Political Parties: Development under a low ceiling

Valeria Kostyugova

Summary

In 2016, the tone in the development of political organizations was set by the election campaign to the Parliament, by the general liberalization of state internal policy, growing socio-economic problems in the country and, as a result, increased competition of political parties among themselves. Parties and movements began to use the social agenda more widely in political agitation, due to which they managed to increase the number of their supporters and even for the first time since 2000 to get some kind of representation in the Parliament. The analyzed period can be considered relatively successful for the development of political organizations, but the achievement of more significant results is problematic without changes in the political system as a whole.

Trends:
The creation of new coalitions

Parties spent the first half of 2016 trying to regroup and strengthen their positions in the political field. As in 2015, the structure of this field was set by the collision connected with self-determination of parties and political movements concerning the format of participation/non-participation in the elections controlled by the authorities – with all the cons equational differences in the preference of ultimate goals, tactics and strategies. 1

Coalition realignment began during the Presidential elections in 2015, because both the then coalitions People’s Referendum and Talaka could not agree on common approaches to the participation in the elections, and finally ceased to exist. Preparations for the parliamentary elections began almost immediately after the Presidential election campaign. In November 2015, the leaders of the civil campaign Tell the Truth (TT) Tatyana Karatkevich and Andrei Dmitryjev said they would form a list of prospective candidates on their own.

In December 2015 under the patronage of the European People's Party (EPP) the Center-right Coalition was established, which included the United Civic Party (UCP Chairman Anatol’ Lebedzko), the For Freedom movement (leaders Alexander Milinkevich, Yury Hubarevich), the Organizing Committee of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party (BCD, co-chairmen Paval Severynets and Vital’ Rymasheuski). The center-right members announced their participation in the parliamentary campaign.

Some observers thought that the Coalition was created as a counterweight to the TT and ex-presidential candidate Tatyana Karatkevich. 2 But the principles of the Coalition excluded 3 the interaction not only with the populist TT, but also with the Belarusian Social Democratic Party Narodnaja Hramada (BSDP (NH) chaired by Iryna Veshtardt), and the social democrats, led by Mikalaj Statkievich, and the leftist party Fair World (led by Siarhiej Kaliakin). In the end, the scope of the Coalition was narrow even for the right-wing Belarusian Popular Front (led by Alexej Janukievich), who in the beginning signed the Center-right Coalition.

In spring 2016 the Belarusian National Congress (BNC) was formed around the ex-presidential candidates in 2010 elections Mikalai Statkevich and Vladimir Nekliajev, who tried to attract some of the regional activists. Initially, the BNC tried to unite all democratic forces, excluding “the KGB and Communists” (i. e. Tell the Truth and Fair World), but failed to find allies and was forced to make its own decision concerning the parliamentary elections.

During the Coalition rearrangements three independent centers were formed, each of which formulated its own agenda and identified their specific tactics and strategies. They are: (1) Belarusian National Congress, (2) Tell the Truth movement and (3) the Center-right Coalition. BNC kept its categorical position against the regime and relied on street protests and the “expansion of free zone”. Tell the Truth movement was focused on ‘peaceful changes’, advocacy of interests of social groups and a direct dialogue with the authorities (meetings in the Parliament, with the government, active presence in the state mass media, collecting signatures, etc.). The Centre-right Coalition chose a combination of both strategies.

An important and defining point of political organizations was their joining the street protests. In case of the struggle for the abolition of decree No. 222 in February-March 2016, political organizations joined a series of street actions in Minsk and in the regions. The most numerous action was held on 15 February (about 1000 people), where along with entrepreneurs Mr. Statkievich, Lebedzko, Nekliajev, Severynets, Kuchuk (the leader of the Green Party), Taustyka (For Freedom movement) took part.

Despite the paucity of street protests in 2016, the participation of political organizations in them brought positive results. First, a number of parties and movements saw some potential in the politicization of social and economic issues – including the fact that the protests contributed to the suspension of the implementation of repressive measures of the decree. Second, for the first time since December 2010 the fear of political activists of Maidan significantly decreased. Third, political structures partly restored some of the lost skills of carrying out protests outside the circle of their unconditional supporters.

A series of peace protests of February-March 2016 became a model for protests in spring 2017 with all the strong points (non-bureaucratized and independent joining of protests by political organizations; provision protesters with organizational and other services in the form of posters, flags, sound-amplifying equipment, etc.; promotion of the interests of social groups, including the collection of signatures and handing them over to the authorities) and weak points (euphoria of initial success, outstripping the real determination of protesters; premature inclusion of the ‘ultimate’ political agenda).

The nomination of candidates

Common to all the participants in the parliamentary election campaign of the parties was the desire to consolidate their party structures, to attract new supporters, and to train activists. Despite the fact that some political organizations declared special purposes of participating in the parliamentary elections, propaganda campaigns, programs and candidates' speeches had more similarities than differences: most of them promoted the idea of ‘peaceful changes’ (i.e. reforms without upheavals and revolutions), more effective and just social policy, the strengthening of the sovereignty and independence of the country. Moreover, even the candidates-puppets of the authorities who took the trouble to pursue a more active election campaign, also drew the public's attention to these three points.

The opposition's attempts to unite under the pressure of opinion leaders, who support the idea of ‘unity’, were short-lived and insincere. Therefore parties did not waste time and strength on that and had an opportunity to nominate and to prepare their candidates for the election campaign. As a result, in 2016, democratic parties and political movements nominated a record number of candidates – 202, together with pro-governmental parties – 357 people. In general, there was a record number of total candidates: on the first day of the early voting there were 488 people per 110 seats in the Parliament; initially there were 521 registered.

The representation of democratic parties in the election commissions remained traditionally low due to the elimination of party representatives carried out by the Central Election Commission (CEC), and the small number of the nominated: only 55 out of 65,857 people (Table 1). The expansion of party representation in the commissions was carried out by the CEC at the expense of loyal parties.

The name of the party or public association Nominated to commissions Included into commissions
2012 2016 2012 2016
Political organizations loyal to the authorities
1 Belarusian Agrarian Party 571 655 485 637
2 The Communist Party of Belarus 845 988 635 816
3 The Republican Party 262 310 235 265
4 The Republican Party of Labor and Justice 832 1141 704 994
5 Belarusian Social and Sport Party 609 660 551 639
6 Bielaja Rus’ 4799 4626 4189 4536
7 Belarusian Republican Youth Union 4345 4066 3674 3488
8 Belarusian Union of Women 4037 4344 3791 4241
9 Belarusian NGO of Veterans 3128 3160 2635 2876
10 FTUB 10400 9350 9418 8939
Opposition political organizations
11 The Belarusian Green Party 20 0 0 0
12 The Belarusian Party Fair World 216 169 39 31
13 BSDP (Hramada) 30 42 5 3
14 The United Civic Party 240 223 5 14
  The Center-right Coalition 5   400   17
15 The BPF Party 158 80 12 5
16 The Social Democratic Party of Popular Consent (SDPS)   4   2
  Democratic organizations in total 664 518 61 55
Table 1. The inclusion of representatives of opposition political organizations and those loyal to the regime into election commissions (according to CEC 4)

An important feature of party participation in the elections of 2016 was the growth of ‘double’ nomination of candidates – in party lists and by collecting signatures. This should have helped parties to avoid the ‘mishap of 2015’ when two party leaders failed to gather enough signatures for their nomination. Democratic parties and organizations recorded a total of 95 action groups (the largest number was at the UCP and the TT). Pro-government candidates also resorted to the double mechanism and often even a ‘triple’ nomination (through workforce) and mainly those candidates who used at least two methods of nomination were elected to the Parliament.

304 initiative groups on collecting signatures for nomination were registered (for 110 seats in the Parliament); there had been submitted 479 applications for the registration of such groups. Active collection of signatures by candidates increased the actual time of the election campaign, allowing the candidates at an early stage to present themselves to voters and communicate with them.

At this stage the democratic organizations carried out joint pickets, mini actions, work to protect the interests of voters, etc. Within the collection of signatures Mr. Lahviniec even held a concert of the famous singer Liavon Volski. However, the CEC head Lidiya Jarmoshyna expressed dissatisfaction with the use of amplification equipment, megaphones and musicians on the pickets of Mr. Lahviniec (who in the end was not registered as a candidate) and Mr. Dmitryjev.

In general, the process of collecting signatures during the month contributed to the mobilization of party activists and voters.

Election campaign and observation

Party monitoring as well as the nomination of candidates was carried out coherently only partly. Fearing that the Tell the Truth movement agreed with the authorities on getting its leaders (Andrei Dmitryjev and Tatyana Karatkevich) in, the coalition of the party observation RightofChoice eliminated the TT from the observation campaign, and the TT organized the supervision at their precincts independently. BNC also appeared beyond the observation campaign. In the end the Coalition was made up by eight organizations: the BSDP (NH), BCD, UCP, For Freedom movement, the BPF Party, the Belarusian Green Party, the Independent Union of Electronic Industry, the Organizing Committee of the Freedom and Progress Party.

Peculiarities of the 2016 campaign indicate the adjustment of the approach of the authorities to election campaigns. First, the authorities are interested in a larger number of participants in the election, simulating competition, and encourage their candidates to greater public activity. Second, in comparison with the previous elections, the authorities are less interested in providing actual turnout of voters at ballot stations. As Deputy Chairman of the Human Rights Centre Viasna Uladimir Labkovich said, “elections in Belarus can be carried out without voters.” 6 Statements of officials, including CEC representatives, about the organization of the election campaign suggests the idea that the authorities started to think about reducing the cost of electoral procedures, the formation of a ‘political class’ and creating a barrier between voters and this class.

Probably, it was these long-term goals that led the authorities to increase the weight of political parties in the Parliamentary elections and to encourage their candidates to collect signatures, to campaign and participate in TV-debates, etc.

The opposition, in turn, was able to exploit the changed conditions and introduced many new players. Some candidates had quite intense and vivid campaigns. As a rule, they were those candidates working along the mobilization paradigm of ‘peaceful changes’, or evolutionary changes involving voters in the political process by means of elections. 7

Despite the relatively modest financial capabilities of the opposition during the current election campaign, candidates of this type became the most recognizable faces of the opposition – Andrej Dmitryjev, Tatyana Karatkevich (NH), Volha Kavalkova, Maryna Khomich (BCD), Ilya Dabratvor, Ales Mikhalevich (BPF), Mikalai Ulasevich, Anna Kanius (UCP), Jury Hubrevich, Viktar Janchurevich (For Freedom movement), etc. But even those candidates who worked along the traditional opposition demobilization paradigm (elections are fake, therefore, one must no participate in the ‘show’ elections), did not withdraw their candidacy – as it had been in 2012 8 – and stayed in the election campaigns till the end.

With the development of the campaign, the authorities began to fear the politicization of society and the high turnout on the voting day. To avoid this, they set down separate candidates – both democratic and pro-governmental. In addition, in 2016, the state refused to finance the propaganda campaigns of candidates. Finally, the already negligible opportunities for promotion in the state media (one five-minute speech on TV and an extra five minutes in case of the debate at the precinct) were minimized due to the partial silencing of the election topic in the news bulletins (not more than 2% of the time at the end of a program), while the personalities of the candidates were completely ignored. Besides, this time the channels did not put candidates’ addressing on the Internet (unlike in 2012 and 2015).

However, 2016 elections were brighter and more noticeable than the previous election campaigns. In the end, the activity of democratic organizations amid the growth of protest moods in the country made the government acknowledge the political weight of the opposition and its right to have their minor representation in the Parliament: Anna Kanapackaja, a UCP member, became a deputy. In general, the representation of parties in the Parliament increased significantly. 9

Conclusion

In general 2016 can be considered favorable for the development of parties and political organizations. Paying a high price for many years of attempts to unite, to organize boycotts and Maidan, and facing a serious threat of complete exclusion from a legal political field, the parties changed their strategy in favor of self-development and achieved some success. In any case, one seat in the Parliament is more than none. In addition, after the parliamentary elections following the Tell the Truth other political organizations also began regular contacts with the authorities in order to promote the interests of their trustees from certain social groups.

However, the adverse political environment, where the direct impact of parties on the political agenda and the authorities is not available, and the indirect one is limited (through the mobilization of public opinion, appeal to the authorities and organization/coordination of the various forms of protest), sets well-known limits to the development of political organizations. For more serious participation of political parties in the political life of the country it is necessary to form institutions of such participation, which is in the interest of not only democratic parties but also of those loyal to the authorities.