Political Parties: A Conceptual crisis and the search for alternatives to Ploshcha 1

Dzmitry Kukhlei

Summary

During 2014 oppositional parties were negotiating about a single candidate for the presidency but failed to agree. Among the leading political structures there was cooperation in the framework of two opposition blocs – Narodny Referendum (‘Popular Referendum’) and Talaka (‘cooperative work/mutual aid’) which had started as early as in 2013.

Local elections on March 23, 2014 were considered by opposition parties as a technical campaign with no chances for electoral victory. The parties tried to use the election campaign to strengthen their structures in the framework of long-term strategies and to prepare for the presidential election. However, the abilities of the opposition narrowed due to a deepening split in the Belarusian society caused by the Kiev Maidan and Russian media coverage of the Ukrainian events. As a result of the serious crisis of the concept of the Ploshcha (on the background of the Russian invasion into Ukraine) the position of supporters of gradual transformation of the Belarusian regime increased greatly in the democratic party environment.

The government continued to create unfavorable conditions for party development. Also the expectations of the governing elites to transform the Republican Public Association Belaya Rus (‘White Ruthenia’) into a political party did not materialize. At the same time Belaya Rus is gradually increasing its political potential.

Trends:
Coalition building: failure of talks on a single candidate

Throughout the year, the leaders of the major opposition parties tried to agree on the procedure of nominating a single candidate for the presidency. The dates of the Congress of Democratic Forces, where it was planned to determine a single leader of the opposition, were constantly postponed. As a result, last year's attempt to build up a coalition around the election of a single candidate failed.

Among seven leading opposition organizations that were trying to agree on the organization of the Congress, there was a clear division into two blocks. The strongest position was taken by the initiators of the campaign Popular Referendum namely the Movement For Freedom, the public campaign Tell the Truth, the Belarusian Popular Front Party and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party Hramada (‘Assembly’). These opposition groups managed to gain the trust during a long-term joint campaign in support of national plebiscite. According to the statements of the leaders of the Popular Referendum, they managed to reach a consensus, agreeing on a common position on the election of a single candidate at the Congress.

Later the Organizing Committee of Belarusian Christian Democrats (BChD), whose leaders throughout the year were unsuccessfully trying to bring to the agreement the representatives of the Popular Referendum and the alternative coalition Talaka, joined the initiators of the popular plebiscite. As a result five opposition parties signed the Agreement on the Congress of Democratic Forces. However, according to the original agreements of seven parties that had had the negotiations, this decision requires the consent of one more party, without which it cannot be implemented.

Representatives of the Talaka alliance from the United Civic Party (UCP) and A Just World Party refused to join to the General Agreement, dissatisfied with the procedure of the nomination of members of the Congress and by the lack of other leaders who could declare their intention to become a single candidate from the opposition. Unlike UCP leader Anatoly Liabiedzka, who as early as in May 2014 announced his presidential ambitions, the organizers of the Campaign Popular Referendum did not announce the name of their potential aspirant for the opposition leadership.

During the local elections in March the members of the coalition Talaka on the initiative of the UCP once again tried to realize the idea of the pre-election of the single candidate. However, according to the party leaders the authorities were able to disrupt the primary that the alliance had planned to hold in Babrujsk. It is obvious that the members of Talaka do not have resources and reliable mechanisms to organize such an initiative by themselves.

The opposition failed to unite for the joint election campaign in a single district in Homiel, where together with local election a by-election of the Member of Parliament was held. The organizations supporting the initiative Popular Referendum agreed on a common MP. However, the coalition Talaka nominated both representatives of the UCP and the Belarusian Leftist Party A Just World. Despite the claims of the opposition structures about the joint ‘demonstration’ election campaign, the plurality of the opposition candidates in Homiel showed a low level of trust among them.

The bloody events in Kiev during the overthrow of Ukraine's President Victor Yanukovich, the Russian annexation of the Crimea and the military conflict in the East of Ukraine caused the debate among the opposition about the transformation of the Belarusian regime. This significantly strengthened the position of those who criticize the concept of power change as a result of taking people to Ploshcha, i. e. the protests on the election day. While a number of organizations started searching for an alternative to the Ploshcha scenario to transform the Belarusian regime after the brutal post-election repressions in 2010–2011.

The initiators of the Popular Referendum in 2014 continued to implement activities in the framework of their long-term strategy of gradual changes of the Belarusian regime. They try to use public pressure to initiate changes in the spheres that are non-critical for the chain of command, having identified among them the most important ones for the Belarusian society. For this purpose, in 2013 by means of consultations they selected six priority issues for joint campaigns in order to initiate a national plebiscite.

On the other hand, the members of the coalition Talaka consider it possible to transform the Belarusian regime as a result of the fair and honest election. However, as 2014 local election showed, the authorities impair the conditions of election campaigning for their opponents, and the majority of the population does not care about the problems of honesty and fairness of elections. Opposition parties and human rights activists organized observation and post-election agitation during a number of political campaigns, which, however, failed to stimulate civic activism.

During the local elections of 2014 the members of Popular Referendum and Talaka did not agree upon the unification of the efforts for general party monitoring. At the same time the initiator of Popular Referendum and BChD were able to agree on the organization of joint public campaign Right for Choice which became a permanent party initiative on election observation.

The opposition vs. power at the local elections: agree to differ

The election organizers had a task to ensure a high voter turnout under the conditions of a low level of society politicization. In their turn the opposition parties considered the participation in the election campaign as an opportunity for the organizational development of structures, promotion of their programs during the preparation for the presidential election of 2015. The average contest for the parliamentary seat was 1.2 persons and did not differ from the previous campaign of the election to local councils of 2010. Traditionally the most active opposition candidates were found in the capital and major cities.

Although the Central Election Commission (CEC) recorded a high election turnout – 77.4%, according to the IISEPS, about 57% of the respondents voted. At the same time the party observers in the framework of the initiative Right for Choice stated that at some polling stations of Minsk and other large cities the turnout was less than 50%.

Once again close to the presidential campaign the authorities successfully tested changes to the Election Code. Innovations restricted even more the use of opposition election campaigns to communicate their ideas and impose their scenarios of elections on the authorities. For example, a number of opposition activists were prosecuted for calling for a boycott of the election, which had been forbidden after the parliamentary election campaign in 2012. In addition, according to legislative innovations all costs of the production of campaign materials must be covered solely from electoral funds created by candidates. The occasion to form their funds was taken only by 816 candidates out of 22 thousand. As a result, the election campaign of 2014 has become even less noticeable than the previous ones.

Compared with the previous election the authorities worsened the conditions of 2014 local election campaign for the opposition starting from the very first stages of it. During the formation of the election commissions a significant number of opposition candidates were excluded: out of the nominees only 11.4% were included into the territorial election commission (TEC), 5.95% went for the district election commission (DEC) and 5.6% were included into the precinct election commissions (PEC). 2 At the same time, pro-governmental parties’ nominees got the majority of seats in the election commissions: 80% – in TEC, 69.6% – in the DEC and 86% – in the PEC.

Among the candidates registered at local councils only 2.6% were from registered political parties, while 62.5% were nominated by petition, and 30.5% – by workers. 3 Out of 15 officially registered political parties only 10 took advantage to nominate their representatives for the local councils. Some pro-governmental parties, such as the Belarusian Patriotic Party, the Belarusian Social Sports Party and the Social Democratic Party National Consensus could register only 3 candidates for 18,816 places in the councils.

The authorities continue to reduce the number of MPs, especially in rural areas. This is not only a reduction in the number of rural administrative units in the country, but also the reluctance of the population to participate in the elections. Earlier, the head of the Belarusian Central Electoral Committee L. Jarmošyna complained about the growth of absenteeism in the Belarusian society, which creates difficulties for local administrations even in the search of loyal candidates: “The issue whether to save village councils is a very acute one, because it is extremely hard to find candidates and then to ensure the work of these representative bodies that have very little power”. 4

It should be noted that in the Belarusian society the popularity of leftist/Communist ideas is still alive. The pro-government Communist Party of Belarus could nominate into the regional, city and district councils the biggest number of candidates – 253 people. Although the last councils of the 26th convocation had had even more representatives of the CPB – 360 people. While their opposition colleagues from the Belarusian Leftist Party A Just World 5 also traditionally have a high level of participation in elections.

A significant amount of opposition organizations, especially those that do not have official registration, had nominated their candidates by petition. However, compared with the pro-governmental candidates the representatives of opposition organizations were denied registration more often (see Table 1).

Political party/movement Registered candidates Applied for registration Percentage of candidates registered, %
Belarusian Christian Democrats 42 131 32
Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) 52 99 52
The movement For Freedom 38 85 44
A Just World 89 120 74
Tell the Truth 103 487 21
United Civil Party 91 126 72
Table 1. Registration of the members of opposition organizations 5

With the decline of social guarantees to the population, the authorities sought to prevent the growth of protests in the society and identified a more rigid framework for the activities of their opponents. In its turn, the opposition failed to politicize the Belarusian society, despite some attempts to use the discontent of the population of the state socio-economic policy.

Power structures tried to restrict the activities of those candidates and political forces that transcended certain limits imposed by the authorities. For example, the authorities persecuted those activists who at pre-election mass events raised the issue of boycott of the election or the problem of the political prisoners in the country. The local administration derailed the agitation campaigns, isolated the most active opposition leaders by arresting them for a day or giving big fines.

The events in Ukraine also significantly narrowed the field of activity of the opposition. Pro-Ukrainian rhetoric of the vast majority of opposition leaders who with sympathy reacted to the protests in Kiev and the overthrow of Ukraine’s President Victor Yanukovich, was contrary to the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the population. Under the influence of the official Belarusian and above all Russian media the split in the Belarusian society increased. The majority of the population supported the Kremlin’s point of view of the Ukrainian events. According to the observations of IISEPS sociologists in 2014 the lowest level of readiness of the Belarusian citizens to participate in public protests was recorded, also the rating of the authorities increased against a lack of income growth. 7

It should be noted that the Belarusian leadership hinders the development of not only the opposition, but also of pro-governmental parties. As a result of the local election only 33% of the nominees of the opposition and pro-governmental parties got into the councils that is 248 people out of 748. In general, among the MPs, representatives of political parties made up only 1.3%. The number of opposition representatives in local councils, which was a tickle, continues to decline as a result of the local elections.

However, according to the IISEPS, about 9% of voters chose candidates from opposition parties and organizations. However, the support of the political parties decreased a bit against the events in Ukraine, which increased the number of supporters of the idea of a ‘strong state’. According to the March survey, only 14.9% of respondents expressed confidence to the opposition parties, and 66.3% said they do not trust them.

The pro-governmental parties are used by the Belarusian authorities mainly to demonstrate political pluralism during the election campaigns, as well as to ensure the requirements of the legislation on the presence of representatives of parties and NGOs in the election commissions. Under the conditions of a low party representation in the local government authorities the Republican Public Association Belaya Rus, whose leadership has repeatedly attempted to transform their organization into a ‘party of the authority’ continues to secure its position in the councils. Compared with the previous convocation the Association has increased its representation in local councils almost twice. 5114 members of the Republican Public Association Belaya Rus became deputies of all levels elected in 2014, while in 2010 – this number was 2885.

Thus, out of 18816 deputies of local councils one in four is a representative of the politicized Association Belaya Rus. The Minsk City Council contains 77% of their members, in Brest, Hrodna and Mahiliou district councils this figure is more than 55%. 1579 members of the Republican Public Association Belaya Rus, or 35% of the total number of deputies of the primary level, are elected members of the district councils. 8 Out of all nominees from this organization 93.7% got into the local representative bodies. These figures clearly contrast with the performance of the opposition parties that were able to promote just a couple of their representatives and even with other pro-governmental parties which showed more modest results.

The Republican Public Association Belaya Rus is gradually increasing its influence on political processes as a public organization. It should be noted that close to the local elections certain changes into the legislation were made. According to these innovations a public association may be converted into a political party. However, in 2014 Belaya Rus did not see the change in its political status. The Belarusian leadership begins the discussion about the creation of the ‘party of the authority’ on the basis of this politicized Public Association close to the election campaigns. In this way each time the governing establishment is given the hope to increase its role in the political process, which allows to retain the loyalty of the bureaucracy in order tot achieve the targeted turnout and voting results.

Conclusion

The participants of the negotiations of the Congress of Democratic Forces in fact abandoned the idea of nominating a single candidate from the opposition. The lack of agreement among the leaders on this issue increases the likelihood of nomination of several opposition candidates. However, the lack of resources and more stringent conditions for the elections created by the authorities will make the parties cooperate in the framework of the opposition blocks Popular Referendum and Talaka which gained trust among themselves in the last election campaigns. The authorities are also interested in a limited competition from their opponents and in the nomination of 2–3 opposition candidates who will share the protest electorate among them.