Parliamentary Elections 2019: a Political Event or a Political Disappointment?

Press Club Belarus, the website of the expert community of Belarus “Our Opinion”, and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) organized the meeting of the Expert and Analytical Club on the topic “Parliamentary Elections-2019: Administrative Routine or Political Event?” on October 16th. The meeting was surprisingly eventful and interesting. Considering the Press Club’s Chatham House Rule, we will share the most important and substantial moments of the meeting without indicating the names and the authorship of the quotes.

The participants of the meeting of the Expert Analytical Club’s:

Other speakers: Ulad Labkovich, Artsiom Shraibman, Tatsiana Karatkevich, Aliaksandr Klaskouski, Valery Karbalevich, Ihar Kibalchych.

What’s unusual in the usual course of things: the authorities are improving the tools of the election manipulation. The first – perhaps the most expected and habitual – answer to the question about the innovations of this (seventh) parliamentary campaign was that there were no innovations: many politicians and experts noted the traditional violation of laws for Belarus, squeezing the opposition out of the pool of candidates already at first steps to running for parliament (more precisely, at the step of the registration of candidates), the non-admission of the  representatives of opposition parties and organizations to the district and territorial election commissions and other unpleasant facts shaping the image of the parliamentary elections.

At the same time, according to the experts, some of the most effective tricks used in the process of the election manipulation are the occasional nature of the procedures of the improvement of the composition of the territorial and district election commissions and the absence of an open electoral register, which the OSCE has insisted on for many years (and especially strongly after the last parliamentary elections).

The participants bitterly noted that the technological innovations, seemingly reasonable for the so-called ‘IT country’ do not apply to the political life of society as using these technologies poses a threat to the manual control exercised by the authorities and is associated with an unacceptable level of publicity for the autocratic power. One blatant complaint that deserves special attention stood out from the list of usual complaints to the authorities: the 2019 parliamentary elections, unlike all six previous ones, were organized ahead of schedule for as much as one year.

In this regard, one of the experts noted that the OSCE/ODIHR main mission consisting of 11 people, which arrived in Minsk on the very day of the meeting, could not fail to notice this and, moreover, considers these parliamentary elections to be snap and at least strange in terms of compliance with the legislation of the Republic of Belarus. However, not all the participants of the discussion supported this interpretation of the position of the European observers and the “collective West” (see “Bargaining with the EU and the US is appropriate”).

At the same time, all the experts noted that the authorities improved in using their tools of segregation of the disloyal electoral districts, and achieved significant success in fraud and manipulation. In such a manner, many participants noted the emergence of a qualitatively new level of the “election visibility” coming from the skilful construction of the competition of different government-favoured candidates. Many government-favoured candidates and the candidates advanced by the authorities are forced to seriously compete with each other and don’t know who will be the winner until the last moment.  

It was noted that this official improvement in the election simulation takes place at a time when the resources of the opposition forces are being depleted and there are conflicts within the opposition. There are also other factors contributing to the weakening of the real and imaginary (e.g. staged by the pro-governmental candidates) competition. Because of this, the competition staged among government-favoured candidates may seem plausible to the voters and especially to the foreign observers.

Total political apathy: “to get lost in the private life”. The second moment relates to the traditionally apathetic political behaviour of the citizens during the parliamentary elections; politicians, experts, and other participants of the electoral process note that the citizens have become openly hostile not only to the pro-governmental candidates but also to the representatives of the alternative political forces. It is noteworthy that the most informed politicized and opposition-minded Minsk is the most hostile environment of all: people don’t let anybody of those involved in this fraudulent event of the authorities cross the thresholds of their houses, including the once-promising oppositionists. The degree of disappointment in the process and results of the parliamentary elections is so high that citizens prefer to move away from “public affairs” into the private world by slamming the door and ignoring any participation in the country’s political life. At the same time, some invited politicians noted a much more friendly and engaged attitude towards the politicians in small towns and villages.

The increase in the number of the participants of the political process. Against this background, the increase in the number of the participants of the political process seems paradoxical: some experts noted a significant increase in the number of candidates for parliament and fiercer competition for the deputy’s mandate. However, a discussion of the truthfulness of this thesis broke out among the experts themselves: some experts, politicians and observers noted that the number of the submitted documents to the electoral commission, on the contrary, decreased. In addition, given the aforementioned effect of the “staged competition”, it is difficult to adequately assess the real, rather than the apparent competition among candidates. As a result, however, the participants of the meeting agreed that their argument will be resolved in the next few days when the registration of the candidates ends and their final list becomes known.

Covering the parliamentary election campaign in the independent media is unprofitable. Another interesting point in the discussion concerned the extremely low coverage of the parliamentary elections by the independent media, in comparison to the previous elections and even in comparison with the official media that give the election campaign about the same air-time as to the weather forecasts. This comment does not apply to all independent media –, Radio Svaboda and Salidarnasc inform both on the progress of the campaign and its participants, including those from the opposition. But other independent media ignore the campaign, with the exception of rare materials about some of the pro-governmental candidates. The representatives of the independent media explained this phenomenon by providing two interrelated reasons: firstly, the election is an uninteresting event and, secondly, the materials covering the elections are not in demand among readers (and, as a result, reduce the “profitability of the news piece”).

Transformation of the composition of the parliament: moving from the representation of the people to the political parties and back. The experts presented a brief evolution of the composition of the parliament. They noted that even at the end of the 90s there were still fractions of the political parties present at the parliament, there was a real political struggle and the parliament itself served as the starting point for the political career of many now-known political actors. However, since the 2000s, the situation began to change radically towards the sterilization of the political life, and today the parliament is a kind of a political dead end: the officials and citizens who are deprived of any political claims and ambitions are appointed there. Due to the president’s desire to communicate with the people as a whole directly and not with the representatives of any parties or public groups, the parties’ representatives in the parliament do not have representation that would allow them to gain infrastructural capital (not a single party was able to set up a fraction in parliament). At the same time, the experts noted that the number of the candidates on a party-list basis increased and the demand of an organization with a “political superstructure” increased significantly in comparison to the previous years. The pro-governmental parties and organizations (for example, the Belarusian Republican Youth Union) which compete with each other for seats in the parliament lead this demand. The role of the individuals who is able to advance (or not to advance) their agenda, regardless of their party affiliation, was also noted. The experts gave an example of A. Kanapatskaya who for the first time in many years gave access to the legislative projects to the general public of at the stage of discussion. At the same time, the experts noted that as a whole the expectations from the actions of the two opposition deputies in the parliament did not materialize.

Bargaining with Europe and the USA is appropriate. The experts divided on their perception of the possible reaction of the EU and the US to the outcome of the parliamentary elections. Some experts insisted on the hard-line position of the European Union which defends the laws and values ​​of the democratic world. Another group of experts claimed a more pragmatic approach, citing the signals of a US representative who visited Minsk not so long ago. One of the experts claimed that the authorities are interested in legitimising the parliament which could serve as the tool of lobbying Belarus’ interests globally. In particular, this could be done via direct contacts between members of the Belarusian parliament and the members of the US Congress.

An optimistic message in this position was the hope that the instrumentalization of the parliament by the executive branch could have a positive effect on its political status and weight: the parliament could thus “boost” its political power and thereby become a more independent body (subject) of Belarus’ political framework regardless of the fate of the institution of the presidency. The debate went around the value of the matter (what kind of “good deeds” the authorities could do in exchange for some kind of recognition of the parliament), but everyone agreed that bargaining with Europe and the United States was appropriate.

“Russian world” in the parliament? Closer to the end of the discussion the moderator of the discussion asked about the presence of pro-Russian forces in parliament and the possible influence of the Kremlin on the Belarusian authorities using the parliament.  The overwhelming majority of the experts and politicians assured that this is currently an imaginary threat precisely because of the above-mentioned accountability of the parliament of the executive presidential authority (in particular, the selection of candidates based on “friend or foe” logic that is also applicable to whether the candidate is a representative of the Russian world or not). At the same time, many noted the possibility of lobbying Russia’s interests by the pro-Russian MPs during traditional disputes about energy resources, integration and other “problems of the union”.

Author: Andrei Laurukhin

Original: “Our Opinion”


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