Election Revisiting Electoral Tactics in Belarus: Local Elections 2018

Lukashenka is not going to undermine or change electoral strategies that have worked well for sustaining the regime. But the regime will be employing other non-electoral strategies to hold on to its power. The established political system maintains a number of preemptive mechanisms that prevent public mobilization and collective action. The detention of independent journalists on the bogus charges of non-authorized access and the case against the chairman of the independent labor union, who is currently on trial, just confirm that the regime does not shy away from using selective prosecution when it is needed. Now, with the tightening control over the online space, Lukashenka wants to prevent any surprises such as the public mobilization against the infamous unemployment tax.

Published on balticworlds.com on augusti 22, 2018

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Election news from Belarus, aside from presidential campaigns, does not make international headlines. In stable autocracies with a highly centralized government controlled by the incumbent, local elections are not a political mechanism that could bring a regime change. Belarus’ elections run like clockwork, noted by A. Baturo, they are “an old and established practice, a faithful reconstruction of the textbook’s menu of electoral manipulation.”[1]And I believe that this is true with regard to delivering election results but how about electoral tactics? What does the electoral tactic say about the political actors? What would be the regime’s next move? Six months after the 2018 local elections and in view of the 2020 electoral cycle, the local election campaign presents a good case for revisiting how Belarus’ autocracy handles elections.

The local elections are called every four years for electing deputies of local councils that are, according to the Constitution, Article 121, responsible for approving local budgets, setting local taxes and making arrangements for the use of public property. In practice, local governance stays in the hands of local executive committees that are a part of the “presidential vertical” due to the fact that the president appoints and dismisses the heads of local executive committees in line with Article 119 of the Constitution. And certainly, this presidential prerogative is exercised quite often both for the purposes of elite rotation between different territorial districts and for sanctioning and disciplining governors for mismanagement. After the recent visit to Vorsha’s [2] factories, the President’s outburst resulted in the immediate dismissal of several ministers and the chairman of the Vorsha’s local executive committee and Vitsebsk’s regional executive committee.[3] Though this heated disciplining of the Belarusian government by the president might have had deeper political reasons than just a simple elite rotation. Nevertheless, with no direct control over executives, local deputies still maintain public respect and their symbolic status in local communities. So it would be mistake to completely dismiss their role and the role of the local elections in the political system.

In November 2017, it was officially announced that the local elections were scheduled for 18 February 2018 with a comment from the president, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, about the chosen election date: “February is a calmer month”[4], which clearly set the tone for the elections. And the election results did not cause controversy but fulfilled their institutional function: through procedural uncertainty they delivered substantive certainty.[5]At the same time, the ongoing public debates whether pro-government association Belaia Rus’ should become a party and if any changes of the Electoral Code would be implemented pointed out some organizational issues for Lukashenka’s stable autocratic future.

Parties and public associations

Political conditions in the country after 1994 did not allow the party system to develop or to fully institutionalize. Additional legal measures and restrictions[6] on the fundamental freedoms of association, expression and assembly were put in place, resulting in legal constraints on party registration and the high rejection rate of new parties by the Ministry of Justice. Both political and legal restrictions forced pro-oppositional parties to compete for limited foreign funding and, at the same time, did not incentivize pro-regime parties to invest in organizational infrastructure.[7] Currently, Belarus has, overall, 15 registered political parties[8]. However, instead of relying on the pro-regime parties to mobilize voters, the regime has been funding and making use of public associations, such as Belaia Rus’ and the Belarusian Republican Union of Youth, which gained prominent role in filling electoral commissions, bringing local election observers and creating initiative groups for collecting signatures for their candidates.

Source: The Central Election Commission of Belarus[9]

The 2018 local elections were no exception. In fact, just by comparison, even combining all parties into one category, it becomes clear that their role during elections is pushed to the sidelines by pro-regime associations. These public associations, Belaia Rus’ and Belarusian Republican Union of Youth, are effectively staffing election commissions with their members and polling stations with observers.

In addition, Belarus has maintained single member districts – an electoral system which has also worked against political parties and increased a number of candidates nominated by labor collectives and by collecting signatures from constituents. These candidates do not have party affiliation but they are not independent, since public associations nominate their candidates using exactly these options. Prior to the announcement of the election campaign, a depute chairwoman of Belaia Rus’ commented: “Belaia Rus’ had more than five thousand deputies in local councils in 2014, and we are planning to increase the number of elected deputies in 2018”.[10]

Source: The Central Election Commission of Belarus

While candidates for members of Parliament are require to collect 1000 signatures, candidates for local councils need 150 signatures for Minsk city council, 75 for regional and other city councils and 20 for rural (township) districts – Article 65 of the Electoral Code. Effective mobilization of citizens and organizational flexibility of public associations worked well for regime’s electoral tactics. But the pro-regime associations have been seeking some recognition for their role.

Since the start of the electoral campaign, Belaia Rus’ had discussed the possibility of changing its status to political party: “Nominating candidates by a political party is the easiest option. An assembly is needed to be arranged and to propose candidates. But this possibility would, of course, make the participation in the electoral campaign easier”.[11] Belaia Rus’ membership has stabilized, and new procedural rules for nominating candidates would have institutionalized its role as political party. While the presidential administration showed some limited support, the endorsement from Lukashenka did not come through. In February 2018, Lukashenka reshuffled[12] the state media elite, replacing Davydz’ka as the head of Belarusian TV-Radio Company and, de facto, appointing him as the chairman of Belaia Rus’. The president pointed out that the new leadership should aspire to make the association self-financed and to invest more in charity work. So, no endorsement from the president brought political ambitions of the association to a halt.

Curiously enough, during the electoral campaign, Iarmoshyna, the chairwoman of the Central Election Committee, was often mentioning the role of young voters that are mobilized by other pro-government association – the Belarusian Republican Union of Youth. The ability to mobilize young voters, especially students during early voting, has raised the profile of this public association. Though these two organizations have been often considered the sides of the same coin, for the regime, however, it is instrumental to keep these two associations separately and to diffuse the importance of each organization in the established political system.

The oppositional parties, however, went to the electoral campaign with overly optimistic expectations. They were confident about regime’s interests in differentiating candidates, while political conditions looked favorable for oppositional candidate, at least, to get nominated. However, previous years of boycotting elections and the limited engagement with the population at grass-roots level demotivated voters and resulted in the smallest number of party-nominated candidates.[13]

Source: The Central Election Commission of Belarus

In restricted political space for parties, it seemed that oppositional political movements might have been in a better starting position to campaign. Tell the Truth (Havary Praŭdu) movement, were working on the ground and building their local support base, also mobilizing observers and candidates for election commissions. Andreĭ Dzmitryeŭ, the co-chairman of Tell the Truth, stated that 136 candidates were running, including 2 candidates nominated by the Belarusian Party of the Left “Just World”[14]. But even Dzmitryeŭ and his co-chairwoman of Tell the Truth, Karatkevich, did not manage to win their respective local mandates. In October 2017, the success story of the United Civic Party, Hanna Kanapatskaia, who was elected as Member of the Parliament in 2016, announced that she had started her own movement – Forward Belarus.[15] The newly established movement supported 11 candidates during the elections. However, it was just another confirmation that oppositional movements and parties are not able to overcome their existing disagreements and to find a way to solve the collective action problem. Competing against each other for limited funding, oppositional movements and parties are not able to mobilize protest-voters and to cover all regional constituencies: 56% of elected local deputies were incumbents[16]who, in many cases, ran unopposed.

Voting – early voting

The early voting turnout, reported by the Central Election Commission, was boosted to 34,95%. In comparison, the 2014 local elections the early voting turnout was kept at 31,78%. By slowly increasing early voting numbers in each election, the regime is testing the water for the next electoral cycle in 2020. What became apparent in the local elections, the regime not only uses early voting for maintaining high turnout numbers but also institutionalizes it as the most convenient option for some voters. A month prior to the local elections, Iarmoshyna stated that the turnout would exceed 60% with the help of such institute as early voting.[17]In addition, Iarmoshyna chose to cast her vote during the early voting, signaling the government’s endorsement of this voting practice.

And the Belarusian government does need to publicly support this practice, at least with the sole purpose legitimize one third of the votes cast prior to Election Day. Early voting stays away from public scrutiny and gives room for electoral manipulation: from ballot box stuffing to carousel voting,[18] which, seemed to be a thing of the past, was back on the menu of electoral manipulation.  In addition, a number of social groups, especially students on state-sponsored scholarships, people in military training and public sector workers, are incentivized by the government, employers and university administration to cast their vote in advance. Though, those incentives can hardly be described as quid pro quo and should be considered as expectations to comply with the established public order. Even if students receive some days off or points for their studies, expectations for public compliance have been an integrative element of how the current leadership maintains its political control.

The rest of the voting did run like clockwork: election commissions did not include oppositional parties or movements (with only two exceptions), some independent candidates were not registered in the districts, where loyal incumbents were running, independent observers were removed, if needed, and were not allowed to observe even imitations of the vote count. The organizational routine and the working process of election commissions do not require any specific guidelines: everyone from a chairperson to appointed observers know well their role: delivering the needed numbers. This overly rehearsed electoral game brings no motivation for protest-voters to participate and it probably achieves what the regime needs: not to stage a protest by ballots during elections.

Regime’s strategy is not to reinvent the wheel

On 7-9 August 2018, the Investigative Committee of Belarus detained at least 19 independent journalists and raided the offices of two independent media outlets (Tut.by and BelaPAN), confiscating hard drives, company documents and cell phones.[19]And indeed, Belarus has not kept the best track record on freedom of the press or freedom of expression, so why should we find ourselves puzzled and surprised by these actions?

The spontaneous use of selective justice and disproportional measures, including a 72-hour detention of journalists, signaled to the general public that the Belarusian leadership still holds power to change rules and to tilt the level playing field for other political actors. Overly optimistic expectations that the Belarusian leadership will succumb to international demands and introduce some changes in the electoral procedures did not materialize in 2016 and 2018, as nor did materialize significant financial incentives from European countries to tempt any democratic concessions.

At the same time, the Belarusian regime is in a peculiar situation: while the hegemonic autocratic regime has stabilized, it has not yet established a succession strategy to guarantee a stable autocratic future for the current elite. It also happened that other autocracies in the region were undergoing constitutional changes to guarantee a smooth transfer or capture of power, while Lukashenka might have just tested water for his own plan.[20] However, even before the results of the 2018 local elections were called, Lukashenka has started his own campaign for information and media control.

In February, Lukashenka reshuffled the state media elites, which followed by new amendments to the law on mass media, coming into force on 1 December 2018.The new amendments will tighten control over Belarus’ online media and will also prevent users from commenting on domestic online forums without authorization.[21] In addition, it will also restrict the presence of foreign media channels in the Belarusian media space, targeting the role of not-so-friendly Russian media channels pursuing their own political agenda. Establishing instruments and mechanisms of information control right now, prior to the election cycle in 2020, is a consistent move by Lukashenka, who might consider calling the presidential election earlier – probably at the end of 2019.

Reviewing global political trends in 2017, the researchers from the V-Dem Institute concluded that elections, the most prominent feature of democracies, remain strong. What autocratization mainly affects are “non-electoral aspects of democracy such as media freedom, freedom of expression, and the rule of law, yet these in turn threaten to undermine the meaningfulness of election”.[22] It certainly holds true for Belarus.

Lukashenka is not going to undermine or change electoral strategies that have worked well for sustaining the regime. But the regime will be employing other non-electoral strategies to hold on to its power. The established political system maintains a number of preemptive mechanisms that prevent public mobilization and collective action. The detention of independent journalists on the bogus charges of non-authorized access and the case against the chairman of the independent labor union, who is currently on trial, just confirm that the regime does not shy away from using selective prosecution when it is needed. Now, with the tightening control over the online space, Lukashenka wants to prevent any surprises such as the public mobilization against the infamous unemployment tax.

However, Belarus’ highly centralized government system, under the full control of the president and the “president vertical”, is unable to cope with emerging local and regional issues. In January, the construction of the pulp-bleaching factory in the town of Svietlahorsk sparked the protest from local residents, who were concerned that authorities ignored damaging health effects of the plant and did not conduct a proper risk assessment.[23] Just a month later, residents of the city Brest also protested against the construction of the battery plant next to the city, collecting more than 25 000 signatures demanding to stop the construction.[24] Investment decisions are imposed top-down with public consultations only on paper, implemented in pursuit of quick investments and with little regard to environmental or health safety. In the absence of reliable feedback mechanisms, the government conducts public policy blindly: withdrawing or reworking controversial measures in case they spark public protests. Thus, it is not surprising that Lukashenka’s next move was to put the screws on media freedom rather than changing electoral tactics.

References

[1] Baturo Alexander. October 14, 2015. Belarus – The 2015 Presidential Election. Presidential Power Blog. http://presidential-power.com/?p=3936

[2] Here and on, the article uses ALA-LC Romanization tables of the US Library of Congress, the transliteration in the text is from Belarusian.

[3] BelTa, August 14, 2018. “Dismissal, presidential criticism, and special regime – summary of the resonant meeting in Orsha” [Отставки, президентская критика и особый режим – итоги резонансного совещания в Орше]. Available at http://www.belta.by/president/view/otstavki-prezidentskaja-kritika-i-osobyj-rezhim-itogi-rezonansnogo-soveschanija-v-orshe-314043-2018/

[4] BelTA, November 14, 2017. “Lukashenka supported 18 February 2018 as the election day for the local council elections” [Лукашенко поддержал назначение выборов в местные Советы депутатов на 18 февраля 2018 года] Available at: http://www.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-podderzhal-naznachenie-vyborov-v-mestnye-sovety-deputatov-na-18-fevralja-2018-goda-275741-2017/

[5] Schedler Andreas, The Politics of Uncertainty: Sustaining and Subverting Electoral Authoritarianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[6] OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission, December 8, 2016. Parliamentary Elections 11 September 2016: Final Report. Available at: https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/287486?download=true

[7]Charnysh Volha, and Kulakevich Tatsiana, “Belarus: Belarusian Political Parties: Organizational Structures and Practices,” in Organizational Structures of Political Parties in Central and Eastern European Countries, eds. K. Sobolewska-Myślik, B. Kosowska-Gąstoł, & P. Borowiec (Kraków: Jagiellonian University Press, 2017), 41-58.

[8] “Central Election Commission of the Republic of Belarus,” last modified November 23, 2017, http://rec.gov.by/ru/spisok-politicheskih-partiy

[9] Here and on, all the tables use the data from the Central Election Commission, “Elections, the 28th Local Councils of the Republic of Belarus (volume of electoral statistics)” [Выборы в местные Советы депутатов Республики Беларусь двадцать восьмого созыва (сборник электоральной статистики). Available at: http://rec.gov.by/sites/default/files/pdf/Elections-MS28-Itogi.pdf

[10] BelTA, September 27, 2017, “Belaia Rus’ prepared a plan for participating in the 2018 local elections” [“Белая Русь” подготовила проект плана для участия в местных выборах в 2018 году]. Available at: http://www.belta.by/politics/view/belaja-rus-podgotovila-proekt-plana-dlja-uchastija-v-mestnyh-vyborah-v-2018-godu-268544-2017/

[11] BelTA, October 14, 2017, “The issue of transforming Belaia Rus’ into political party requires serious consideration” [Вопрос преобразования ”Белой Руси” в политическую партию требует серьезного обсуждения]. Available at http://www.belta.by/opinions/view/vopros-preobrazovanija-beloj-rusi-v-politicheskuju-partiju-trebuet-serjeznogo-obsuzhdenija-5812/

[12] TUT.BY, February 6, 2018, “Lukashenka changed the leadership of state-media” [Лукашенко сменил руководство государственных СМИ]. Available at: https://news.tut.by/economics/579931.html?crnd=75512

[13] Kostyugova Valeria, “Parties: Exploration of New Reality,” in Belarus Yearbook 2018: A survey and analysis of developments in the Republic of Belarus in 2017, eds. Pankovsky Anatoly & Kostyuhova Valeria (Vilnius: Lohvinaŭ, 2018). Available athttp://nmnby.eu/yearbook/2018/en/page13.html

[14] Bukowski Pauluyk, January 15, 2018 “Local elections: ‘Unexpected people’ turned out to be unexpectedly few” [Местные выборы: “неожиданных людей” оказалось неожиданно мало]. Naviny. Available at: https://naviny.by/article/20180115/1515995917-mestnye-vybory-neozhidannyh-lyudey-okazalos-neozhidanno-malo

[15] Naviny, October 9, 2017, “Anna Kanopatskaia started civil campaign ‘Forward Belarus!’” [Анна Канопацкая начинает гражданскую кампанию «Вперед, Беларусь!»]. Available at: https://naviny.by/article/20171009/1507541556-anna-kanopackaya-nachinaet-grazhdanskuyu-kampaniyu-vpered-belarus

[16]Tsaryk Yury, March 2, 2018, “Local elections in Belarus: takeaways,” BelarusDigest. Available at: https://belarusdigest.com/story/local-elections-in-belarus-takeaways/

[17] BelTA, January 22, 2018, “Voter turnout could exceed 60% at the local elections in Belarus – CEC” [Явка избирателей на местных выборах в Беларуси может превысить 60% – ЦИК]. Available at: http://www.belta.by/politics/view/javka-izbiratelej-na-mestnyh-vyborah-v-belarusi-mozhet-prevysit-60-tsik-285630-2018/

[18]Naviny, February 17, 2018, “Observers and activists report new facts about the use of ‘carousels’ in the local elections” [Наблюдатели и активисты заявляют о новых фактах использования «каруселей» на местных выборах]. Available at: https://naviny.by/new/20180217/1518857409-nablyudateli-i-aktivisty-zayavlyayut-o-novyh-faktah-ispolzovaniya-karuseley

[19]Kulakevich Tatsiana, August 15 2018, “Why is Belarus cracking down on independent journalists – and the Internet,” Monkey Cage. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/08/15/why-is-belarus-cracking-down-on-independent-journalists-and-the-internet/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.5609549c1a39

[20]Burkhardt Fabian and Rohava Maryia, July 24 2018, “Modernizing the Constitution to preempt a succession crisis? Belarus between Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia,” Presidential Power. Available at: http://presidential-power.com/?p=8485

[21]See more information in Tatsiana Kulakevich’s piece “Why is Belarus cracking down on independent journalists – and the Internet”.

[22]Anna Lührmann, Valeriya Mechkova, Sirianne Dahlum, Laura Maxwell, Moa Olin, Constanza Sanhueza Petrarca, Rachel Sigman, Matthew C. Wilson & Staffan I. Lindberg (2018): State of the world 2017: autocratization and exclusion? Democratization (2018): https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2018.1479693

[23]Rudnik Alesia, January 30, 2018, “Belarusian industrial enterprises: authorities invest, citizens protest”. BelarusDigest. Available at: https://belarusdigest.com/story/belarusian-industrial-enterprises-authorities-invest-citizens-protest/

[24]DW, February 2, 2018, “Who and why opposes the battery plant next to Brest” [Кто и почему выступает против аккумуляторного завода возле Бреста]. Available at: https://p.dw.com/p/2rtXL?maca

  • by Maryia Rohava

    Maryia Rohava is a PhD-candidate at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo in Norway. Her PhD-project concerns "Political Rituals under Autocratic Rule in Belarus, 1995-2015: Symbols, Performances and Popular Beliefs". Maryia Rohava has a background in Political Science (B.A.), and completed her research Master’s degree in European Studies at Maastricht University with the financial support of the Open Society Foundations. Before joining University of Oslo, she worked as a research assistant on EU multilevel governance at the European Institute of Public Administration in Barcelona. She gained experience in civil society empowerment and civil rights advocacy at the Eastern Europe Studies Centre in Lithuania and through participation in international election observation missions in Belarus, Georgia and Lithuania.

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