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Belarus: Winning Elections, Old-School Style

The local elections in Belarus are a strong indicator that Lukashenko’s regime is there to stay. Some oldfangled gimmicks help them win the needed votes.

The president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko has been ruling the country for 24 years and that is not enough. The local elections on 18 February 2018, overwhelmingly won by pro-government candidates from the Communist Party, are a telltale sign that he will win again in spite of poor popular support.

Skillfully mastering old-school election rigging methods still provides Lukashenko and his party the silver bullet to winning decisive votes. He has recently announced his plans to take part in the sixth presidential elections slated for 2019.

No Country for Disobedient Men

Lidiya Yarmoshina, the head of the Central Election Commission, the body responsible for conducting and overseeing national and local elections in Belarus, said that the last local elections were “satisfactory” and “achieved the goals.” Only 0.0055% of those who won seats in local councils come from opposition: more precisely, a total of two candidates. They are Valer Bilibuha from the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy and Roza Strelcanka, an unemployed, disabled woman known for her fight for children’s rights.

That Belarusian citizens voted for the incumbent local governments is hardly credible as just a year ago thousands of people took to the streets of Minsk, the capital city, and other major cities, to protest the Parasite Tax, a levy that the government was planning to impose on unemployed. The demonstrators called for a change in the local and central government.

In the past year, over 900 people were arrested because of involvement in protests, according to a report from Amnesty International, a London-based NGO. They included more than 100 journalists and bloggers. Larysa Shchyrakova, an independent blogger, has been repeatedly arrested and fined for reporting on protests. Police threatened to put her 11-year old son in an orphanage, a common, old practice in Belarus.

In 2017 alone, the number of attacks on journalists was higher than in the previous three years combined, said the press secretary of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Boris Goretsky. A major independent online media outlet, named after a 1997 declaration of well-known names of the country’s intelligentsia calling for democracy in Belarus, Charter 97 was banned last year. Its founder, Aleh Byabenin, had been found hanged in his house near Minsk in September 2010.

Attacks on journalists continued even during the voting day. Andrus Kozel, a cameraman with Poland-based Belsat TV, the sole independent TV station covering Belarus, said that four policemen beat him at a polling station in Minsk. He was detained overnight for disobedient behavior. A court later released him.

Corralling Votes

Much of the government grip on power in Belarus is secured through massive vote rigging, according to expert and observers. For example, public employees, military personnel and students are compelled to vote in the days prior to elections. The votes then are sealed in mainly non-transparent ballot boxes that are stored in government buildings. As much as 35% of the pro-government votes in the municipal elections were reportedly secured through this early voting system. Students said that they were either incentivized to vote early by being offered days off or threatened to be evicted from dormitories if they didn’t obey.

Multiple voting was yet another tactic to secure favorable votes. Anatol Lyabedzka, the chairman of the United Civil Party, an opposition party, has videoed evidence of seven women who, on the second day of early voting, were taken by a minibus to a polling station in Minsk. Collective arrival for voting is suspicious, Lyabedzka says. In a separate case, an activist working for the civil movement Dzeya, Dzianis Krachuk noticed that some people were allowed to vote without being registered at the polling station after they showed a code written down in their passport. He tried himself this method by writing the same code in his passport and was able to vote three times in different parts of Minsk without even a local residence permit. Officials from the Central Elections Commission claimed that this was a mere provocation and an exceptional “human error”.

Luring voters with food and drinks was yet another vote-winning tactic. The state footed the bill. The estimated cost of the election campaign was US$ 10.5m, according to official data. Free or cheap meals and drinks were common at polling stations during the voting day.

When free food didn’t work, threats were used instead. Artsyom Skarabahata, an activist from the Belarusian Christian Democracy civic movement, was accused of using bad language at a polling station and sent behind bars for seven days. Journalists Volha Czajczyc and Andrus Kozel were fined for “illegal production of media materials”, the government lingo for filming their own court trial. Stepan Svetlov, a 19-year old YouTube blogger known for valiantly slagging off authorities in Minsk had to flee the country to Poland where he resides now to avoid repercussions from the government. Svetlov’s YouTube channel, Nexta has over 100,000 viewers.

Behind the Scenes

International observers harshly criticized the elections in Belarus. Maja Kocijancic, a spokesperson at the European External Action Service (EEAS), EU’s diplomatic service, called for “comprehensive reform of the election law and processes”. European People’s Party President Joseph Daul said that the February elections in Belarus have been marred by “massive falsifications, suppression of the opposition representatives, unfair formation of election commissions, media manipulation, and attacks on the independent media”.

But none of these critiques seemed to bother the Belarusian politicos. Some of the external observers were pushed out of polling stations when they wanted to film the voting. An observer was even prevented from taking a selfie. As in the past years, observers couldn’t see the actual vote count. In some polling stations, those in charge didn’t even have the skills to properly count the votes, cases referred to by officials as a “purely mechanical failure”.

The turnout in the February elections was unprecedentedly high, of over 77%, according to the official results. Mateusz Bajek, a Polish journalist who participated as an electoral observer, said that the number of votes for opposition candidates was higher at polling stations attended by international observers.

But even that was not sufficient to beat old-school electoral theft.

Bella Fox is a Master’s candidate in Public Administration at Central European University (CEU). She specializes in media and communications policy, with a particular focus on multicultural integration. Prior to attending CEU, Bella studied at Corvinus university of Budapest and her research areas were migration, European integration and international relations. Bella is active in visual studies and radio projects, as well as in the promotion of cosmopolitanism and open society.

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