marginal, but staunchly pro-Lukashenka Belarusian Patriotic Party.Siarhei Haidukevich of the Liberal Democratic Party – think Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Russia – was dusted off as a candidate again, having run unsuccessfully against Lukashenka in presidential elections in 2001 and 2006 as well.Neither of these men promised any radical departure from the political line and praxis of Lukashenka. Haidukevich even went so far as to inform potential voters that he would “never allow a Maidan” in Belarus. With minimal public support and pro-government platforms, these were pseudo-candidates to fill out the ballot.
The only opposition candidate allowed to register was Tatsiana Karatkevich, activist for the campaign “Tell the Truth!”, and self-proclaimed “realistic feminist”, was nominated by Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada). With little support outside her own party (itself a result of the split within Belarusian social democracy), Karatkevich was not a candidate that all factions of the democratic opposition would likely rally behind, as Sannikaŭ had been in 2010. Furthermore, the fact that she was a woman was also considered in some quarters – not least by the paternalistic Lukashenka – as a strike against her as a serious candidate for the presidency. Thus, the Central Electoral Commission only allowed candidates that would provide the window dressing of a multi-party election, without any serious threat to the incumbent remaining in power.
Even though there were some ominous hints that the regime was making preparations for a potential crackdown similar to that in 2010, there were clear motives for Lukashenka to be seen as having won a “clean” (i.e. non-violent), if not entirely free and fair election. The reward for this would be the lifting of the EU sanctions imposed in the aftermath of the previous presidential elections. This would not only offer Lukashenka some extra leverage against pressure from Moscow, but, perhaps more importantly, help improve the economic malaise by easing the political and economic isolation of Belarus.
Here, Lukashenka needed to make a utilitarian calculation: how “clean” did the election have to be, in order to achieve the goal of scrapped sanctions? Expectations of electoral fraud were widespread: several civil society organizations even created an Android app for citizen observers to record and report incidents of fraud on election day.Karatkevich spoke frankly of this in an interview with the oppositional Russian portal Meduza, saying that she thought her popular support could be as high as 20%, but that the authorities were likely to reduce this though manipulation and falsification of the final results. The question remained: how blatant would the cheating be?
The vote was duly held on October 11, 2015. Voter turnout was given as 87.2%. When the official result was announced, Lukashenka was said to have won with 83.5% of the vote. In military units and hospitals, the result was given as 89%.
For the remaining candidates, the Central Electoral Commission reported the following support: Karatkevich came in second with just 4.4%; 3.3% for Haidukevich; followed by Ulakhovich, who received just 1.7%. Those who voted against all the candidates were given as being 6.3%, while 0.8% of ballots were registered as invalid or spoiled.
As expected, incidences of fraud and breaches of the rules were witnessed on elections day. OSCE observers reported “serious problems” with the elections. Independent observers for Human Rights Defenders complained of “mass early voting” and “non-transparent vote-counting”. Soon after polls closed, opposition supporters gathered for a protest rally in central Minsk. Unlike in 2010, however, they numbered a few hundred, not several thousand. There were reports of a handful of arrests, but most of those detained seem to have been released from custody already the next day.
It is apparent that the official results were falsified: the last opinion poll prior to election day showed popular support for Lukashenka at 47%, while 17.9% said they would vote for Karatkevich. According to the independent public opinion research organization NISEPI, when taking into account voter turnout, this would translate into a range of 56–76% of votes for Lukashenka, and 22–30% for Karatkevich. Thus it is clear that the 83% for Lukashenka is inflated, while the figure of 4.4% for Karatkevich is simply made up. Karatkevich contested the official results, citing observer data that in various electoral districts, she received 10%, or even 35% of the ballots.
In classic Stalinist style, then, it’s not important how the people vote, but who counts the ballots. Directives regarding the target figures for the election results must have come from the Presidential Administration at Vulista Marksa 38. The question for electoral analysts, then is: why falsify the results so blatantly?
Most people, Belarusians included, expected Luksahenka to win anyhow. The aforementioned NISEPI projections even offered him a possible respectable majority of up to 76%. If the 83% reported by the Central Electoral Commission was the fault of zealous officials “overfulfilling the plan”, the Presidential Administration could have modified the official results to more reasonable levels before their public announcement. Indeed, if the desired outcome was to curry favor with the EU, then nothing would have been more face-saving for all parties involved than a result of, say 67% for Lukashenka and 25% for Karatkevich – still a clear majority for the authoritarian incumbent, but also a simulacrum of a democratic electoral contest of the kind desired by Brussels in order to justify the easing of sanctions.
As it turns out, the fact that Lukashenka’s police did not maim and kill anyone during the elections was deemed enough for the Realpolitik faction in the EU to push for the lifting of sanctions regardless of whether the elections were free, fair, or democratic. Already on October 12, EU’s foreign ministers voted to lift the sanctions for a trial period, disregarding the criticisms of the OSCE. Liberal commentator Yauheni Preiherman predicted that Minsk could expect similar goodwill also from Washington in the near future.
Indeed, the writing was on the wall in the run-up the October 11 that the EU’s threshold requirements for removing sanctions against Belarus were low. Thus, it would seem that the cynical – or perhaps simply realist – calculation by Lukashenka’s team was that the main audience of their performance or ritualized elections should not be Brussels.
Given the geopolitical context, it is my conclusion that the 83% result on the presidential elections was designed to send an strong message to the Kremlin. Knowing full well the extent to which Putin and his circle abhor weakness, Lukashenka presented them with proof that he was a strong leader, firmly in control of the levers of power in Belarus. He was not an indecisive, venal, ridiculed leader like Yanukovych, and therefore there was no justification for Russia to intervene in order to “stabilize” the situation in Belarus. Furthermore, this kind of “proof” is highly effective against the Kremlin, since even though Putin knew the figures to be false, who was he to accuse a colleague of manipulating election results in order to strengthen his grip on power?
The actions of Lukashenka following the elections would appear to support my hypothesis. In the first few weeks, the tone from Minsk was one of firm defiance, with an emphasis on defense and national security. On October 30, the preparation of a new military doctrine for Belarus was announced, stressing national sovereignty. The same day, Lukashenka declared that the Russian air force base at Babruisk was “unnecessary”, and that Belarus did not need to be dragged into a military contest of “muscle flexing” between its eastern and western neighbors.
Domestically, he also rejects the calls from both opposition figures and European partners for serious structural reforms. This was also mentioned in his inaugural speech, at the same time as he expressed a wish to strengthen Belarus’s economic ties to the EU and the USA. Even the government’s recent decision to strike four zeroes off its banknotes, planned for 2016, can be seen as a maneuver to reassert national sovereignty and appear as a more credible trading partner, while at the same time avoiding any major reforms of the economy. Aside from making goods and services more expensive for Belarusians (due to the rounding upwards that will occur), the new expected exchange rate of around 1.8 BYR to the US dollar will symbolically make the Belarusian ruble “stronger” than its Russian counterpart.
Time will tell whether the political theater of the presidential elections will succeed in helping Lukashenka avoid the further clientization of Belarus to Russia. The “mandate” he won was certainly enough to improve his bargaining position with the EU, but will it suffice to strengthen his hand in the high stakes game that he is playing with Putin?
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