Observations from the parliamentary elections in Belarus

September 29th, 2016   Belarus | News | Theme: Belarus

On September 11, parliamentary elections were held in Belarus. In an article for the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation Margareta Cederfelt, Member of Parliament from the Swedish Moderate party and Deputy Chair of the Swedish OSCE-delegation, describes her findings from the third election she has observed in the country.

Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship, held Parliamentary elections on September 11 this year. OSCE PA participated in the observation and I took part as observer. This was the third election I have observed in Belarus. Unfortunately, my conclusion is that the democratic progress made in relation to previous elections is virtually non-existent. President Lukashenka continues to control Belarus with an iron fist.

The general feeling that struck me was the powerlessness and apathy of the society. The will to resist, to stand as candidates, to push political issues was almost non-existent. For the 2010 presidential election the opposition was well organized and there was an extensive involvement in the community for a regime change. Unfortunately the regime responded strongly against the opposition. 2010 was the year the police and military imprisoned party leaders, party members and members of the civil society. Neither at this year’s parliamentary elections nor at the 2015 presidential election, have I noted the presence of any visible opposition. Sweden contributed in 2010 to support the development of democracy in Belarus through maintaining contact with the opposition. I especially remember the reception that the Swedish Ambassador had arranged the night before the election at which all opposition party leaders were present. Their explanation to why they came to the Swedish Embassy instead of conducting election campaign was that they had a greater opportunity to influence at the Swedish embassy than out on the streets. This says a lot about the climate that existed then and still exists.

The result of the parliamentary elections was a success in the sense that out of the 110 seats, 108 are held by parties loyal to the regime and two by the opposition. This is a success, a small one, considering that it is the first time the opposition has had the opportunity to be elected.

There were no signs of elections going on, no campaign posters, no campaign activities, no party ads. The election campaign was almost invisible. In contrast, the Chairman of the Electoral Commission was more present in the media during the election campaign. On prime time the Electoral Commission Chairman would be sitting in the television studio spreading the message that there was no reason to vote for the opposition because it is inept, and that all the competent people naturally should be part of the government.

Some of the questions that the OSCE and the ODIHR identified during the elections:

  • The number of registered voters was reported to be 6,990,696 according to the local polling stations own electoral rolls. Since there is no central electoral registry, there is no way to verify the total number of registered voters. This made voting in several polling stations possible.
  • The number of registered candidates was 630 but only 484 ran in the elections. Out of the 630 nominated, 93 were not approved as candidates. The reasons given varied, but a few examples were: absence of an approved tax return, unapproved reported financial assets, insufficient amount of signatures, or the absence of other documents. The central election authority decides who can be registered as a candidate and the decision was neither transparent nor clear.
  • The candidates’ access to the media was restrictive. According to the Belarusian legislation, defamation, insults and call for a boycott of the elections is prohibited. The Court decides what falls within these criteria. The judges are appointed by the President. The court process is slow and lacks transparency. More than 727 complaints were submitted, but the majority were settled in closed court hearings without published verdicts.
  • According to Belarusian law, the observers, both foreign and domestic, are to be given the opportunity to get accreditation and the opportunity to observe the conduct of the local election at the polling stations. Most observers were not given the opportunity to observe the work of the local election commission as a whole, for example to inspect the electoral rolls or to get copies of the election results at the polling station. The majority of the approved domestic observers were engaged in the campaign of the Government party.
  • The counting of votes at the polling stations was conducted, in most cases transgressing not only national legislation, but also in violation of international agreements.

For an election to be conducted democratically, it is not sufficient with a national legislation on paper but legislation must also be applied. In addition, the political climate must be permissive and offer the opportunity to carry out political activities. In a democracy, free media, freedom of the press, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are fundamental elements. Courts decisions must be objective, transparent and independent from the ruling power. Respect for the right of citizens to express their opinion in free democratic elections should apply. None of this exists in today’s Belarus.

Belarus has a long way to go before it can be considered a democratic country. The development in Belarus is a concern for the rest of Europe. The support that the EU, OSCE, Council of Europe and other international organizations can provide is important as well as the support for a development towards democracy to which the civil society contributes. I do not give up. The objective must be that the next elections will be more democratic than previous ones.

Margareta Cederfelt, MP
Deputy Chair of the Swedish OSCE-delegation

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