Political Parties: Between a boycott and parliamentary election campaigning

Yury Chavusau

Summary

The coordination platforms used by the democratic opposition lost their value under the influence of the factor of the elections to the House of Representatives. New alliances and interaction patterns emerged in the course of the election campaign. These alliances took the shape of proto-coalitions after the elections and will determine the preparation for the local elections scheduled for late 2013 and negotiations within the opposition in 2014–2015, although the political framework can change by the time of the presidential election.

The intention of the NGO Belaya Rus (‘White Ruthenia’) to transform into a strong ruling party were not encouraged by the Belarusian political leadership and will not be actualized in the foreseeable future.

As usual, the parliamentary election campaign was followed by a certain improvement of the electoral legislation, which however does not make the electoral process more liberal.

Trends:
Political agenda

The parliamentary elections topped the political parties’ agenda in 2012. Participation of candidates from the democratic opposition in the elections was a question of principle. Although opinions on the election tactics differed fundamentally: neither a boycott, nor campaigning would have enabled democratic parties to qualitatively change the terms of political struggle.

The democratic opposition split into three groups with regard to their views on the tactical dilemma. Among the officially registered parties only of the Conservative Christian Party Belarusian Popular Front (CCP-BPF) was firmly committed to a total boycott of the elections. The Boycott coalition united CCP-BPF supporters – the trade union of the radio-electronic industry, the organizing committee of the Belarusian Movement party, European Belarus campaign, and Malady Front (‘Young Front’). Registered democratic parties distanced themselves from this campaign: the CCP-BPF did not join this coalition, and support from the Belarusian Social Democratic Hramada was limited to speeches by its leader Stanislau Shushkevich.

The tactics of limited participation in the parliamentary elections was given warm encouragement by a number of opposition parties, which announced their intention to nominate their candidates to the parliament and pull them out before the ballot day unless the government meets specific conditions (the lists of the conditions varied, but they always include the demand to release political prisoners and change the legal and practical terms of the electoral process). This approach was taken by the Belarusian Popular Front, the United Civic Party (UCP) and the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy Party (BCD).

Full participation in the elections, including presence of candidates’ names in the ballot papers was advocated by the Belarusian United Left Party A Just World and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) seconded by politically active social institutions, such as the Human Rights and Educational Movement For Freedom and Tell the Truth campaign. Their position aroused fierce criticism among boycott advocates, because during the negotiations at the level of general statements in 2011, these organizations subscribed to the opinion that participation in the elections was unacceptable until political prisoners are released.

Other political questions, including those related to the international isolation of Belarus and sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States on the country’s leadership and businessmen who sponsored the regime, pale into insignificance against the background of these debates.

The major point on the post-election agenda of political parties concerned preparation for the next presidential election in 2015, including the possible options for nomination of a joint candidate from the democratic opposition (for example, through holding a congress of the democratic forces or primaries). An attitude to the economic strategy of the government was also an important point in terms of reaction to the policy pursued by the authorities. At the same time, a number of political organizations are trying to find an adequate response to the new challenge – the dropping popularity rating of president Lukashenko, which is however not accompanied by a rise in the rating of the opposition. A search for a key to the “new majority”, which does not trust either Lukashenko or the opposition, is declared as a fundamentally important task.

Party measurement of the parliamentary elections

The 2012 elections were a first test of the revised Electoral Code adopted in 2010 under the slogan of empowerment of political parties. According to the Central Commission for Elections and National Referenda (Central Election Commission, CEC), the introduced amendments resulted in a four-fold increase in the number of candidates nominated by political parties as compared with the previous elections to the House of Representatives in 2008. The registered candidates nominated by political parties were also four times as many as in 2008. 1

The Electoral Code established the institution of CEC member with a consultative vote, which was introduced in 2004 and 2008 by special decrees of the president. Seven political parties exercised this right in 2012: the oppositional United Civic Party, Belarusian Popular Front, United Left Party A Just World, and Belarusian Social Democratic Party (‘Hramada’), and loyal Communist Party of Belarus, Liberal Democratic Party, and Republican Party of Labor and Justice. They were eight in 2008.

The presence of political parties in district election commissions was much stronger than before, primarily because the Electoral Code established a mandatory quota: one third of the commissions’ staff must be constituted by members delegated by political parties and NGOs (this rule applies to local commissions as well). However, the seats under the quota were taken by representatives of loyal parties and public organizations, so the presence of the opposition was far from the participation target. Opposition parties were quite active and filed 199 applications in total (9.4% of the total number of nominees and 49.8% of those nominated by political parties). Although the number of opposition representatives admitted to district commissions slightly increased in comparison with the parliamentary elections of 2008, the number of refusals remained very high.

Opposition parties were represented in district commissions by 48 people (3.3% of the total number of commission members and 24% of those nominated by opposition parties). For reference: during the 2008 parliamentary elections, opposition parties nominated 118 candidates to district commissions and 38 of them were admitted (2.2% of the total number of commission members and 32% of the candidates from opposition parties). It is important that the composition of the commissions did not change considerably: workers of government agencies, enterprises and establishments, who represented their organizations in 2004 and 2008, were delegated in large numbers in 2012 by political parties and public associations loyal to the government.

Opposition parties were less active in promoting their candidates to local commissions as against 2010. In the 2010 presidential election, 1,073 candidates from opposition political parties constituted 1.3% of the total number of candidates for election commissions. This year, 664 candidates from five opposition parties constituted only about 0.8%. Interestingly, the Liberal Democratic Party, which positions itself as a mass party, ignored the nomination for election commissions. On the other hand, the number of nominees from other loyal parties significantly increased. For example, the Republican Party of Labor and Justice nominated twice as many people as during the presidential election of 2010.

Several opposition groups (the Minsk city and regional branches of For Freedom, the Hrodna regional branch of the Belarusian Popular Front) attempted to register local organizations shortly before the elections but were turned down. As a result, they were denied the right to nominate their members to the election commissions in those districts.

A comparison of the “admission percentage” of pro-government and opposition parties and NGOs gives grounds to speak about a discriminatory approach in formation of district election commissions (see Table 1).

No. Name of the party or public association Nominated Admitted % of admittance
Parties and public associations loyal to the authorities
1 Belarusian Agrarian Party 571 485 85
2 Communist Party of Belarus 845 635 75
3 Republican Party 262 235 90
4 Republican Party of Labor and Justice 832 704 85
5 Belarusian Social-Sports Party 609 551 90
6 ‘Belaya Rus’ 4,799 4,189 87
7 Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) 4,345 3,674 85
8 Belarusian Union of Women 4,037 3,791 94
9 Belarusian Public Association of Veterans 3,138 2,635 84
10 Federation of trade Unions of Belarus 10,400 9,418 91
Opposition parties
11 Belarusian Green Party 20 0 0
12 Belarusian United Left Party A Just World 216 39 18
13 Belarusian Social Democratic Party (‘Hramada’) 30 5 17
14 United Civic Party 240 5 2
15 Belarusian Popular Front 158 12 8
Table 1. Admission of candidates from opposition and pro-government associations to district commissions 2

The proportion of representatives of four opposition parties in the total number of election commission members was approximately 0.1% (61 people out of 68,945). During the 2010 presidential election, five opposition parties had a 0.26% representation (183 people out of 70,815). In Minsk, where political activity was the highest, opposition parties nominated 186 people and none of them was admitted to local commissions.

In constituencies where opposition leaders (Alaksandr Milinkevich of For Freedom, Alaksei Yanukevich of the Belarusian Popular Front, and Uladzimir Navasyad of the Party of Freedom and Progress among them) ran for parliament, election commissions did not include a single representative of the opposition despite determined attempts of the latter to obtain commission mandates. None of complaints which followed the refusals was sustained in court.

As many as 440 applications for registration of initiative groups for collecting signatures for nomination of candidates were filed and 352 groups were registered. They were going to mobilize 330 people and some applicants registered several initiative groups in various constituencies (Table 2). Opposition parties only registered 58 initiative groups: the Belarusian United Left Party A Just World had 26, Belarusian Popular Front 18, United Civic Party 4, Belarusian Social Democratic Party (‘Hramada’) 9, and Belarusian Green Party 1. Parties not affiliated with the opposition registered seven initiative groups: the Communist Party of Belarus 5, Belarusian Agrarian Party 1, and Republican Party of Labor and Justice 1. Eighty-five groups were turned down, which means that the number of refusals went up 4-fold in comparison with the previous parliamentary elections.

Year of elections Applications submitted Registration denied Registered % of refusals to register
2004 635 71 564 11
2008 455 23 423 5
2012 440 85 354 19
Table 2. Registration of initiative groups 3

Nevertheless, there is no reason to conclude that the practice of refusals to register was tightened. Only 15 applicants were turned down this time. The number of initiative groups, which did not obtain registration, was large among other things because the groups of Mikalai Statkevich and Ales Mikhalevich tried to get through registration in several district election commissions at once. During the previous election campaigns, observers did not report any attempts to register several groups by one person.

Four hundred and ninety-four people were delegated across the country someway or other and 122 (24.6%) of them were not registered. Candidates ran unopposed in four districts (two districts in the Minsk region, one in the Brest region, and one in the Hrodna region). Representatives of political parties nominated 204 candidates (41% of the total number of nominees).

Most people, who were denied registration, stood for election through collection of signatures (56%). Inaccuracy of signatures (more than 15% of the checked ones) and errors in tax declarations were the most popular explanations given by the Central Election Commission. The public campaign Tell the Truth nominated 25 activists through collection of signatures. Only 13 of them (48%) were registered. Registration was denied to For Freedom movement leader Mr. Milinkevich, former Minister of Defense, now member of the United Civic Party General Pavel Kazlouski, as well as 23% of nominees from political parties, including 19.5% from the opposition.

As usual, the smallest number of refusals to register was reported among those nominated by staffs of organizations: only 3 out of 19 nominees (15%) bowed out of the campaign. All those nominated through collection of signatures and by staffs in combination were registered (89 out of 89). Noteworthy is that candidates backed by the authorities are usually nominated this way. Given that the government closely controls enterprises, it is clear that opposition candidates simply cannot be nominated by staffs.

The CEC received 56 complaints against decisions of district commissions to deny registration of candidates and one complaint against revocation of registration. There were fewer such complaints during the 2012 campaign than in 2004, when 164 applicants exercised the right to appeal against refusals, and almost the same number as in 2008 (52 complaints). Eleven out of fifty-six complaints were satisfied.

Among the 11 registered candidates, three were not affiliated with any party, six represented the United Civic Party and the Belarusian United Left Party A Just World (three each), and two represented the Liberal Democratic Party and the Belarusian Popular Front (one each). By satisfying around 20% of complaints, the Central Election Commission surpassed the number reported in 2008 (8 out of 52, or 15%) and did not reach the number of 2004 (44 out of 164, or 26%). The CEC received 19 complaints against earlier ungrounded refusals to register by district commissions. Only one of them lodged by Viktar Tsiareshchanka was satisfied and the applicant was registered as a candidate.

The United Civic Party and Belarusian Popular Front, which chose the tactics of campaigning on certain conditions, pulled out their candidates before voting. Only one candidate from the Front violated party discipline and stayed in the race till the end. Sometimes, members of opposition parties, who did not want to employ the tactics of withdrawal, kept campaigning not announcing their party membership that however did not change the situation: none of the oppositionists were given seats in the House of Representatives.

Elections in the regime totally controlled by the executive branch continued the old tradition of an almost nonpartisan House of Representatives. Five members of political parties loyal to the regime were admitted to the lower chamber of the fifth convocation: three from the Communist Party of Belarus, one from the Agrarian Party, and one from the Republican Party of Labor and Justice (the previous chamber totaled seven party representatives: six from the Communist Party of Belarus and one from the Agrarian Party). At the same time, according to Belaya Rus, more than sixty MPs are members of this pro-government NGO, which lays a foundation for its transformation into a political party.

Legal conditions and an outlook for amendments to the legislation on political parties

There are still 15 political parties Belarus. Two attempts to register new ones in 2012 were fruitless: the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party (the fourth attempt to become an official party) and the Communist Party of Workers (the second attempt) failed to obtain registration. Last time, a new party, the Conservative Christian Party Belarusian Popular Front, was registered as far back as 2000. The Belarusian Christian Democracy leadership made one more attempt to legalize the party in late 2012 through registering its regional, Minsk city and youth associations, but did not succeed.

Twenty-two new organizations of political parties were registered or recorded in 2012, which roughly corresponds to the figures reported in 2008, 2009 and 2011, and is much less than in 2010, when the number of local organizations established by pro-government parties was skyrocketing. Refusals to register organizations of opposition parties are still not uncommon. The Belarusian Popular Front has been trying to register its Hrodna regional branch for ten years now, but in vain. It was turned down in 2012 due to a failure to submit current employment details of organization members requested by the regional Department of Justice, which is not stipulated by the law actually.

The Central Election Commission’s proposal to entitle not only parties, but also public associations having over a thousand members to nominate candidates for parliament sparked off intense debates. The country leadership however did not welcome the idea and this paragraph will apparently not be included in the bill on Electoral Code amendments, which is supposed to be drafted in 2013. Trying to avoid a boycott, the CEC attempted to formalize an expanded circle of political actors in legislation. This innovation however would significantly enhance pluralism in the Belarusian political system, at least on the information level, and, consequently, threaten to disturb the balance of the present election management paradigm.

The parliament is going to vote on amendments to the law on political parties in 2013. The most fundamental amendment concerns transformation of regular NGOs into political parties. Even though the law in force already allows such transformation, experts are absolutely sure that this initiative was put on the agenda specifically to give the green light to Belaya Rus. Other proposed changes are either mere technicalities or do not alter the legal status of parties in any way.

Configuration of the political framework and (proto) coalition buildup

In 2012, some opposition parties united into in the so-called Six: a flexible coalition of four parties (United Civil Party, Belarusian Popular Front, United Left Party A Just World, and unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy) and two NGOs (For Freedom movement and unregistered Tell the Truth campaign). Soon enough, debates over the format of participation or a boycott of the parliamentary elections led to its disintegration. Other team-up ideas did not live long in 2012 and coordination of actions came to nothing but agreements on some particular matters or organization of isolated events like Freedom Day. Communication between opposition leaders was getting increasingly tensed until the elections, and the obvious crisis of confidence between parties caused by inarticulate division of responsibilities in the presidential campaign could not make the teamwork effective.

The attempts of A Just World to interpret the election monitoring campaign as a main unifying factor was an obvious exaggeration. A number of opposition organizations were not happy about the leading role of A Just World in election monitoring. For Freedom, Belarusian Popular Front and The Greens even tried to work out their own monitoring system, but had to back off soon and join efforts with A Just World. The all-round monitoring with online live reports on voter turnout (important to boycott advocates) organized by For Freedom, Tell the Truth and Belarusian Popular Front in Frunzienski constituency No.101 of Minsk is worth noting in this respect.

The United Civic Party and Belarusian Christian Democracy established close cooperation during the elections, which even resulted in nomination of members of the unregistered BCD as candidates from the UCP. This proto-coalition was consolidated after the elections; its members promoted the initiative to elect a joint presidential candidate from the opposition by holding primary elections, which the UCP has been unsuccessfully trying to advocate since 2010. Opposing this proto-coalition is an informal association of the For Freedom movement, Tell the Truth campaign and Belarusian Popular Front, which have not achieved much progress in negotiating a scheme of nomination of a joint candidate.

The United Left Party A Just World stands apart on the political arena. Its ambitions go beyond simple coordination of election monitoring. Potentially, this party can become a core of a stronger union of ideologically close left-wingers, although The Greens and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (‘Hramada’) are more inclined to support the bloc of For Freedom, Tell the Truth, and the Belarusian Popular Front.

Amid this factionalism in the democratic camp caused by the lack of a common vision of an opposition’s strategy in the presidential election, the Liberal Democratic Party is coming to the forefront as a party of constructive opposition to the regime. The LDP was very active during the parliamentary election campaign, and despite the failure to win any seats in the parliament, it managed to reorganize their branches and prove the ability to conduct national-wide campaigns as a “third force.” Many thus accuse the LDP of being controlled by the government. Anatol Liaukovich, former chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (‘Hramada’), made attempts to occupy the niche of “constructive opposition” by creating a virtual centrist party, which means that this position is in demand.

Conclusion

Certain improvements of the electoral legislation were traditionally made following the parliamentary election campaign, which however did not make the electoral process more liberal.

None of political parties has reinforced its positions on the political arena.

Transformation of Belaya Rus into a political party did not happen, although many believed in October–November 2012 that it would, which clearly indicates that a pivotal reshaping of the regime is not an option so far. The political leadership of the country sees no need to share power and formalize the competition between groups around president Lukashenko through creation of a “ruling party.” The Belarusian regime remains personalistic, and the game played by clans, groups, lobbyist and corrupt stakeholders does not manifest itself in the formal political process.