This is a guest post by Alexander Baturo, Lecturer in Political Science at Dublin City University
On 11 September 2016 Belarus held a parliamentary election. Even though the election lacked the uncertainty inherent in a democratic contest and the result was largely preordained, like many elections held in partly and non-democratic regimes the one in Belarus was neither entirely meaningless nor it lacked any intrigue. Belarus is a presidential regime. Therefore, in contrast to presidential elections that are often staged to signal regime strength and typically feature 75-90 per cent of votes cast for the incumbent with an equally high turnout, I think that the point of the legislative election this time was mainly to stage a process that would have appeared to have made some kind of democratic progress, and have it recognized as such by the foreign audience, without actually altering the fundamental nature of an undemocratic election. The pursuit of high turnout and a “big win” was not really necessary. Instead, it was a carefully calibrated exercise in instilling apathy among the voters so that the election campaign would largely go unnoticed, while attempting to achieve a reasonable turnout at the same time so that it does not look too bad.
To appease the Western governments and international organizations, the authorities probably decided that they could afford to tolerate certain minor improvements in the administration of parliamentary elections because the latter are not that important. They are not important because the parliament itself is not important: it has been a paradigmatic “rubber stamp” for 20 years since the 1996 constitutional referendum when a democratically elected parliament was dismissed and a personal rule of President Lukashenko has been established. With a possible exception of a hunger strike of three sitting members of parliament protesting against the government in 2004, the legislature has been, and is, completely docile. After each election, the parliament is predominantly stuffed by the representatives of regional and local administrative elite, of the state enterprises, by educational and medical professionals, with a dozen of businessmen or athletes on top of that – as aptly described by the head of elections, Lydia Ermoshina, so that it has “an absolutely adequate composition and mirrors the larger society.” The members of parliament do not engage in policy debates, their lawmaking largely follows the instructions from the executive. Typically, the majority of election posters ignore national issues and emphasize vague promises of pork for the candidates’ districts. The overall impression is that these, and previous legislative elections were akin to local council elections in their significance for the nation. Arguably, to call them even a second-order election is a stretch of imagination.
Times change, the money tends to run out, and it does not hurt to signal that Belarus considers the prospect of political liberalization not completely inconceivable, especially if it does not endanger regime stability and there is something to gain in return. How have the Belarusian authorities fared in terms of projecting democratic improvements? Out of 30 changes recommended by the OSCE of which Belarus is a member-state, before the 2016 election the authorities arguably chose to address only three. The head of elections, Ermoshina, argued that the rest could not be addressed quickly since changes required were very significant and would have entailed constitutional amendments or the acts of parliament and that there was no time for that. She did not elaborate however what prevented the parliament to change the “easier” ones well in advance, even if constitutional amendments were indeed out of question.
In the end, they ignored the recommendations that really mattered: i.e., to introduce meaningful guarantees to include the opposition into regional and district election commissions, to ensure that the election observers were able to observe the outcome, that is, what was “ticked” on each ballot during the counting process, to ensure the equal coverage of campaign activities, etc. One of the strong recommendations that the OSCE made earlier was for the election officials during the counting process in each polling station to announce publicly how each ballot was cast. The Central Election Commission (CEC) on 17 May could not really come up with good reasons why announcements were out of the question. Instead, they provided the following “rationale”: “… we explained that the CEC was unable to introduce this norm.” Of course the CEC was not able to introduce it, it would not have been Belarusian CEC if it was.
They also did not address the “bogeyman” of Belarusian elections, the advanced ballot. During the advance ballot during one week in the run-up to the election day, up to a third of voters cast, or in case of students and public sector workers — are strongly incentivised to cast, their votes. The process is largely opaque and can be manipulated. In their defence, the Belarusian Central Election Commission (CEC) frequently referred to the fact that the percentages of advance and postal ballots in Belarus were close to those in the US; the recent mess with postal votes in 2016 Austrian presidential election in all likelihood brought nothing but delight to the street of Belarusian CEC. While such delight at observing the “teachers” of democratic standards tripping over something they themselves criticise in others is probably understandable, almost always such hiccups are checked by strong institutions and party competition that Belarus did not and eos not have: e.g., in Austria the losing candidate was able to challenge the results of a second round in the Constitutional court that in turn annulled the results and called a new election. Last time a post-Soviet court has annulled an election result was in December 2004 in Ukraine – a more open political regime than the one in Belarus – and even then the judges only did so after an unprecedented campaign of civil disobidience and, arguably, regime split and defections.
The regime of Alexander Lukashenko needed to send a signal that his regime was willing to improve, to democratise the election process. Perhaps believing that the West simply needed an excuse to embrace Belarus in the current international climate of tensions with the resurgent Russia, Belarus has adopted the very minimum of possible changes, and no more than that. For election, 630 candidates were nominated, 531 were registered and 484, including a large number from the opposition, competed. By rather bleak standards of many elections in the past, this time the candidates were able to campaign, to a considerable degree, freely. The CEC has also increased the number of transparent ballot boxes, and the election observers were permitted to observe the ballot count, albeit at a three-meter distance from the counting table. They were not permitted to cross the three-meter threshold and to approach the table — after all, the CEC believed that permitting more than that could have enabled the observers to start a riot, overwhelming and distracting the election officials, heavy police presence notwithstanding. Really, this is what they alleged several times during the press-conferences. The observers therefore, whether myopic or those lucky to have 20/20 vision, could not really see what preference was actually chosen on the ballots during the count. Arguably, a three-meter unhindered observation is a vast improvement over previous elections where observers were not able to observe anything but the backsides of election officials from a much longer distance. The current improvement therefore is that during the counting process at polling stations, the observers were able to see the officials placing ballots in separate piles for each candidates. In turn, the observes could therefore have made the rough estimates about the total number of ballots, or the distribution of ballots for different candidates. But this is as far as the liberalization of electoral process could go. After separating the ballots into several piles for each candidate, these piles were placed on a different table for tabulation that the observers were unable to see however. The counting table therefore was not “the” table. “The” table was the second table. On that second table two election officials including the trusted chairperson and her chosen assistant were tasked to make tallies, to enter the results in tables and in principle they could have declared any figures, even the product of their imagination, whatsoever without any hindrance or observation.
The process of administering the count worked smoothly and efficiently in 2016, practiced to perfection in close to a dozen legislative and presidential elections since 1991 by now. Even though the OSCE has recommended to include the opposition nominees into regional and district election commissions, “usual suspects” were appointed instead; only very few representatives of civil society and opposition parties were included. Thousands of trusted election officials, usually from the ranks of local authorities and the public sector, those who worked together in previous elections and learnt not to rock the boat during the process, participated. To incentivise the electorate, polling stations featured the food buffets at subsidized prices.
The OSCE concluded that “coverage of candidates’ campaign activities, meanwhile, was virtually absent and largely limited to short, pre-recorded speeches.”  The campaign itself was almost invisible, an exercise in apathy. The state media missed the whole point of election coverage and instead focussed on the activities of the Central Election Commission, i.e., regularly reporting how many candidates they registered, covered the CEC meetings with the representatives of international organizations, explained the technical aspects of how election was organized, etc. The state-run media largely ignored the candidates, their campaigns, interviews, their policy programs, arguably defeating the whole point of the exercise. Instead, during campaign, electronic and print media largely focused on the activities of the president and other officials. It is a bit like covering the X Factor but only focusing on Simon Cowell and completely ignoring the participants and their acts. While the candidates, including opposition candidates, were granted some air time, the time slots were often awkward and it was not clear who was slotted to make their speeches and when.
Overall, the impression among the public was that even though there was an election campaign in August and early September, it was not clear or well known who was running and why. Instead, the overall appearance was that a number of faceless and interchangeable and non-partisan candidates who were all standing for various positive things and against various negative things, with little policy specifics, were slotted to be endorsed on 11 September and that voting for alternatives was completely futile. Not very exciting then.
What of the results? The Central Election Commission declared 75% turnout countrywide — “politically correctly” lower than in presidential elections or referenda, with 62% turnout in the capital city. All 110 seats for the lower chamber were filled. Apart from a three-meter advance and a number of transparent ballot boxes, in a further signal of electoral liberalization to the West, the opposition was permitted to increase their legislative representation from zero to two seats. Two non-governmental candidates, both female, Anna Kanopatskaya from the United Civic Party and Elena Anisim from a well-known NGO supporting Belarusian language and culture – were announced winners in their constituences. The OSCE picked up on that: “We note that, for the first time in 12 years, some members of the opposition will be represented in the parliament.”  The pro-democratic opposition fielded a number of attracting candidates in many constituencies including the former presidential candidate, Tatiana Korotkevich who contested presidential elections in 2015. Perhaps precisely because she dared to run against the president in 2015 or because she failed to congratulate the winner then, in 2016 the election factotums were probably told to write in Kanopatskaya as the winner instead, who ran in the same single-member constituency with Korotkevich. Altogether, 38 women candidates were elected, 27 old MPs were re-elected again, and only 16 members represented political parties.
Belarus has a bicameral parliament. Two days after 11 September election for a lower chamber, 56 members of a second chamber were elected by regional councils, with eight more to be appointed by the president. It is somewhat odd to have a bicameral parliament in a relatively small and homogenous country with no history of ethnic or territorial cleavages, or a past history of bicameralism. As I and Robert Elgie argue in a recent comparative paper that examines bicameralism in partly and non-democratic regimes, such senates however are often necessary to make sure that the executive is able to control the parliament even in the unlikely event of the lower chamber falling under the control of the opposition. It can also provide additional patronage jobs, or serve as firewall against possible impeachment attempts in the future. The introduction of a second chamber in Belarus in 1996 validates that argument rather well.
Over eight hundred international and thirty thousand domestic observers monitored the election. Many observers reported the inflated turnout figures that did not correspond to their own independent counts of turnout, as well as the incidents of ballot stuffing and carousels where people cast their votes repeatedly in multiple polling stations. No surprises then. The head of mission for the NIS observers, Sergei Lebedev (333 accredited international observers came from the NIS) however did not see any problem whatsoever and recognized the elections as free and fair. The NIS observers have been present in the increasing numbers in many post-Soviet elections across the region and they always find such elections “free and fair” thus giving the incumbent governments useful TV quotes to counteract Western criticism. In contrast, the US State department, while recognizing “some improvements in the electoral process,” also noted “that alternative voices will be represented in parliament for the first time in 12 years. Still, the elections fell short of Belarus’ international obligations and commitments to free and fair elections.”  The OSCE ODIHR report was equally reserved, acknowledging “visible efforts to address some long-standing issues, but a number of systemic shortcomings remain” . In summary, the ball is probably in the court of the EU and US now. The Belarusian authorities have not done anything terrible, and in all likelihood they believe that with a new assertive Russia, the Western governments, even if not the international organizations such as the CoE or OSCE, are looking for any excuse, any positive signs, however small, to resume the relations with Belarus. They think they did just that, small positive steps. Will the two female opposition members of parliament, and few meaningless improvements in election process, be enough? There is a lot at stake. The economy is no longer what it was, and Belarus badly needs the credit from the IMF, the opportunity to draw funds from the EU if possible, as well as the overall normalisation with the EU and US.