The 2012 parliamentary elections in Belarus were held on September 23. In contrast to some earlier elections, the authorities blatantly violated procedures and inflated voter turnout, according to several sources. In turn the opposition, having failed to unite initially in a Coalition of Six, was further divided between those who chose to boycott the elections on the eve of the vote and those who decided to take part in the final voting (none won any seats). And as usual, observers from CIS countries found nothing wrong with the way the elections were conducted, but those from the OSCE and elsewhere identified numerous violations. Overall, neither the authorities nor the opposition seemed to take the election very seriously, but neither did the voters. The parliamentary elections in Belarus have come to represent a carefully conducted charade rather than the genuine expression of the electorate.
Even prior to the vote, the cynical attitude of the electorate was evident from a June 2012 poll by the Independent Institute of Social-Economic and Political Research, which revealed that only 36.8 percent of respondents expected the elections to be free and fair (39 percent did not anticipate such an outcome), as compared to corresponding figures of 45.9 percent and 34.8 percent, respectively, in 2008. Only 36.7 percent thought that the results would reflect the actual voting (54.5 percent did not), and just 38.5 percent considered that the elected House of Representatives would represent the interests of society; while over 40 percent responded that the parliament would have no influence on their lives or of those close to them. The skepticism expressed also extended to the opposition: only 37.7 percent believed that candidates from the opposition would present credible programs for the improvement of living conditions (iiseps.org/press15.html). A poll conducted by the news agency Tut.by revealed that 77.8 percent saw no sense in voting (cited by Charter97.org, September 23).
On September 23, 293 candidates contested the available 110 seats in the lower house. But that number fell as a result of the decision of the two main opposition political parties, the Popular Front (30 candidates) and the United Civic Party (35), to withdraw their candidacies on September 15. In the words of Uladzimir Padhol, a candidate from the Popular Front in Minsk District 107, on September 23, they were going to the forest to pick mushrooms (http://www.svaboda.org/content/article/24704121.html). As a result, in 16 of the 110 constituencies there was only a single candidate left running. By contrast, the Social Democratic Party (Hramada), the Movement for Freedom, Tell the Truth, and the anti-regime Communists of the Fair World opted to continue their campaigns. Initially there were 139 candidates from non-ruling political parties (47 percent), but almost half (69) came from the Liberal-Democratic Party, which is not considered part of the opposition (news.tut.by, September 23).
The presidential newspaper published a pre-election editorial declaring: “This is your choice,” which noted that 7,078,809 were listed on election registers (SB—Belarus Segodnya, September 22). Yet, other sources suggest the choice was clearly not a free one. The human rights agency Vyasna reported many examples of refusal of candidates’ rights to the five-minute TV and radio appearances and, by issuing Decree 93, the Supervisory Council banned the appearance of those candidates who had expressed a wish to boycott the elections. Some TV stations demanded that speeches be pre-recorded and then refused to air them—this occurred in at least three districts of Homiel. Election debates were held in only a minority of locations. There were none at all in Hrodna region. Opposition party candidates found it very difficult to use private campaign funds because of bureaucratic obstacles, whereas state agencies brazenly backed their chosen candidates, with some factories allowing meetings with voters during working hours. Three Minsk printing firms refused to produce election campaign material paid from the private means of opposition candidates. However, private payment for campaign ads is, in fact, legal under the election law (spring96.org, September 22).
There were markedly different assessments of official turnout. The Central Election Commission reported that the 50 percent threshold had been reached by 4 p.m. on September 23, whereas independent observers recorded a turnout of only 35 percent at that time, and only 44.7 percent overall (Nasha Niva, September 24). Election turnout reportedly increased by an improbable 18 percent in a two-hour period in the afternoon. One analyst who posted a synopsis to the Jamestown Foundation noted a number of other discrepancies. They included the fact that during the five days of early voting, ballot boxes were locked inside public buildings to which only state officials had access. In some factories the management introduced a short working day and threatened to check whether their employees had in fact voted. Heads of schools promised students future holidays if they voted early. Almost 26 percent of voters took part in early voting (news.tut.by, September 23). The authorities also introduced a so-called “carousel” voting system, whereby the same people were taken to vote at several ballot stations. Two observers who noted the infractions at a polling station in Minsk were removed and detained by the police until voting ended (Letter to Jamestown from Hanna Asipova, September 23). Another source confirms the identity of those arrested at Minsk District 101 as Syarhei Martsaleu, an observer from the Popular Front, and Aryna Lisetskaya from the Movement for Freedom (euroradio.fm, September 23).
Dozens of opposition activists were arrested during the campaign, mostly for possessing campaign materials in support of the boycott. Some candidates, like Alyaksandr Milinkevich, leader of the Movement for Freedom, were not permitted to run. Even some OSCE observers were turned away at the Minsk International Airport. This fate befell Lithuanian deputy of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Emanuelis Zingeris and German deputy Mariluise Beck, both of whom have been critical of the Lukashenka regime in the past. Beck declared that the denial to them of visas to monitor the election was an insult to the OSCE and its election monitoring organization, to which all OSCE members had assented, including Belarus (Telegraf.by, September 20). Special coordinator of the OSCE observer mission, Matteo Meccaci, declared that “This election was not competitive from the start,” noting that candidates were never free to “speak, organize, and run for office” (OSCE Press Release, September 24). Riot police arrested 20 observers from the agency Election Monitoring and took them to the Central Police Station (Nasha Niva, September 24).
Arguably, since Parliament is closely controlled by the president and has little independent authority or initiative, the elections are essentially ritualistic. The campaign was devoid of enthusiasm. Voters seemed to have little interest in the individual candidates, and most deputies will represent factories and working collectives, as before. No opposition candidate has won a seat in the lower house since 2004. The authorities closely control official results both of the turnout and voting. At the same time, elections are an opportunity to discuss issues with voters and prepare for the more significant presidential elections, anticipated in 2015. That two opposition parties (as well as the unregistered Christian Democratic Party) chose to boycott the elections is understandable given the regime’s refusal to release remaining political prisoners and permit more access to state media. But the divisions among the opposition also create the impression that the voters have no choice and that neither the current regime nor the opposition offers anything new. If the opposition cannot unite, it will never be able to offer a credible alternative.