For the last eight years, not a single opposition member has sat in Belarus’ parliament.
That did not change after elections on Sunday. Several opposition parties in this eastern European country, asserting that the electoral process was unfair and demanding the release of political prisoners, boycotted the polls in a bid to deny legitimacy to the results.
Belarus’ parliament is widely regarded as a rubber stamp for President Alexander Lukashenko, who has led the country for 18 years. According to Belarus Digest, the parliament’s lower house, the House of Representatives, has proposed just three bills of its own in the past four years: the rest of the legislation it approved came from the presidential administration.
Dubbed Europe’s “last dictator” by former US president George W Bush, Lukashenko – a collective farm director during the Soviet era – was elected as Belarus’ first president in 1994. He was described at the time as a “fiery anti-corruption crusader”, and – never one for dull phrases – described corruption as an “all-devouring octopus” that had “ensnared all government organs with its tentacles”.
Bordered by three EU member states to its north and west, Belarus is flanked on its east by its ally Russia. The two states have quarrelled in recent years, but borders between them are open, and Russia – Belarus’ biggest trading partner – continues to provide the country with generous energy subsidies. In recent years, Belarus has also grown closer to China, a country Lukashenko has called a “best friend”.
Since Lukashenko took office, international observers have not had kind words for elections in Belarus, which has grown increasingly distant from Western countries after a harsh clampdown on dissent following Lukashenko’s victory in the 2010 presidential vote. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has routinely described Belarusian elections as neither free nor fair, and said Sunday’s election was not competitive either.
The Belarusian government begs to differ. Lidiya Yermoshina, head of the country’s central election commission, told Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull that “we don’t even have the means to falsify election results”.
Sunday’s elections courted controversy early: among other incidents, former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich was denied ballot access due to a technicality, and two OSCE observers were denied entry visas. Andrei Savinykh, the spokesman for Belarus’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Al Jazeera that the denial of visas had “no connection” with the OSCE’s observation mission.
In the streets of Minsk, levels of excitement seemed low on Sunday. Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull said there was “little election buzz” in the capital. “You’d never think it was election time,” he wrote. Opposition parties told their supporters not to mount protests.
For his part, Lukashenko was quoted as saying elections that are “boring and peaceful” are “a good thing for the people, not to mention for the government”.
Election officials claimed a turnout of 74.3 per cent – greater than the 50 per cent required to avoid a redo of the election.
The Belarusian opposition, comprised of both political parties and civic movements, is united in their dislike of Lukashenko and their conviction that elections in the country are unfair.
But they are politically fractious. For instance, nine candidates ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 presidential election. In this round of elections, the parties also differed on strategy: some chose not to participate from the start; others campaigned but withdrew because certain conditions were not met; still others remained on the ballot.
Polls close in Belarus election amid boycott
One party, Belarusian Christian Democracy, planned from the start to boycott this year’s elections, which they said would be inherently unfair.
“We had no moral right to take part in them,” party co-chairman and 2010 presidential candidate Vital Rymasheuski told Al Jazeera, explaining that many of the strongest candidates had been disqualified from running. “Our boycotting is the first step to fight for free elections.“
The party has tried to register with the government as an official party five times – but all of these attempts were rejected.
The centre-right BPF Party took a different tack. It planned to participate if two conditions were met: the release of political prisoners, many of whom were arrested after the 2010 clampdown, and inclusion of the party’s representatives on local election commissions that count the votes.
But only 13 of the 233 representatives it put forth were included on the commissions, party chairman Alaksej Janukevich told Al Jazeera, and political prisoners were not released. Accordingly, Janukevich said “we decided it would be absolutely unfair to call people to come to the polling stations”. The party, which supports free-market economic policies and Belarusian membership in the EU, withdrew its candidates on September 15.
The United Civil Party, another centre-right opposition party, withdrew its candidates for the same reasons. UCP candidate Uladzimir Shantsau urged voters to “go to their summer houses or go fishing” instead of voting.
Opposition parties participated in the 2008 parliamentary elections, though failed to win even a single seat in elections that the OSCE said were undemocratic.
As might be expected, the president and pro-government groups criticised the boycotters. Lukashenko called them “cowards who have nothing to say to the people” after casting his vote in Minsk, Reuters reported.
Some opposition groups also had harsh words for the boycott.
Andrey Dmitriev, a deputy chairman of the “Tell the Truth” civic movement, readily admitted that the elections would be “undemocratic” and that parliament would be “100 per cent appointed”.
Candidates affiliated with the movement, however, remained on the ballot. Although the election may not be fair, Dmitriev told Al Jazeera, “that doesn’t mean we should say and show that there is no alternative. There is an alternative.” Ultimately, he said, the movement views this election as merely a step to the presidential elections scheduled for 2015 – when, he hopes, a single strong opposition candidate will emerge.
“The only solution is to go to the people, to take their grievances … put them together into political programme, and to show the people that we can solve your problems better than Lukashenko.”
-Siarhei Bohdan, fellow at the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies
BCD co-chairman Rymasheuski said he also hopes for unity in 2015, but charged groups participating in the election with violating earlier pledges to boycott, saying they “helped the regime in cheating Belarusian people … Those who called people to come to polling stations played on the regime’s side.”
Yauheni Preiherman, policy director at the Discussion and Analytical Society Liberal Club in Minsk, believes both electoral tactics – boycotting and participating – may be futile. Given the authoritarian nature of the government, he told Al Jazeera, “there are huge, huge disadvantages under each strategy”.
Despite its flaws, the opposition’s impotence is mainly the result of government suppression, argued Preiherman. “You have a very brutal authoritarian regime here which doesn’t allow any strong political alternative,” he noted. “And basically it controls everything.” In a sign of how tight these strictures are, the aforementioned BPF Party was originally called the “Belarusian Popular Front” – but a presidential decree in 2005 forbade the use of the words “Belarusian” and “Popular” in party names, according to the BPF website.
Preiherman suggests the parties develop more detailed political programmes, most of which he says are now only “vague ideological declarations”. But he does not expect much change unless Belarus sees a prolonged economic crisis, or a decrease in economic support from Russia.
Belarus’ economy sagged last year. Inflation ran at 108 per cent and the country accepted a $3bn bailout from the Eurasian Economic Community, led by Russia, provided that Belarus sell off $7.5bn in state assets. Since then, however, the country’s economic situation has stabilised.
Siarhei Bohdan, a journalist and fellow at the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, is bearish on the opposition, portraying them as being “preoccupied” with “petty problems”. He noted that although Lukashenko’s popularity has fallen somewhat over the past few years, this did not lead to a commensurate boost for his opponents.
He suggests more opposition groups become involved in grassroots politics, to the extent possible. Bohdan pointed to the involvement of “Tell the Truth” activists in a campaign against a joint Chinese-Belarusian industrial park planned near the town of Smolevichi. “After ‘Tell the Truth’ tried to capitalise on these grievances,” he said, “the authorities also had to meet the people” and respond to the complaints.
Bohdan’s recommendation? “The only solution is to go to the people, to take their grievances … put them together into a political programme, and to show the people that we can solve your problems better than Lukashenko.”