The parliamentary elections, which President Alyaksandr Lukashenka staged on October 15 in Belarus, turned into an embarrassment to the president and a moral success for the boycotting opposition. Belarusan legislative and local elections are always treated by Lukashenka as a plebiscite on his rule. But instead of the Soviet-style voter turnout that he had counted on, the authorities were only able to announce a turnout of 60.5 percent overall in the country’s six regions, and 49 percent in the capital Minsk.
As the ballot counting was wholly controlled by the authorities, and conducted largely out of sight of internal observers, it is widely assumed that the official turnout figures are substantially inflated. For example, the Hrodna Region’s authorities reported a record turnout of 67 percent–a highly suspect figure, given the opposition’s popularity in this western region.
In all, it seems highly probable that the turnout fell below the legally required minimum of 50 percent in many electoral districts throughout the country and in all the electoral districts of Minsk. The final official figures, released yesterday and sharply questioned, admit to a lack of voter quorum in only fourteen electoral districts. The elections there will be repeated in December. Forty-three seats have officially been declared filled after the first round on October 15. The remaining fifty-three seats will be adjudicated in runoffs on October 29. The legally required voter turnout is only 25 percent in the runoffs, hence the Central Electoral Commission chairwoman Lidzya Yarmoshina’s stated hope that the runoffs should be “more productive.” On that basis, Lukashenka will be able to fill and open his new parliament, albeit one not recognized internationally (see below).
The president’s plebiscitary exercise seems to have shattered against an apathetic and sullen electorate, against the backdrop of a deteriorating economy and diminishing political returns of Lukashenka’s Russian card. During the electoral campaign, Lukashenka had repeatedly described these legislative elections as a dress rehearsal for his next year’s presidential election. Yesterday, however, he declared that the idea of a dress rehearsal had been “clumsy and ill-thought-out.” An unchacteristically chastised Lukashenka mused on television that “perhaps a man will emerge who is more energetic and cleverer than Lukashenka [he sometimes speaks of himself in the third person]. As long as I am able bodied, I will find [other] work. And if a new leader comes along by next year, so be it.” But if past experience is any guide, Lukashenka should soon bounce back from his disappointment.
The president and the opposition, each in their own way, draw analogies between the situation in Belarus and that in Serbia. In the runup to the election, opposition leaders predicted that the economic situation would, sooner rather than later, spark a popular revolt which would force Lukashenka out of power in a Serbia-type scenario. Following the change of power in Belgrade, the Belarusan opposition launched the slogan, “today Milosevic, tomorrow Lukashenka.” And on balloting day in Minsk, Lukashenka declared on television that Milosevic “is a right kind of guy, a good man, a patriot of his state and of his people.”
In the runup to the election, state television attacked the opposition on a massive scale in order to discredit the latter’s calls for a boycott. One TV “documentary” portrayed Belarusan independence movements, from 1918 to the present, as collaborators of foreign enemies of the Belarusan people, as dangerous and violence prone, and as bent on separating Belarus from fraternal Russia. Another show, titled “The Marionettes,” portrayed the opposition as paid instruments of the West, including the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. And yet another show on state TV described the opposition as “terrorists,” “fascists,” “mercenaries,” “drunken,” “drug-addicted” and “monsters,” financed by “American money.”
The low turnout vindicates the opposition’s strategy of calling for a boycott of the elections. Until the last moment, the opposition leaders themselves were uncertain that their strategy would pay off. Yet they persevered with it in spite of objections from their own ranks and external criticism. Ultimately, the opposition chose to deny this electoral exercise even the slight semblance of legitimacy which might have resulted from the election of a handful of oppositionists to Lukashenka’s “pocket” parliament.
Just as Lukashenka represents a throwback to Soviet days, his international brigade of sympathizers and helpers recalls the old alliance of Moscow and the Soviet fellow travelers. More than 100 parliamentary deputies from Russia, former Soviet-ruled countries and half a dozen West European countries descended on Minsk as “observers” to bless the elections. Most of the non-Russian “observers” represented themselves, rather than any parliaments or international organizations. Most of them were communists or other leftists, with a handful of noncommunist but anti-American parliamentarians from Western Europe, who openly declared–as did the hard leftists–that the international nonrecognition of these elections had been an American decision imposed on Europeans.
The state-owned mass media in Belarus and some in Moscow had a field day quoting such West European “observers” as stating that the elections had been free and fair and that they would call, back home, for international recognition of the resulting parliament. Russian leftist deputies from the Estonian and Latvian parliament also arrived in Minsk to bless the elections. These are the same deputies who present themselves as human rights advocates when complaining against Estonia and Latvia to international organizations. On the Russian side, deputies from Yabloko and Union of Right Forces joined the communists and the Russian nationalists in pronouncing Lukashenka’s elections free and fair (Belapan, Minsk Radio, Belarusan Television, Itar-Tass, Russian Public TV, NTV, October 13-16; see the Monitor, September 1, 6, 27).
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