On December 16, deputies of the Belarusian House of Representatives agreed unanimously that the date of the 2006 presidential elections in Belarus would be March 19. The date took many people by surprise, because it had been widely anticipated both within and outside the country that the election would take place at the end of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s current term, in mid-July. But by moving the date forward, the candidates had just one week to gather a list of members of their initiative groups and deliver it to the Central Commission for Elections and Republican Referendums (CCERR).
There is no consensus within Belarus why the earlier date was chosen. United Civic Party Chairman Anatol Lyabedzka speculates that the Lukashenka regime calculated that the international community would be preoccupied in March with the parliamentary elections in Ukraine (Narodnaya volya, December 29). The announcement followed directly a reportedly successful meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka at Sochi on December 15 (Sovetskaya Belorussia, January 4). Russia is taking up the chair of the Group of Eight industrialized countries and would not wish to do this during a summer Belarusian election that might distract the other G-8 members. Lukashenka has stated that the decision was made by parliament and supported by some opposition deputies (Sovetskaya Belorussiya, December 29).
By December 28, the CCERR had registered eight initiative groups supporting contenders for the presidency. These include:
Alyaksandr Lukashenka, with 6,212 members
Alyaksandr Milinkevich, with 5,136
Alyaksandr Kazulin, with 3,347
Syarhey Haydukevich, with 3,073
Zyanon Paznyak, with 2,405
Alyaksandr Voytovich, with 1,314
Valery Fralou, with 1,152
Syarhey Skrabets, with 130.
The election procedure is as follows: An inspection of the presidential candidates will take place from December 29 until January 27. According to the Constitution, the president must be a citizen of the country by birth, no less than 35 years of age, and living continuously in Belarus for 10 years without interruption in the period prior to the election. The initiative groups must also gather a minimum of 100,000 signatures for each candidate in order for them to run. Lack of signatures is one of the most common reasons for a candidate to be declared ineligible, as all the signatures have to be verified. If 15% prove to be invalid, then all signatures are discounted. In the past there have also been reported problems with the candidate’s official biography or declaration of income. Registration of the candidates is scheduled for February 12-21, after which the real election campaign begins.
The list of candidates to date contains some surprises. Lukashenka and Alyaksandr Milinkevich were expected contenders and amassed impressive numbers for the initiative committees. Syarhey Haydukevich, aged 51, chairman of the Liberal-Democratic Party, is generally believed to be a supporter of the president. He placed a poor third in the 2001 election. The other contenders are all well-known opposition leaders, evidently dissatisfied with the choice of Milinkevich as the single candidate of the opposition.
Voytovich, aged 67, is the former president of the Academy of Sciences of Belarus and a renowned physicist. In 2000, with the support of Lukashenka, he was elected Chairman of the upper house of parliament, but he was dismissed in 2003, ostensibly because he had reached the age for his pension. Subsequently he has been very critical of some government policies. Kazulin is a 50-year-old Minsk native and the chairman of the Social Democratic Party (Hramada). He is also a professor and a doctor of pedagogy who has taught at Moscow Lomonosov State University as well as several institutions in Minsk. Fralou and Skrabets both formed part of the opposition Respublika faction in the former parliament.
The candidacy of Paznyak, 61, the founder of the original Belarusian Popular Front (BPF), and head of the Conservative Christian Party of the BPF, can be considered more disruptive than serious. Paznyak left Belarus in 1996, and has resided in Poland for most of the period since. He was a candidate in the 1994 election, and took part briefly in a mock election in 1999 — the original end of Lukashenka’s first term in office — but has also called in the past for boycotts of elections. Paznyak appears on paper to be ineligible for candidacy because of his lack of residency. As with the other opposition candidates, his presence serves to undermine the quest for a united opposition.
Elections in Belarus have rarely been on an equal playing field. Lukashenka, as president, has virtually sole access to the media. His campaign manager is Viktar Sheiman, who was been the head of the presidential administration prior to the election announcement. According to surveys by NISEPI, Lukashenka’s rating today is around 52% and that of his closest rival Milinkevich, only 6.6%. Another source has stated that Milinkevich’s rating after the announcement of the election was 18.1% (Nasha Niva, December 23). The president starts with a big lead, and his supporters dominate both the territorial commissions and the CCERR.
The result appears to be a formality — another “elegant victory” for Lukashenka, to use the words of CCERR chair Lidziya Yarmoshyna. However, as Lyabedzka points out, the important aspect for the opposition is conducting the political campaign rather than winning, which is impossible under current conditions.