September 6-16 saw a frantic period of activity in Belarus, as candidates applied to the Central Election Commission to be registered for the October 17 election to the House of Representatives. Unlike the parliamentary race in 2000, all opposition parties except for the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian Popular Front decided to enter the contest. However, many key opposition figures were denied registration due to technicalities, while others were subjected to harassment and intimidation.
The participation of the opposition parties changed the nature of the election campaign. In Brest region, which has the second largest number of candidates for seats, 15 candidates are from the Liberal Democratic Party, 11 from the Social Democrats (Naradnaya Hramada), 10 from the Belarusian Popular Front, and 8 from the Party of Communists (Svobodnye novosti, September 16-22). The social index of the candidates indicated a high proportion of white-collar workers and professionals. Over 100 entrepreneurs and businessmen submitted applications, along with more than 150 representatives from public health, social services, education, and culture. Sixty-four candidates were described as “young contenders” (Respublika, September 14).
However, very few oppositionists managed to be appointed to the Commission itself. Not one of 473 candidates to the CEC from the United Civic Party, for example, was accepted (ucpb.org, September 9). Also, there have been a variety of reports suggesting that the campaign has not been conducted fairly. In Hrodna district, Tadeusz Gavin, founder of the Union of Poles in Belarus, maintained that members of the local council, the district electoral commission, and a militiaman spread information to discredit his candidacy and prevent him from acquiring the necessary number of signatures (Svobodnye novosti, September 16-22).
The Belarusian Popular Front maintains that three of its candidates have been dismissed from their jobs, two schoolteachers and a sanatorium worker. Militia in Zhlobin confiscated a computer belonging to the head of the election campaign of Marat Afanasyev (United Civic Party), on the grounds that it was a “stolen computer.” On September 14, militiamen broke into the office of parliamentary deputy and Respublika activist Syarhey Skrebets, confiscating about 1,000 copies of a report on his activities as a deputy (Narodnaya volya, September 16).
The authorities have taken steps to ensure that several prominent opponents of President Alexander Lukashenka do not run in this campaign. A well-known television commentator, Zinaida Bandarenka, was not registered because she submitted information that listed her pension as 20 rubles (less than one cent) lower than the reality. Former Chairman of the Supreme Soviet (12th session) Myacheslau Hryb failed to be registered because he did not mention his shares in the Minsk Watch Factory, even though no profits have been accrued in the past decade. Skrebets reportedly failed to mention that he was a founder of two companies, neither of which has been in business for several years (Komsomolskaya pravda v Belarusi, September 18).
Former parliamentary leader Stanislau Shushkevich was rejected by the CEC when it was found that the headquarters of his party was located not in Pushkin electoral district, as he had stated, but in Masyukovshchina district. The deputy leader of the BPF, Yury Khadyka, was turned down because his party headquarters reportedly did not send documents to the Commission in response to an inquiry. The Department of Justice then carried out an investigation and found other problems with his candidacy (Minsk kuryer, September 18). The Central Election Commission claimed that the figures cited for military pension and deputy’s salary of General Valery Fralou, head of Respublika, were misreported. Fralou declared that he would sue those who brought him “moral harm” and that he intended to return to Hrodna and collect the documents again.
Anatoly Lebedka, leader of the United Civic Party, compared the removal of candidates from his party from the campaign as being like chopping off a limb without an anesthetic, noting that his party had suffered “enormous losses” of its brightest candidates (Narodnaya volya, September 18). Of 59 potential candidates put forward by the party, 32 were rejected, and in the majority of cases, according to the party’s website, for “absurd” reasons (ucpb.org, September 17).
Of 692 applicants, 333 were refused registration, including Alexander Bukhvostau, head of the now disbanded Belarusian Labor Party, Shushkevich, Khadyka, Fralou, Uladzimir Parfenovich, a former Olympic champion and Respublika member, and many others (charter97.org, September 17). The authorities thus responded to the unprecedented interest of the opposition in an election campaign by eliminating many of the serious contenders at the registration stage.
Altogether, 359 candidates will contest the 110 seats: 137 are from workers’ collectives and 151 from political parties (Minsk kuryer, September 20). The latter are broken down as follows: 38 from the Liberal Democratic Party, 26 from the United Civic Party, 21 from the Communists, 24 from the BPF, and 21 from the Social Democratic Party (Naradnaya Hramada). The authorities continue to insist that the parliamentary election is “a free expression of the people’s will” (Sovetskaya Belorussiya, September 16). They have ensured, however, that the choice that the electorate will have on October 17 is much more limited than it should be.