The question of nominating a single candidate from the opposition forces to face Alexander Lukashenka in the prospective 2006 presidential election has elicited serious debate in Belarus. Plainly there is a lack of consensus about the procedure and the choice of potential candidates.
The Belarusian opposition has been noted for its divisions. In 2001, the united candidate, Uladzimir Hancharyk, was selected too late to have a serious impact on the election. This time an Organizing Committee (the Permanent Council of Pro-Democracy Forces) has been formed to carry out a National Congress of Democratic Forces from September 1 to October 1. It is headed by Alexander Bukhvostau, leader of the Labor Party (dissolved in August 2004), and his deputies Alexander Dabravolsky (United Civic Party) and Viktar Ivashkevich (Belarusian Popular Front). On June 15, meetings were held to nominate some 900 congress delegates (Charter 97, June 14).
On paper, the situation looks promising. The government has recently stepped up its pressure on leading opposition figures, a sign of its nervousness. Polls conducted in the spring indicate that among the Belarusian elite (policymakers, scientists, mass media, and businessmen), 43% believe that the prospects for the development of the country will become worse if Lukashenka wins the next election, whereas only 7% believe that they will improve (Svobodnye Novosti Plus, March 2-9).
Citing a NISEPI poll from the same period, one academic notes that the response to the question: “If you knew of a person who could compete successfully with Lukashenka in the next presidential election, would you vote for him or Lukashenka?” was 38.2% in favor of such a candidate, while only 28.4% declared that they would vote for Lukashenka (Narodnaya volya, June 11). The question, however, is where and how to find such a leader. The various political parties are making their choices. Several candidates have announced their intention to run, but there has been criticism that the process is being dominated by party structures that lack popular support and prevent a broader choice from the community at large. Two critiques in particular merit citation.
The former agricultural minister of Belarus, and chairman of the Fund “For a New Belarus,” Vasily Leonau, has written a letter to the Organizing Committee that maintains that the strategy based exclusively on the mechanism of nominating a single candidate for the presidency will not result in a victory over Lukashenka. Rather, the broad masses of the population, in his view, need to be involved in the process. He proposes an All-Belarusian Congress of Democratic Forces (rather than a national one, i.e. beyond the purview of the democratic opposition) that would begin by introducing changes in the Electoral Code, annulling decrees that infringe on civil rights, releasing political prisoners, renewing the work of the two closed universities (European Humanities and the National Humanitarian Lyceum), providing equal rights to all mass media, and initiating a “Belarus without Lukashenka” movement. Rather than nominating a single candidate, Leonau proposes the formation of teams of leaders based on a majority of votes nationwide. He would even invite representatives of the authorities to the Congress (Narodnaya volya, June 11).
In similar fashion, Professor Vyacheslau Orgish believes that what is happening behind the curtains of the political organizations is incomprehensible to the electoral masses of Belarus. The latter perceive the process as geared toward the political ambitions of individuals. Those not affiliated with a political party are placed at a disadvantage, even though the non-party group may be stronger. On the one hand there is the Five Plus organization, and on the other the “Ten”—the unregistered Congress of Democratic Forces that also includes some civic initiatives. One contender, Alexander Vaitovich, former chairman of the Council of the Republic, is cited as commenting: “We are on the same side of the barricades but we are not together.” If the political elite elects the single candidate, Orgish notes, it signifies that the choice will be made by a narrow layer no larger than 5,000-7,000 people. Yet the rating of political parties in Belarus in 2005 is lower than it was in 2001 (Narodnaya volya, June 11).
In fairness, some prominent political leaders have consistently demonstrated a willingness to put aside personal ambitions in favor of a single candidate — most notably Anatol Lyabedzka of the United Civic Party (currently a candidate) and Vintsuk Vyachorka of the Popular Front (who is not). Others have declared their intention to run despite limited chances of success, such as Stanislau Shushkevich and Mikola Statkevich, representing different branches of the Social Democrats. But under the present Electoral Code and the circumstances of almost total state control over the mass media, even a genuinely popular candidate could not hope to defeat the incumbent president.
There are thus two key questions to be resolved: first, the necessity of changing the current political conditions in order to ensure a free and fair election; and second, the need to choose a candidate with the potential to attract support from a broad spectrum of the electorate. Both questions surfaced three years ago and ultimately neither was resolved. Time is running out for the 2006 campaign as well.