Parliament: Changes without consequences?

Andrei Kazakievich

Summary

The main political result of the year for the Parliament was the change in the political structure following the elections of September 2016. For the first time since 2000, a representative of an opposition party and one from civil society became deputies. Political parties received a record representation since the elections of 1995. Also for the first time since 2004 the age of MPs changed significantly: the number of those who are 40–50 years old increased, which could mean a departure from the model where the Parliament is considered the last point in the administrative and political career. The representation of the manufacturing sector increased while the number of representatives of the vertical power structure declined.

It is early to talk about real political consequences of such changes. Even if these changes were aimed at increasing political pluralism, then, like many other attempted reforms in Belarus, they were not consistent and were overlapped by counter moves. The party representation remained negligible and insufficient for collective political activity. Most political organizations (parties and Belaja Rus) are not represented in the Parliament by their leaders. Leading positions are taken by representatives of the executive vertical power structure.

Parliamentary groups as the main manifestation of collective political activity were not formed in the Parliament. It is likely that experiments at the stage of formation of the House of Representatives will not have consequences at the stage of political implementation.

Trends:

In 2016, the most important event for the Parliament was the parliamentary elections. Despite the fact that the electoral process had not changed, the election results showed some changes in the formation of the House of Representatives (HR). The structure of the HR differs greatly from all the previous ones in various parameters, which testifies to a certain experiment on the renovation of the legislative body.

Political structure

Since the elections of 2000 there was a critical drop in the representation of the formal party structures in the Parliament, the trend was steady, and the minimum party representation was reached at the 2012 elections (two parties were represented by 5 deputies). The results of the 2016 elections completely changed the trend of the last fifteen years: the party representation increased significantly, having reached its highest level since 1995. This caused the activation of several pro-governmental parties which campaigned intensively and proved their social and political prospects.

As already noted, in 2012 there were only five representatives of political parties in the Parliament. After the elections of 2016, their number grew to 16 people, which is the highest figure in the history of elections to the House of Representatives since 2000. In addition, the number and range of represented parties also increased significantly. If in 2004 their number fluctuated between two and three, now it reached five, and for the first time officially the opposition United Civil Party was represented. The modeling of pluralism though stays in ‘testing’ mode, as none of the parties is presented sufficiently even for the formation of a parliamentary group, not to mention organized influence on the legislative process.

The Communist Party of Belarus (CPB, 8 mandates) received the largest representation, which fits into the trend since 2000, according to which this party has always won the greatest number of seats compared to others. The Republican Party of Labor and Justice (RPLJ) and the Belarusian Patriotic Party (BPP) got three mandates each. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the United Civil Party (UCP) received one mandate each.

If to consider the increase in the representation of the parties as formation of political pluralism, the dominant position is given to the left wing (CPB, RPLJ, BPP), while BPP simultaneously acts as a formally pro-Russian political structure. The right wing in its opposition and non-opposition forms is represented minimally by the LDP and UCP. Interestingly, at 2000 elections, when the attempts to form a Belarusian version of the controlled pluralism were made from the entire opposition camp only the former representatives of the UCP were admitted to the Parliament.

After the elections of 2016 parliamentary seats were won by 68 representatives of Belaja Rus, 1 which means that the representation of the organization did not change (after the elections of 2012 they had received 67 mandates) and was above 60%. Despite such a strong position, the fact of the dominance of Belaja Rus in the Parliament is not easy to interpret. The organization has not transformed into a political party, and its value and weight in the political system remains in question. In the HR of the previous convocation the Belaja Rus members held the positions of Vice Speaker of the HR and the chairs of the several standing committees, now the leadership of the organization is not represented in the Parliament.

Also significant is the fact that at the meeting of Belaja Rus in November 2016, where they discussed the results of the parliamentary campaign, the deputies were represented by the ordinary Deputy Valery Kursievich. At the meeting of Belaja Rus Presidium on 15 December 2016, where the annual work of the organization was summarized, the Parliament was also represented by ordinary MPs. 2 The lack of the Parliament's leadership at key meetings of the organization, which formally dominated the Parliament, raises the question of the political status of Belaja Rus.

It seems that Belaja Rus at the moment is not a political entity but a service organization whose main function is providing human resources. By analogy with the Belarusian Republican Youth Union for youth, the membership in Belaja Rus can contribute to further political or administrative career, but that does not mean either influence or significant political weight of the organization itself.

Since the beginning of the activities of the House of Representatives of the sixth convocation there has been no information about the creation of any deputy groups and other prominent political self-organization of parliamentarians. This means a continued bureaucratic model of deputies’ activity which had formed in the early 2000s and means working in permanent commissions and thematic working groups. The political self-assembly of MPs in parliamentary groups has been absent in the Belarusian Parliament since 2004. However, immediately after the 2012 elections the parliamentary group Initiative was created. At that time the group included 21 members and the Minsk region was its regional framework, but there has been no noticeable activity since its establishment.

A demonstration of the political constraints of the Parliament is the absence of leaders of parties and organizations. Out of five parties, only BPP is presented by the head. The leaders of UCP and LDP did not enter the Parliament, and the leader of the RPLJ was forced to withdraw his candidacy. The first Secretary of CPB did not participate in the elections, nor did the leadership of Belaja Rus.

Renewal of the composition

After the elections of 2016, more than 24% of MPs kept their mandates. In comparison with previous years it can be considered average, which is higher than the results of 2012 elections (19.1%), but lower than all previous elections in the HR, where the share of reelected MPs ranged between 27–40% (Table 1).

  2000 2004 2008 2012 2016
Share of reelected MPs 33.6 40.0 27.3 19.1 24.5
Table 1. The share of reelected MPs from the total number of the deputy corps, percent

The election results show that the model, according to which the HR is formed, provides about ¼ of reelected deputies and the election of approximately ¾ new ones. This model appeared in 2008, and remains fairly stable and provides a substantial update of deputies.

Age and sectoral structure of the deputy corps

Significant changes occurred in the age structure of the HR. For the first time since 2000, the proportion of MPs aged 51 to 60 (suspended pension and retirement age) has dropped significantly. If in 2004 it made up the majority or even a significant majority of the deputies (49–62%), following the results of the elections in 2016, their share dropped to 46.4%. At the same time, the share of deputies in the middle of their careers increased significantly to 39.1%. For the first time since 2004, it shows an attempt to significantly rejuvenate deputies. Among other things, the consequence of the trend is that the HR is no longer considered the last point in the administrative and political career.

The sectoral structure of the new deputy corps in general is similar to the previous convocations. The main changes concerned the representation of the executive agencies and the industrial sector. According to the results of 2012 elections the largest group among the newly elected deputies was the officials of the vertical power structure (21 out of 89 deputies), while following the results of the elections in 2016, their number dropped to 16 people, in turn, the number of people from the manufacturing sector increased from 15 to 22 people. The number of newly elected MPs from the sphere of education, health, law enforcement agencies and public associations did not change compared to 2012 elections. The increase or decrease of their representation is no more than one or two members.

Changes in leadership

Vladimir Andreichanka was re-elected chairman of the House of Representatives: he has held this position since 2008, and before that, since 1994 he had headed Viciebsk regional Executive Committee. The newly elected deputy Baliaslau Pirshtuk became the Deputy Chairman, who since 2007 had held the position of Deputy Chairman of Homiel Executive Committee. Thus, the current senior management of the HR comes from the vertical power structure, which makes it slightly different from the Parliament of the previous convocation, where the position of the Deputy Chairman was taken by Viktar Huminski who had a military early career and eight years of experience of parliamentary activities prior to the appointment.

There was a significant update of the permanent commissions. Out of 14 chairs only two people retained their positions, which partly corresponds to the proportions of the MPs update (Andrei Naumovich, the Commission on Human Rights, National Relations and Mass Media; Liudmila Dabrynina, the Commission on Budget). Two other members became the chairs of the commissions where they had previously worked (the Commission on Economic Policy and the Commission on Legislation). Other Commissions were headed by newly elected MPs.

Among ten new chairs, five come from the executive agencies (three are from regional and one is from the national level). If to consider all heads of the Commissions as a group, taking into account the career experience prior to the election in the HR, the vertical power structure representatives take 7 out of 14 positions.

International activities

The Parliament traditionally performs a supportive role in the foreign policy of Belarus. The role of the Parliament is not decisive, but it is important for viewing the position of the Belarusian leadership at the international level, for the influence at the discussions on Belarusian issues, for maintaining contacts with politicians and officials of different countries and international organizations.

In 2016, the Western vector dominated over the traditional post-Soviet one in the international contacts of the Parliament. The most active contacts were developed with Poland. The Parliamentary delegation of Belarus led by the then HR Deputy Chairman Mr. Huminski, visited Poland twice: on 14–16 April and on 30 August – 1 September. During the latter visit, the representatives of the Belarusian Parliament took part in the meeting of speakers of Parliaments of Central and Eastern Europe. In turn, in August and in December of 2016, the Polish Sejm delegation visited Belarus.

In 2016, the representatives of the HR also received parliamentary delegations of various levels from Romania and Bulgaria (April), Latvia (May), France (June). The leadership of the Belarusian Parliament also held meetings with the representatives of the Italian region of Sardinia (February), with the Foreign Minister of Bulgaria (April) and others. The Belarusian parliamentary delegations visited the Czech Republic (March) and Latvia (June). In addition, Belarusian deputies had contacts with the OSCE PA, the EU delegations, the Parliamentary delegation of the Conference of the Baltic Sea, the Eastern Partnership initiative.

Against this background, the contacts with the countries of the former Soviet Union were not so intense. Relations with Russian parliamentarians in the Parliamentary Assembly of Belarus and Russia took place as planned, and even the anniversary character of some meetings did not significantly affect their format.

Contacts with Georgia were also active. The delegation of Georgian parliamentarians visited Belarus in February, and there was a meeting with the government delegation in March. Also the representatives of the HR took part in celebrations on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the independence of Georgia. In June a meeting was held with deputies of Moldova, and in November there was a visit to Kazakhstan.

In 2016 there were also contacts with Asian countries (Vietnam, Thailand, Afghanistan, Oman, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines). Besides, the National Assembly of Belarus was accredited as a permanent observer in various bodies of the Latin American Parliament, and also carried out contacts with representatives of Cuba and Ecuador.

During the year, Belarusian parliamentarians took part in various international and regional parliamentary structures: the World Assembly of the Inter-parliamentary Union, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Black Sea of Economic Cooperation, the Inter-parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy, and others.

Conclusion

In 2016, the development of Parliament was determined by some significant changes in the principles of the formation and a cautious experiment on political pluralism: the rise of party representation, the representation of the opposition, the rejuvenation of deputies, the increase in the representation of the industrial sector.

However, it is difficult to say whether these changes mean a transformation of the role and function of the Parliament. It is likely that they will remain exclusively formal. At least there is no noticeable increase in collective political activity in the Parliament, and the activity itself is of a bureaucratic rather than of a political character.

In the legislative process, the Parliament consistently adheres to a particular role, which envisages the completion and adoption of bills drafted by the government or by the Presidential Administration. The activity of deputies in initiating new laws is negligible. In the last few years the role of the Parliament increased in foreign policy and communication with social structures.