On January 14, 2007, voters in Belarus will again go to the polls to elect local governments. The opposition, including the United Democratic Forces (UDF) movement, is debating the wisdom of participating in another election that is little more than a façade. A majority, encouraged by supporters outside the country, has opted to do so. However, there is a groundswell of informed opinion that suggests that a boycott of elections in which equal access to the media and election commissions is denied to the opposition is a more logical policy.
That conditions are weighted in favor of the regime is hardly in doubt. In at least two of the six regional commissions organizing these elections (Mahileu and Brest), there is not a single representative of the opposition. This is reportedly also the case also with the commission formed in the city of Minsk. On October 12, the Central Election Commission, chaired by the president’s close ally, Lidziya Yarmoshyna, announced that the process of nominating representatives to the territorial election commissions would end on October 17. That decision limited the possibility of many opposition delegates submitting their documents in time. The election rules, amended by the government according to Presidential Decree No. 607, require a single round based on a first-past-the post system.
The opposition has no problems with the timeline for running as deputies. This stage begins on November 5 and ends one month later. It is anticipated that some 700-900 opposition candidates will run for the 22,641 seats. They are led by the United Civic Party (203 members running for local councils), the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front (about 180), the Party of Communists (130), and the Social-Democratic Party (100) led by the imprisoned former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, who recently started another hunger strike to protest his sentence. UDF leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich is not running personally but is serving as the supporter of a large group of candidates.
In an article in the Narodnaya volya newspaper, Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civic Party, suggests that the UDF should hold a Congress of Democratic Forces and combine it with a discussion about the strategy for electing delegates to local councils. Lyabedzka has for some time tried to pressure Milinkevich, who appears again in the role of rival rather than partner, to hold such a Congress. But there would be little time to develop a strategy for a meaningful election campaign.
Critiques of the opposition and its readiness to run in another election are manifest. Writing in Narodnaya volya, Dr. Vyachaslau Orhish noted that it would be a small miracle if the local councils contained more than 50 democrats after the January elections. He commented that opposition leaders were banging their heads against a brick wall. After every election, he remarked, they simply rush into the next one without taking any steps to try to establish equal conditions for the campaign participants. They have no access to the state TV, radio, or the press, and the election commissions are oriented toward the promotion of pro-government candidates. “Under such circumstances,” he writes, “it is not possible to realize the democratic alternative through elections.”
Orhish is particularly critical of Milinkevich, a man “who claims to be” the leader of the political opposition, and who participates in the elections because they provide an opportunity to present democratic ideas to the Belarusian people. The implication is that the United Democratic Forces can have limited public impact under the unequal conditions. Elections thus bolster rather than weaken the authoritarian regime of Lukashenka.
This opinion finds resonance with at least two opposition groups: the Conservative Christian Party of the BPF, led by the exiled Zyanon Paznyak, maintains that it is senseless to take part in elections under the present circumstances. To participate in them is to mislead themselves and the voters. The leader of the Social Democratic Hramada, Stanislau Shushkevich, likewise maintains that the opposition should stop playing into the hands of the regime. The new Electoral Code, in his view, leaves little chance for the opposition to succeed in the January elections in which “only fools may participate.” Kazulin, despite the decision of his party to participate, made similar comments in September, but his party evidently ignored his advice.
The arguments against a boycott are that the elections, however rigged, offer opportunities to mobilize democratic forces. Yet participation followed by inevitable defeat not only helps to solidify the Lukashenka regime, but also conveys the impression that the democrats’ cause is hopeless. Hans-Georg Wieck, former head of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Belarus, asserted recently that Lukashenka is facing a crisis (a “dead-end road”), but no such predicament is evident to the Belarusian electorate. The UDF performed creditably in the presidential election, but it did not unite all democratic forces, nor did it succeed in altering significantly the conditions under which elections are held. It lost in part because it failed to convince the electorate that democratic change was more important than (perceived) economic security.
The democratic opposition may need to rethink its strategies rather than simply respond to initiatives of the regime, including elections under constantly changing rules that ensure “elegant” presidential victories.
(Belorusy i Rynok, October 16; Charter 97, October 20; Narodnaya volya, October 20; Hans-Georg Wieck, “Belarus without Lukashenko–A Realistic Alternative,” October 14; Belorusskie novosti, October 16)