Belarus held parliamentary elections on November 17, resulting in a near-complete turnover of the legislature. Only 30 lawmakers from the previous convocation have retained their seats. The official turnout was recorded at 77.2 percent, with the lowest turnout registered in the capital city of Minsk—63 percent. Out of the 110 elected members of the House of Representatives (lower house of parliament), only 21 are members of established political parties, including 11 communists. The previous (2016) elections resulted in just 16 party members; and earlier elections brought even fewer political party representatives into the national legislative body (Sputnik.by, November 17). Stephen White, a political scientist from Glasgow, has long labeled Belarus a “non-party state”—reflecting an early stage of political structuring, the low popularity of the existing organized factions, and a lack of enthusiasm at the helm of power in Minsk for even the emergence of a ruling party akin to Vladimir Putin’s United Russia (Grigory Ioffe, Reassessing Lukashenka: Belarus in Cultural and Geopolitical Context, 2014, p. 68). The political affiliation called Belaya Rus (White Rus) has long been willing and able to become such a full-fledged party loyal to and supportive of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, but it never obtained a nod from him.
The single piece of breaking news regarding the elections—highlighted and interpreted in dozens of media articles at home and abroad—is that not a single member of the opposition won a seat, whereas, in 2016, two did. As on previous occasions, most critics have blamed the non-transparent procedure of counting votes, putative attempts to insert fabricated ballots into the ballot boxes, and the high percentage of early voters (35.77 percent—Interfax.by, November 17), which are usually suspected as the prime means of manipulation.
Andrei Dmitriev, a co-chair of the Tell the Truth civic campaign, once blamed by much of the rest of the opposition for allegedly selling out to the authorities, campaigned tirelessly this year. He said that he saw many casting their ballots for him on election day; however, because the overwhelming majority of early voters supposedly voted against, he did not win a seat in the next parliament (Svaboda.org, November 18). The same fate befell Elvira Mirsalimova, the charismatic and avowedly pro-Russian candidate from the city of Vitebsk (Kommersant, November 19).
At some precincts, officially accredited observers attempted to record on video what they believed were violations of electoral procedure, like inserting multiple ballots into the ballot box. This elicited a response from President Lukashenka who called on the police to act harshly to stop such attempts. At one precinct in Mogilev, opposition-minded journalists went to every unit in a multi-story apartment building and affixed leaflets containing the home address of a secondary school director who chaired the local electoral commission. They did this to provoke public anger at that person, charging that the outcome of the vote at her precinct was prearranged. As a result, the precinct’s chairperson was afraid to enter her apartment for several days leery of some provocation (Mspring.online, November 21). Upon hearing of this incident, Lukashenka declared, “It is easier for me. If they put mud on me, I am fine as I live in a forested area behind a fence. Whereas she walks the streets. She is a woman, and they point a finger at her, she has children, a family and a husband. How does she feel? Why should she endure this? We will unscrew the perpetrators’ heads and twist their arms” (Tut.by, November 17). In fact, quite a few locals also shared this anger at the journalists involved in the leaflet campaign (Mspring.online, November 21). Likewise, when a college student in Minsk shot a video of her college instructor strongly suggesting that students vote early and sent the video file to the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (BSRL), most of her classmates disapproved of that act and even harassed the whistleblower. According to Valer Karbalevich of BSRL, this was because Belarusian youths are conformists, with an authoritarian mindset (Svaboda.org, November 15). However, an entirely different interpretation is possible: criticism at leaking to a foreign-funded media outlet for a cheap political effect or even worse.
It is in that spirit that the spokesperson for the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs reacted to the negative verdict of Belarus’s elections by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR): “We have repeatedly told our Western partners that we are ready for constructive criticism, but we will never accept baseless and blanket defamation. And if our election procedures and legislation are to be improved, it is only at the request of our society” (Kommersant, November 19). A similar but less harshly worded response came from Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Kravchenko, during a public event in Washington, DC, hosted by The Jamestown Foundation, “The West and Belarus: A Mutual Rediscovery” (see Jamestown.org, November 21). Responding to a question from the audience, Kravchenko called attention to the fact that Belarus has a majority electoral system, whereby people vote not for a party bloc but for individual candidates; as such, those with the highest potential to improve quality of life in a precinct are usually preferred by ordinary citizens, not proponents of certain political views, he asserted. To wit, such preferred candidates are usually those who already have a working relationship with higher authorities.
In their turn, some opposition-minded pundits suggested that Lukashenka chose to select a “politically sterile” parliament because the West has chosen to support him anyway in the face of Russia’s aggressive behavior in the region. Also, Lukashenka supposedly needs a loyal parliament in order to pass constitutional reforms that will vest the legislature with more power, including control over the government (Carnegie.ru, Svaboda.org, November 18). And Dziannis Melyantsou from the Minsk Dialogue Council, noticed that while the press secretary of the European Union’s External Action Service criticized the Belarusian elections, the first sentence of the statement read, “Yesterday’s parliamentary elections in the Republic of Belarus took place in an overall calm atmosphere” (Eeas.europa.eu, November 18). This, in Melyantsou’s opinion, reflects Europe’s genuine current priority in Belarus: i.e., stability (Melyantsou, November 18).
In summary, while this year’s parliamentary elections in Belarus were not noticeably different from those conducted previously, they generated responses that arguably have more to do with the current geopolitical situation around Belarus and in Europe at large than with the vote itself.