Belarusian citizens went to the polls on October 17 to elect a new parliament and to take part in a referendum on whether President Alexander Lukashenka should be permitted to amend the constitution and run for a third term in office. The official results provided the president with a resounding victory, but aside from representatives of state structures, few people have accepted them as valid.
According to official reports, the turnout for the election was 89.7% (beer and sausages were provided to voters at cut-rate prices); and 77.3% voted to allow Lukashenka to run again, in effect, removing limitations on his tenure in office. The sensation that some people wanted, stated Dmitriy Kryat in Sovetskaya Belorussiya (October 19), “has not occurred.” The Chair of the Election Commission, Lidiya Yermoshina, referred to the result as “an elegant victory,” echoing Lukashenka’s own comment after his victory in the presidential election of 2001.
The result of the referendum belied every opinion poll, whether conducted by the authorities or by organizations from outside Belarus. In a survey conducted in late September, the Levada Center in Moscow found that no more than 37% of those polled intended to back the changes to the constitution, yet the president required the support of more than 50% of the entire electorate for victory. At the time, only 60% of the electorate declared its intention to participate in the referendum (Charter 97, October 16). An exit poll by the Gallup Organization/Baltic Surveys suggested a “yes” vote of 48.4% (Associate Press, October 18).
Alleged infringements of electoral procedure were reported from the outset. Although the early voting on October 12 was intended only for those who would not be able to participate on the 17th, radio, television, and even public transport carried demands for people to vote early. One account indicates that on bus routes in Minsk, a voice informed passengers over the public speaker system that “anyone could take part” in pre-term voting (Komsomolskaya pravda v Belorussii, October 12).
Parents received invitations to schools from harassed teachers, where they were informed that it was necessary to vote ahead of time. The teachers themselves supervised the voting. A teacher in Leninskiy Raion (Minsk) commented that she would lose 50% of her bonus if at least half of all the parents of children in her class did not vote (Komsomolskaya pravda v Belorussii, October 15). Evidently, a very large proportion of the electorate cast its vote in the advance poll rather than on October 17.
An observer from Azerbaijan revealed that, on the day of the election, portraits of Lukashenka were prominent in the polling stations and that Belarusian Television constantly played reels demanding that voters support the referendum motion, without any reference whatsoever to the possibility of a “No” vote. The Chairman of the United Civic Party, Anatol Lyabedzka, visited Polling Station 4 in Minsk and noted that elderly citizens who came to the station to vote early were given ballot papers on which a “Yes” vote was already marked (Charter 97, October 17).
Belarusian Television constantly denounced opposition leaders during the campaign. It commented, for example, that Andrey Sannikou, who heads the Charter 97 agency, is a close associate of Zbigniew Brzezinski and that his patrons had assigned him the same role as his “friends and colleagues” Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia and Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine. “But there will be no revolution in Belarus” (Belarusian Television, October 9).
The OSCE in Europe, which refused to monitor the referendum, issued strong criticism of the election campaign for “unrestrained bias and unregulated intrusion into polling stations.” An estimated 5,000 people took part in a public protest in October Square the day after the election, led by the youth movement Zubr, the Young Front, and the European Coalition “Free Belarus.” Outside the Palace of the Republic, speakers announced a new era of resistance to the Lukashenka regime and demanded the release of political prisoners (Charter 97, October 18).
The national and international consternation (only the CIS and Russia have declared the results fair and “transparent”) over the improbable results of the referendum overshadowed the parliamentary election campaign, the official results of which will be finalized only on October 22. Not a single opposition figure won a seat in the new parliament, with 107 deputies out of 110 now elected. Forty-seven served in the previous assembly.
Of the 107 deputies, only 12 are representatives of political parties: eight from the Communist Party, three from the Agrarian Party, and one Liberal-Democrat. Two districts will hold a second round of voting on October 31, and in one — Hrodna District 52 — there is to be a repeat election as neither candidate could muster sufficient votes (Sovetskaya Belorussiya, October 19).
Opposition candidates in the parliamentary election were for the most part refused registration beforehand on various pretexts, after the president made it clear that he preferred a parliament without their presence.
The referendum, however, was more critical for the future of the country. The results appear highly inflated in the president’s favor. Lukashenka can now prepare for the 2006 election, having once again amended the constitution, but having convinced few people that he has a genuine mandate.