Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 204

The second round of the parliamentary elections in Belarus has compounded the first-round embarrassment to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. He had embarked on this exercise as, in effect, a popular referendum on his rule. With officially approved candidates competing against each other in fifty-six districts on October 29, voters showed even less interest than they had two weeks earlier in the first round. Instead of the accustomed, Soviet-high turnout, the authorities were only able to claim that 52.5 percent of the voters cast ballots in the runoffs, less even than the claimed 60.5 countrywide turnout in the first round (see the Monitor, October 17). As neither figure could be independently verified, both are widely believed to have been inflated by the authorities to save the president’s face. And there is no telling what proportion of those ballots were really cast “for” the pro-presidential candidates, against them or were spoiled.

The authorities had in any case prepared an escape hatch by stipulating a minimum turnout of only 25 percent for a valid election in a single-mandate district in the second round. That precaution revealed the authorities’ own lack of confidence in their ability to ensure a triumph for Lukashenka’s candidates. It showed that in order to produce a “pocket” parliament at this stage, the Belarusan authorities need to do more than make it impossible for the opposition to compete, more even than exaggerate the pro-regime voting percentages. Beyond all that, they now need, as never before in Belarus, to inflate the turnout figure itself.

With the 25-percent escape hatch in mind, the Central Electoral Commission’s chairwoman Lidzya Yarmoshina had predicted that the runoffs would be “more productive” for the authorities than the first round of the elections. In the event, the runoffs proved even less “productive.” They also vindicated the democratic opposition’s boycott strategy even more convincingly than the first round had.

A total of ninety-seven parliamentary seats have been filled in as many electoral districts in the two rounds of these elections. The authorities admit to a lack of voter quorum in fourteen districts. Repeat elections will be held there within two months.

Rapidly deteriorating economic conditions have severely eroded Lukashenka’s credibility with the populace. Just before the second-round balloting, the president went on television to blame black marketeers for skyrocketing food prices, ordered massive salary increases “to keep up with the prices” and “forbade” any increase in heating and electricity tariffs in spite of the mounting costs of fuel. These measures herald another round of inflation and more appeals to Russia for direct or indirect forms of subsidy as winter sets in.

In Moscow, the Duma lost no time introducing draft legislation on elections to a parliament of the Russia-Belarus Union. All parties in the Duma had awaited the Belarusan elections as the formality which would clear the way for the next step–the election of a common parliament. The Duma’s consensus on that issue reaches from communists and nationalists all the way to liberal reformers. Deputies from Yabloko and the liberal, reformist Union of Right-Wing forces (SPS) pronounced the elections in Belarus free and fair.

Yabloko and SPS deputies had monitored the first round of the Belarusan elections along with deputies from the governing Unity (Yedinstvo), from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and from nationalist factions in the Duma. The deputies and monitors from all these Russian parties issued joint assessments and held joint news conferences at which they blessed the Belarusan elections. They took issue with the international organizations such as the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in which these Russian parties are represented.

While Russian liberal-reformer parties often show personal distaste for Lukashenka, they tend to overlook that factor when the special relationship between Russia and Belarus is at stake. Yabloko, for its part, has a Belarusan branch of the same name which is registered as a political party there, occupying an uneasy middle ground between the national-democratic opposition and the authorities. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation has two fraternal Communist parties in Belarus, the main one of which is in opposition to Lukashenka. The anti-Lukashenka Communists and the Belarusan Yabloko did not join the opposition’s boycott of the elections. Instead, they sought a few seats in the new parliament. But Lukashenka failed to reward them with the desired seats. And the mother parties from Russia compounded that disappointment by certifying Lukashenka’s elections as democratic (Belapan, Belarusan Television, Minsk Radio, Itar-Tass, October 27-31).