Election Belarus Parliamentary Elections 2016. Something Old Something New
The European willingness to interact with Belarus at any cost and Lukashenko’s interest in maintaining such interaction can be, and has become already to some extent, some kind of window of opportunity. Even though it does not change the fact that political decision making is only conducted top-down, as such completely inaccessible not only for the general public but for the house of representatives as well this new ‘thaw’ is seemingly bringing with it some more room for maneuvering.
Published on balticworlds.com on oktober 10, 2016
On September 11 Belarus held parliamentary elections for the sixth time since 1991. Few had doubts about election results announced the next day: as usual deputies loyal to President Aliaksandr Lukashenka gained most seats in the lower house. Yet the 2016 election was different from all other recent elections. Hanna Kanapatskaya of the United Civil Party (UPC) and Alena Anisim, a member of the Belarusian Language Society, both women and both seen as representing the ‘opposition’ won seats in the parliament. This news, although much anticipated, has been followed by a feisty discussion – not seldom of conspiratorial character – especially among oppositional actors. Why were these women (s)elected for seats in the parliament? Will their presence actually change something? Most seem to agree the results were orchestrated by Belarusian authorities to appease the West and show some goodwill. Indeed, lifting sanctions against Belarus last year marked a sea change in EU approach to Lukashenka who has come to play ‘the lesser evil’ ever since the Ukraine war erupted. This hints to the fact no matter how uninteresting the results of this type of predetermined elections are they still can tell us something. While focusing on who won and who lost does not bring much new to the table questions like what function does a pre-determined election have and what do the election results mean for democratic opposition can help us better understand the mechanisms behind so called electoral authoritarianism in general and the situation in Belarus in particular.
Pre-determined election: everybody knows who will win (and most do not care)
Merely in a superficial way, Belarus election does not appear outrageous to the eye of populace. Parliamentary elections are held every four years. Everyone has a right to vote unless in pre-trial detention or serving a prison sentence. Most of the voters never encounter any harassment from members of local election commissions. On the contrary – Election Day is a national holiday celebrated with good food, drinks and other treats at polling stations across the country.
There is of course a backside to this idyll. In relation to the electoral process for example oppositional actors, as well as representatives of the international community, has repeatedly raised concern about the lack of diversity in the Precinct Election Commissions (PECs) – responsible for conducting the vote count. This year only 53 of the 65856 representatives in the 5971 PECs were from the so-called democratic opposition, still a higher figure than previously. Moreover, like every year, the counting process revealed drastic lack of democracy. Despite Western calls the authorities have repeatedly failed to provide fair and free competition. State control over media has left little room for opposition to get its message across. Many of the broadcasted interviews with opposition candidates were censored, in one way or another. Independent observers have also reported several instances of electoral fraud, carousel voting and irregularities. Some of the observers were even removed from polling stations due to an allegedly false fire alarm.
Nevertheless, putting too much emphasize on electoral fraudulent behavior as such is slightly misleading. The Belarusian political system itself has long been subject to such extensive and permanent violations of fundamental liberal democratic rights (like freedom of speech, assembly, organization and media) that those who promote a change to the political status quo have already become completely marginalized. This is in a way through physical control, as the authorities decide who gets to do and say what, but it can also be understood as a sort of ideological hegemony as ‘opposition’ (i.e. promoting political change) as well as ‘politics’ have generally become understood as something bad among the population. It is a wide spread belief among oppositional actors (as well as among citizens at large) that the votes in Belarus are not even counted; hence deputies are selected rather than elected for their seat in the parliament. This notwithstanding it is unlikely oppositional actors would actually get much support even in fully free and fair election. Given the aversion against ‘politics’ and complete disinterest among much of the population (especially in local and parliamentary elections) there is a substantial risk few would come to the polls at all, which would make an election that requires a 50 percent participation rate invalid. In the light this the extensive electoral fraud that does still take place most likely has more to do with counteracting political apathy among the population than eliminating any political threat that the opposition might pose to the current regime. In sum, the result is well known before the election starts. As a matter of fact accurately predicting exactly the composition of deputies is a popular pre-vote activity. Under such circumstances, what is the rational explanation for state actors still seemingly taking an interest in the election?
Indeed, for Lukashenka, elections are an important enterprise that allows him to reinforce ideological control and add to his image of an invincible leader that has enough support in the parliament. Some have even argued that Lukashenka’s cynical approach to democracy relegates the whole idea of elections to business-as-usual with his Western counterparts seeking financial support. Domestically, elections are also widely used to monitor opposition activities and gather more information about their electoral strategies. The (s)election of some oppositional candidates and not others as MPs is seen as way to divide and concur the oppositional actors.
Kanapatskaya controversy: Opposition divided over the UCP mandate
In a hostile political environment, election campaigning gives opposition parties a chance to remind potential voters about themselves, as they for once get access to them. This time all oppositional actors participated in the elections. Most were part of the alliance Prava Vybora (The Right to Choose) formed by Belarus Popular Front (BPF), Belarusian Christian Democrats, Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), Za Svabodu (For Freedom) movement, UPC, Belarusian Party ‘The Greens’, Belarusian Liberal Party of Freedom and Progress and the Trade Union of Electric Industry. The Belarusian Left Party ‘A Just World’ as well as ‘Tell the Truth’ Campaign also participated from the opposition side.
This specific election showed that sometimes opposition is allowed to have limited success on what appear to be state concession. As the results were revealed on Monday September 12, Hanna Kanapatskaya, the candidate from UCP, one of the traditional opposition parties, was elected to the new parliament. Somewhat ironically, Kanapatskaya won her seat in the same electoral district where the leader of Tell the Truth! Campaign, Tatsiana Karatkevich (former presidential candidate), was running for MP. Shortly after the announcement of the result, in fighting within the UCP as to how to relate to this outcome began. Some members protested against the party’s decision to accept the mandate that they believe was a result of unfair and undemocratic election. The party chairman Anatol Liabedzka admitted that Kanapatskaya was most likely appointed to the tenure, yet he said her mandate is still important to the UCP. “We will not become a part of the system, instead, we will try to change it”, he responded to critics. Symptomatically both he and Kanapatskaya emphasize her position in the “chamber of representatives” rather than the parliament. “We do not have a parliament as such in Belarus,” says Lebedzka, “our job now is to ensure that this body again assumes its proper function”.
Tell the Truth! Friend or foe?
Even though it is obvious that Kanapatskaya’s appointment was by no means accidental, few had expected Tatsiana Karatkevich to lose in her district given the attention and political capital she gathered in the recent presidential campaign. Prior to election rumors speculated Tell the Truth! would gain at least one seat, due to alleged connections with KGB. Because Kanapatskaya won in Karatkevich’s electoral district, this appears to be a signal to Tell the Truth! Chairwoman who ran a popular grassroots campaign with heavy social emphasis. The campaign success is a clear threat to Lukashenka’s image of Belarus as a welfare state and a ‘haven of stability’. Despite her disappointment with the results, Karatkevich decided to avoid open confrontation with the United Civil Party. ‘I have not won, but we have not lost – we have two democratic candidates in the parliament’, said Karatkevich.. Her rhetoric is particularly interesting given her organization’s bad reputation within the opposition camp. Recently, Belarusian National Front (the backbone of traditional opposition parties) leader Alyaksey Yanukevich who supported Karatkevich during her presidential campaign in 2015 revealed that Tatsiana “is his biggest mistake”. Other politicians have repeatedly accused Tell the Truth! of not being critical enough of the government and also strongly disagreed with their strategy of political dialogue and cooperation rather than confrontation. Yet somewhat ironically, the campaign is the only member of the democratic opposition that has continuously called for united front against Lukashenka. Still, at the moment, no other party would stand behind Karatkevich. Time will tell whether this could change. Despite her disagreement with the United Civil Party, Karatkevich has already expressed her willingness to help Hanna Kanapatskaya work in the parliament.
The second ‘oppositional’ MP, Alena Anisim, is a much less controversial choice. As an employee at the Institute of Language and Literature at the National Academy of Sciences, the first deputy chairperson at the Belarusian Language Society and with a strong history of grass root activism for wider use and official recognition of the Belarusian language her presence in the parliament can be seen as legitimizing President Lukashenko’s flirt with Belarusianism and trying to position himself as a defender of national identity.
(S)elected but powerless
In the previous elections the 110 members of the House of Representatives were elected in a two-round system. In this election the new electoral code from 2013 was applied according to which all members of parliament are elected in single-member constituencies. You can be registered as a candidate by collecting 1,000 signatures in their district, a party nomination at a congress, or through the nomination of labor collectives. Even though there is no presidential party, like in for example Russia or Azerbaijan, the majority of the deputies in the new (just as in the old) parliament are ‘independents’ loyal to the President, or representing one of the pro-government parties (Communist Party of Belarus, Liberal Democratic Party, Republican Party of Labour and Justice and Belarusian Patriotic Party). While the appointment of two alternative voices could, with some goodwill, be seen as democratic progress of sorts the truth of the matter is that the Belarusian lower house is an organ with little formal and informal power in a super-presidential system. The parliament’s role is decorative and it serves to rubber-stamp all decisions of the executive. Full control rests with the President who has the power to overrule any law through a personal decree. Not that this has been much of an issue since only three laws were initiated by the Parliament in the past four years. Surveys show Belarus is second only to Turkmenistan in the degree to which political power is concentrated to the president.
As mentioned earlier the appointment of Kanapatskaya and Anisim is widely understood as President Lukashenko’s way to respond to the international community’s demands for change in return for potential and much needed financial support. Given that any serious improvement of the actual electoral process – like for example transparent counting of votes – is impossible, as the flawed system would not be able to handle that degree of openness, including these two MPs is perceived as a way to show the international community that the situation is changing without actually changing anything. There are however difference ideas about what could be the effect of these appointments. Cynics suggest the two were carefully selected because of their positions within their respective organizations, both subordinated to slightly eccentric men in a protracted unquestionable leadership position. Having to adapt not only to the restrictive working environment but also being unable to act independently because of this subordination makes them unlikely agents of change, hence a safe choice. More optimistic voices argue their appointment might lead if not to change inside the parliament so at least to a restructuring in the leadership structures of the opposition as the women in the parliament build their own political capital.
Elections ‘not-as-bad-as-before’: a symbolic step forward
Representatives of international organizations have reacted to the result with cautious optimism. Post-facto both the joint statements by OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and Council of Europe and the US Department of State emphasized there had in fact been improvements, such as minor legislative changes, access to media, freer campaigning, increase in a number of candidates and an alleged ’signaled willingness to engage in electoral reform.’ Yet, they were hard pressed when it came to calling the elections free and fair, stressing that “long-standing systemic shortcomings remain”. Already before the election Vice President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Kent Harstedt, noted the elections were “of great importance for the OSCE countries and will be even more important for the image of Belarus than the presidential election.” His words illustrate international actors’ determination and strong wish to interpret any step taken by the Belarusian regime in this regard as a sign of positive development in the field of democratization – as it will make their relationship with it less complicated. European Council’s abolishment of sanctions against Belarus as a ‘reward’ for the 2015 presidential elections being held “in an environment free from violence”, despite the democratic qualities of this election being just as bad as any other, is another very telling example. That being said, the European willingness to interact with Belarus at any cost and Lukashenko’s interest in maintaining such interaction can be, and has become already to some extent, some kind of window of opportunity. Even though it does not change the fact that political decision making is only conducted top-down, as such completely inaccessible not only for the general public but for the house of representatives as well this new ‘thaw’ is seemingly bringing with it some more room for maneuvering. While there are little expectations neither Kanapatskaya nor Anisim will be able to propagate democratic governance in Belarus the two could, in the light of this, still possibly be a valuable asset for those who work to change the political status quo.
Results of the Belarusian Parliamentary Elections 2016
|Communist Party of Belarus||380,770||7.40||8||+5|
|Liberal Democratic Party||218,081||4.24||1||+1|
|Republican Party of Labour and Justice||147,378||2.87||3||+2|
|United Civic Party*||111,227||2.16||1||+1|
|Belarusian Patriotic Party||111,045||2.16||3||New|
|Belarusian Left Party ”A Just World”||72,185||1.40||0||0|
|Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Assembly)||66,381||1.29||0||0|
|Belarusian Party ”The Greens”||9,038||0.18||0||New|
|* these numbers include the Christian Democratic Party part of the coalition ‘Right to vote’ that since they lack registration could not nominate candidates through the party.
** includes some candidates from Movement For Freedom (similarily part of ‘Right to vote’ and lacking registration) who also are members of BPF.
*** includes the candidates from the Tell the Truth! Campaign.
Source: Central Election Commission (rec.gov.by/ru/Elections-PPNS6-Gol). Modifications by the authors.
 m.nn.by/articles/177082/ In this case it was the newspaper Nasha Niva that managed to predict the identity of all deputies except Katapatskaya
 Author’s interview with Kanapatskaya and Lebedzka in Minsk in October 2016.
 McAllister, I. and White, S. (2016), ‘Lukashenka and His Voters’. East European Politics &
Societies 30 (2): 360-380.