Counting of votes in Belarus.

Election Belarus election. Frauds and repression as usual

The 19 December presidential elections in Belarus did not meet the high expectations that the partial but encouraging regime liberalization of the past two years had raised in Western democracies and among the Belarusian opposition. Incumbent president Alexander Lukashenka was once again re-elected with supposedly 79,65 % of the votes in an election OSCE observers did not recognize as free and fair.

Published on on December 29, 2010

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The 19 December presidential elections in Belarus did not meet the high expectations that the partial but encouraging regime liberalization of the past two years had raised in Western democracies and among the Belarusian opposition. Incumbent president Alexander Lukashenka was once again re-elected with supposedly 79,65 % of the votes in an election OSCE observers did not recognize as free and fair. The Belarusian opposition, which again failed to back a single candidate, called its supporters to take to the streets of Minsk on the evening of 19 December to protest predicted frauds. The unauthorized meeting, attended by 15 to 40 000 people according to different estimates, was violently dispersed by the security forces after a dozen demonstrators – deemed by some to be provocateurs from the Belarusian (or possibly Russian) special services – stormed the Government building on Independence square. Almost 1000 people were arrested throughout the country, including opposition leaders, human rights activists and journalists. At the time of writing, five of the nine opposition candidates running for president are still in custody or detained by the KGB for interrogation. They face criminal charges and a prison sentence of up to 15 years for “organizing mass riots”. Among them, Vladimir Neklyaev – Lukashenka’s most likely challenger in a run-off, should election results have not been rigged – is missing: harshly beaten by security forces on his way to the cortege of demonstrators, he was kidnapped from the hospital in the early hours of 20 December and has not been seen alive since.

For those familiar with Belarusian politics this tragic unfolding of events comes almost as no surprise: the scenario repeats that of the last rigged presidential elections on 19 March 2006, following which hundreds of demonstrators, together with opposition candidates Alexander Kazulin and Alexander Milinkievich, were arrested. This time, however, repression was disproportionately violent: such a radical response to a peaceful demonstration illustrated that Lukashenka panicked at the idea of losing the face in front of “the square”. When opposition candidate Andrey Sannikov told the crowd he had formed a Committee of Public Safety to negotiate a run-off with the regime, Lukashenka’s worst nightmares of “colorful revolution” resurfaced. This mix of vote-rigging and repression appears as an irrational shift “back to dirty business as usual” since the regime had been gaining some credentials in the West lately, and had the country included in the EU’s Eastern Partnership. Many experts truly hoped that this time the Belarusian dictator, in office since 1994, would live up to the promises he has been distributing over the past months of holding elections in compliance with OSCE standards of democracy and transparency. This was not the case and candid optimists were proved wrong once again.

Great expectations… but a Potemkin village-style liberalization

For the record, reasons for optimism were first provided on 4 January 2010 with the introduction of a series of substantial amendments to the Belarusian electoral code following up on the recommendations contained in the OSCE/ODIHR Final Report on the September 2008 parliamentary elections. Some of the amendments represented significant improvements, notably concerning the early stages of the electoral process (the registration of candidates, membership in precinct electoral commissions and campaigning). These new provisions were left unimplemented in the April 2010 local elections, but they did create a more competitive environment in the race to the presidential elections. This was underlined by opposition leaders themselves during signature collection, when candidates and their proxies were not prevented from meeting with electors or airing critical slogans. As a result, apart from the incumbent president no less than 9 candidates managed to gather the necessary 100 000 voter signatures to be registered by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC).

New electoral rules provided that one third of the seats in the 6350 precinct electoral commissions (PEC) and the 155 territorial-level ones (TEC) be reserved for representatives of civil society organizations and opposition parties. The implementation of this provision was circumvented however by the fact that almost all PEC and TEC members appointed under this label are actually teachers, civil servants or factory workers professionally subordinated to the commission chairperson. As for domestic observers, even if the electoral code allowed for the accreditation of representatives from independent organizations such as the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections or the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, on the field they were outnumbered by “pocket” observers appointed by CSOs loyal to the regime (trade unions and veterans groups in particular). Consequently, most of the complaints they filed during the voting process were simply ignored by commission chairpersons, and if the latter did register observers’ complaints, the judiciary never ruled in the favor of observers when decisions were appealed in court.

The relative liberalization evoked above was confirmed by a limited opening of the public space throughout the campaign that started on 18 November. Contrary to the last parliamentary elections in 2008, opposition candidates were able to convey their messages to the electorate in an almost unhindered manner. They were allowed to hold political rallies and allocated facilities to meet with electors throughout the country. For the first time in more than a decade, each presidential candidate was provided two times 30 minutes free airspace on state TV and radio to present his electoral program. On 4 and 5 December televised debates were even broadcasted, to which Alexander Lukashenka did not deign to participate however.

Electoral background: brainwashing and state propaganda

Considering the omnipresence of the acting president in the media, which apart from the internet and a couple of opposition newspapers with very limited circulation are all state-controlled, these façade improvements hardly permitted opposition candidates to gain much visibility. With the exception of Vladimir Neklyaev, a 63 year old poet already famous in the Soviet times, all opposition candidates remain unknown to the average Belarusian elector, brainwashed for the past 16 years by an Orwellian-type of propaganda that constantly discredits opponents as incapable and dangerous traitors.

Characteristic of the political regime and media landscape in Belarus is the unchallenged domination of Alexander Lukashenka. His populist discourses and total control of so-called administrative resources allowed him to establish a patriarchal relationship with “his” people and a system of rewards-for-loyalty with civil servants, who make up 80% of the country’s workforce. Belarusian TV channels daily broadcast video clips remindful of the golden age of Soviet propaganda in that they perpetuate a cult of Lukashenka’s personality, with background messages celebrating the achievements of the regime and the national anthem as a soundtrack.

The CEC did not consider this as campaigning in favor of the acting president nor does it count the recurrent appearance of Lukashenka in the TV news as part of the time “equally” allocated to all candidates. According to OSCE media monitoring Lukashenka actually monopolized 92% of the airspace this fall. The same applies to the posters personifying Lukashenka as the architect of Belarus’ “economic miracle” and guarantor for peace with the country’s neighbors: displayed in all the schools, factories and houses of culture – which also happen to host most of the polling stations in the country – these propaganda posters are not considered as campaign material by the CEC.

As a result, Alexander Lukashenka undeniably enjoys wide popularity and the dedicated support of the traditional electorate of any communist-type regime – elderly people including war veterans, blue collars, civil servants and the military. In the absence of unbiased electoral polls, it is hard to estimate the true level of support for alternative candidates. According to a voter intention survey conducted by NISEPI, an authoritative independent sociological institute, in mid-October 17% of respondents intended to cast their ballot for Vladimir Neklyaev, and no more than 40% for Lukashenka. According to unofficial exit polls conducted on election day by Russian INSIDE institute and the United Civic Party (which backs the candidacy of economist Jaroslav Romanchuk) Lukashenka did not reach the 50% threshold sparing him a run-off against former diplomat Andrey Sannikov, the other prominent challenger in the presidential race. Considering the proverbial incapacity of the Belarusian opposition to unite and back a single candidate, in that event Lukashenka could have been re-elected on 2 January 2011 even without electoral fraud. Nonetheless, the regime and its supporters simply seem unable to break away with a deeply ingrained habit of vote rigging.

Deciphering the tricks of a sophisticated ballot fraud

The following analysis is based on first-hand observation and second-hand testimonies gathered while participating in the OSCE’s observation missions of the 2008 parliamentary and 2010 presidential elections in Grodno and Brest regions respectively. This field experience allowed me to identify a three-tier “pattern” of ballot fraud I believe the regime relies on during the voting, counting and results tabulation phases to secure a favorable outcome. Apart from the manipulation of public opinion evoked above, vote rigging in Lukashenka’s Belarus, I argue – and this allegation engages my sole responsibility and not that of the OSCE – seems to recourse to the following tactics.

The first stage vitiated by high suspicions of fraud is that of early voting. Although the opportunity for electors to cast their ballots during the five days prior to election day exists in democratic countries, such as in the United States where it is not believed to favor fraud per se, in Belarus as in several other post-communist countries early voting is deemed to be conducive of ballot stuffing. For the record, in Belarus ballot boxes are not transparent, making clumps of ballot papers uneasy to see until the box is officially opened. Notwithstanding improved security measures, such as the formal sealing of early voting ballot boxes in between voting sessions, doubts persist as to the conditions in which they were looked after by the policeman on duty. Several domestic observers taking night shifts outside polling stations during early voting actually reported unjustified coming and going of higher ranking policemen and unauthorized personnel in electoral premises during the last elections. In the September 2008 parliamentary elections, walking the streets of Slonim city (Grodno oblast’) after bedtime, I personally eye-witnessed unidentified people manipulating bulletins from an early voting ballot box, the bottom panel of which had been removed for that purpose. Despite OSCE recommendations, no progress was made to guarantee the inviolability of ballot boxes and Belarus coldly declined the offers of neighboring countries to supply the CEC with homologated transparent boxes.

Persistent suspicions surrounding early voting led opposition leaders to call their supporters to refrain from voting before election Sunday. This alone cannot explain the extraordinarily high percentage of ballot papers in favor of Lukashenka found in early voting ballot boxes at the time of counting. Similar fraud suspicions have long been expressed and in many cases alleged with regards to the mobile boxes that physically incapacitated voters may request to vote from home. This procedure which in rural areas is also extensively relied on to gather the polls of farm workers arguably facilitates attempts to influence voters, not to mention the possibility for the two PEC members carrying the mobile box out of the voting precinct to stuff ballot papers in it or substitute the box for a pre-filled one altogether on their way back.

The second stage at which ballot fraud is widely suspected to occur in Belarus is that of counting. This phase of the electoral process was actually assessed as “bad” or “very bad” by 48 % of the OSCE observers according to the preliminary report on the last elections released on 20 December. This negative assessment seriously undermines the otherwise favorable impression observers usually get from monitoring voting in orderly Belarus until 8 pm on election Sunday. Although this time OSCE observers contended that in some polling stations counting was conducted in a more transparent manner, in many others they were again prevented from getting a clear view of the procedure.

In the absence of formal regulations, the extent to which domestic and international observers can monitor counting is left to the discretion of the PEC member who supervises the process, which in Belarus is always wrapped up at a surprisingly rapid pace. It should be added that the PEC chairperson is not necessarily the one in charge: in some cases a member whom domestic observers had never seen in the premises on the previous days did actually instruct commission members on how to behave. Assuming that there is no reason to proceed with counting in a rush, whispering or in keeping observers several meters away if one has nothing to hide, the lack of transparency characteristic of counting in half of the precincts where OSCE observers monitored counting gives ground to suspect that massive frauds occur at that stage precisely.

My experience of monitoring ballot counting in 2008 and the thorough observation of how it was carried out in the PEC where I was deployed in 2010 allowed me to grasp the moment when the conjuring trick is performed that gives the power candidate an 80 % majority – although at first sight the share of ticks in front of his name on the unsorted ballot papers are not that high. The manoeuvre is gross but rapid enough to slip past the guard of inexperienced or passive observers. It also reflects the high level of prestidigitation training of the PEC members supervising counting: when the attention of observers is distracted, bundles of unsorted ballot papers and papers on which the tick stands in front of the name of an opposition candidate or “against all” are simply slipped in the pile of ballot papers for the candidate they wish to see win.

Since the counting supervisor can dismiss claims for transparent (re-)counting, the fraud, even if noticed, goes unsanctioned, and is not verifiable after all ballot papers have been packed and sealed for transmission to the TEC, where recounting is simply not an option. Last but not least, the fact that in both polling stations where I observed counting the number of signatures on the voters list was not counted and no intermediary results announced out loud left the PEC all latitude to “adjust” the final results written down in the protocol. Knowing that in these as in other “problematic” polling stations where OSCE observers monitored non-transparent counting PEC members spent an inexplicably long time in a backroom and made several phone calls before completing the protocol leaves no doubt that results were fiddled to meet orders from above.

As for the third opportunity to manipulate election results, namely data tabulation and transmission from the TEC to the CEC, in Belarus the OSCE has no mandate to appoint observers for monitoring that part of the process. There is no centralized (nation-wide) voters list and electors can be added to PEC-level lists all through the voting period. Since no detailed results ventilated by TEC or PEC have ever been published in the country, it is impossible for outsiders to carry out the control equations necessary to trace the veracity of the overall percentages announced by the CEC.

Admitting that Alexander Lukashenka was fraudulently re-elected for the third time in ten years and that his regime obviously re-established repressive methods, remaining supporters of a democratic Belarus are faced with several challenges.

What’s next? Divide and rule

Looking first at the domestic outcomes of the 19 December elections, it appears that the opposition, or what will be left of it should its current leaders remain in prison, is once again at the trough of the wave. All opposition-minded Belarusians will surely face repression as well and be forced to retreat in dissidence if administrative sanctions are taken to close down their platforms for communication and self-organization. The fact that OMON special forces had seemingly no case of conscience to beat peaceful protestors, including women, while leaving the leaders of the violent assault on the Government building unworried, illustrates the regime’s arbitrariness and fuels conspiracy theories. In arresting people in the trains that were taking demonstrators from provincial cities to Minsk and in freezing access to the internet for a couple of hours on 19 December, the regime reminded that its power grip was far from virtual. This will force opponents to find new ways to conduct their activity, most probably on the basis of internet social networks. Time will show how opposition parties will recover from the regime’s assault and react to the ambiguous decision of Jaroslav Romanchuk to condemn the opposition for organizing an unsanctioned meeting. As of now, unity and solidarity prevail to supply arrested demonstrators with warm clothes and moral support.

As for the international community, which currently faces comparable crises elsewhere (Haiti, Ivory Coast), it was obviously taken by surprise on the wake of Christmas holidays and is still searching for an adequate response. The EU in particular appeared to be in quandary until the foreign ministers of Poland and Germany, Radek Sikorski and Guido Westerwelle – who in November pledged to grant Belarus 3 billion euros in reward for expected democratic improvements – co-authored with Carl Bildt and Karel Schwarzeberg, their Swedish and Czech homologues, an article in the 23 December edition of the New York Times. In this pamphlet they compared recent events to the dark times of martial law in 1981 Poland. They stated that “continued positive engagement with Mr Lukashenko at the moment seems to be a waste of time and money” and called the European Union to defend its values in supporting “the many in Belarus who know that his clock is ticking – and are discreetly preparing for a better future”. Ironically, the most important bargaining chip remains in the hands of the Belarusian dictator, who can chose if an when to satisfy Brussels’ request to set political prisoners free.

When it comes to Russia, for the first time the Kremlin refrained from congratulating Lukashenka for his reelection. Interfax reported that Dmitry Medvedev finally acknowledged Lukashenka’s reelection on Friday 24 December – but no mention of this was posted on the Russian President’s website. Nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky was the first Russian political figure to comment earlier that week – to call the Belarusian dictator to “admit his defeat and step down”. Meanwhile, the Russian embassy in Minsk focused on defending the interests of the dozen Russian citizens arrested on Independence square on election night. Despite the recent détente in bilateral relations that followed the signing of agreements on the Eurasian Economic Community on 9 December, one can expect the Kremlin tandem to critically reassess its position on the Belarusian regime. Evidence of this came already on 24-25 December with the broadcasting on Russian TV channels of a new salve of “media war” documentaries meant to discredit Lukashenka’s “elegant” reelection.

In the dilemma between domestic legitimacy – however manipulatively obtained – and international recognition, Lukashenka chose the most uncompromising way he is most familiar with and that never put his authority at risk so far: tightening his grip on civil society while at the same time thumbing his nose at the West. The latest electoral farce could however be one too much.

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