Belarus – The 2015 presidential election

This is a guest post by Alexander Baturo, Lecturer in Political Science in Dublin City University

Last week was a good week for two different Belarusians. They both ran in elections; they both beat other candidates; and they both won. Even though the two ran in different elections, both elections had something in common – it was not entirely clear what the genuine level of support for the winners was and how the votes were counted. The difference is that one Belarusian ran against genuine and formidable opponents with her election coming as a genuine surprise, thus fulfilling the ex ante uncertainty criteria for a democratic election.[i] Another Belarusian had the election staged, all but handpicked his own opponents, and was all but assured of his victory.

The first winner, Svetlana Alexievich, won the 2015 Nobel prize in literature on 8 October – the first Belarusian with a Nobel prize in literature, a historic event for a small nation. We are not entirely sure how the Swedish Academy evaluates and selects the Nobel winners. We know however that Alexievich had been nominated several times before but was defeated by other candidates. We also know her record; she was selected “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” for her remarkable record in reconstructing individual experiences during the Second World War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Chernobyl nuclear disaster, among other things. In 2015 she ran against well-known Japan’s Haruki Murakami and Norway’s Jon Fosse.

The other winner was of course the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Three days following Alexievich victory, on 11 October 2015, Belarus held a presidential election. The incumbent president, in office since 1994, ran for his fifth term, and won. How could he not? In contrast to the Nobel election, there was no ex ante uncertainty whatsoever and the identity of the winner was known in advance. He was nominated in 2001, 2006 and 2010 and never lost. In 2015 he won again despite the fact that the unreformed Belarusian economy has lately begun to reveal the limits of state regulation. His record was not all bad as the country still had relatively low unemployment and a social safety net, but lately it had dawned on many that the president and the authorities had no answers as to the road ahead. The president’s rivals were also no “haruki murakamis” of politics.

The ritual of elections ran like clockwork. Practice makes perfect. The incumbent president dominated the airwaves; he abstained from the televised debate with other candidates so that nobody had any illusions whether the president and his challengers were on equal footing. The election commission and all polling stations were staffed by president’s appointees and by public sector employees dependent on the state. But this was an old and established electoral practice, a faithful reconstruction of the textbook’s menu of electoral manipulation close to what was described by Andreas Schedler[ii]. Previous elections of 2001, 2006 and 2010 were conducted in precisely the same manner.

Two things were different however in 2015. In contrast to earlier elections when the president could claim positive economic results and point to optimistic forecasts, this time there was nothing to boast about. The collapse of oil prices affected not only the economy of Russia but also that of Belarus, which depends on the exports of its oil refinery products for public revenue. Similarly, the new sanctions against the Russian regime affected many Belarusian industries dependent on exports to the Russian market. Even though some Belarusian exporters quickly sensed new re-export opportunities, relabeling EU products as produced in Belarus, exporting to Russia “Belarusian” jamon, camembert and even shrimp (Belarus is landlocked), by and large the ongoing negative economic situation in Russia heralded serious economic trouble for Belarus also. In fact, and in contrast to previous elections that in the run-up to the voting day featured the so-called “All-Belarusian Congresses” where the president reported to the nation on economic achievements of the preceding five years, in 2015 there was nothing really to report and the authorities decided to scrap the congress quietly. In a way, President Lukashenko’s main opponent in 2015 election was the economy – the incumbent ran without his usual ability to claim “performance” legitimacy and no clear economic strategy for the future.

The second thing that was different in 2015 was a changed international environment around Belarus. It augured both well and not so well for the incumbent. On the one hand, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine made the Belarusian president wary of further integration with Russia and perhaps even about his own prospects. At the same time, the conflict also presented the Belarusian president with an opening to side-step possibly awkward questions about the economy and instead to center his 2015 campaign message on his ability to preserve peace in Belarus. In fact, many pundits argued that Lukashenko was able to capitalize on the crisis in Ukraine like nobody else and emerged as the only winner. Indeed, Lukashenko, a close ally of Russia, surprisingly chose a manifestly neutral position regarding Ukraine and advocated for its territorial integrity repeatedly. At the same time, he however never went as far as condemning the Russian annexation of Crimea. Instead, Minsk proposed to mediate the conflict and hosted several high-profile meetings of foreign dignitaries. Also, sensing the opportunity to lift his pariah status in the new environment where a non-recognition of Crimean annexation may be more important than his own human rights record, Belarusian president released political prisoners in the run-up to election and signaled his willingness to engage with the EU anew.

The dramatic events in Ukraine equally influenced Belarusian pro-democracy activists and the public at large. Previous 2001, 2006 and 2010 elections equally lacked transparency and the authorities had a proven mechanism to deliver the desired results. However every time in the past the opposition was hopeful that it could capitalize on the electoral campaign to deliver their message and perhaps to launch mass collective action in the aftermath, inspired by the 2004 street protests in Ukraine. Even though the 2010 post-election protests in Minsk were crushed by the well-prepared police force, they were surprisingly numerous. The mass casualties during protests in Kyiv in 2014 and subsequent conflict in the Eastern Ukraine however cooled the mood in Belarus. In 2015 even the most committed democratic activists downplayed the possibility, and did not advocate post-election protests, urging people to boycott the election instead. Thus, even the remote possibility that a post-election protest may somehow sway the situation was off the table in 2015.

Not all decided to boycott however. Apart from the incumbent president, three other candidates were registered. First, Sergei Haidukevich of the Belarusian Liberal Democratic Party, a regular feature of all presidential elections, ran again. Second, Nikolai Ulakhovich, representing Belarusian “Cossacks”, was nominated for a first time. Both candidates did not campaign against the incumbent president and were arguably only placed on a ballot as back-ups should the pro-democracy candidate withdrew or did not participate. Third, and the only pro-democratic candidate, Tatiana Korotkevich was nominated by “Govori Pravdu” (Tell the Truth) public campaign that fielded Uladzimir Niekliaeu, a well-known poet, as presidential candidate in the 2010 election.

Her participation was somewhat controversial as many pro-democracy activists accused Korotkevich of legitimizing the regime. Still, she carried a remarkably spirited campaign centering her message on the necessity for peaceful change as opposed to more radical slogans. In fact, her decision not to challenge the authorities head on, her moderate message of economic and social populism may have been precisely what pro-democracy forces in Belarus have been looking for in vain all these years. According to the IISEPS opinion poll, the popularity of Korotkevich has grown significantly since September. Her support base was also different from that of traditional opposition electorate, i.e., more moderate.[iii] It is a pity then that we will never know what were the real vote shares for Korotkevich, or what those vote shares would have been in the event of a genuine election.

Lukashenko stayed on his message as a guarantor of peace and stability throughout the campaign. On 2 October he, a self-declared atheist, even participated in a novel public action, “A Prayer for Belarus” in front of the All-Saints church in Minsk. His clear message of peace to the electorate was however disturbed by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who out of sync with his Belarusian ally declared his intention to establish a Russian air force base in Belarus on 19 September. Perhaps, unable to support their ally with the same amount of financial aid, the Kremlin decided to anchor Alexander Lukashenko for good. The plans met with numerous loud grumblings in Belarusian social media and generally received a negative reaction across the country. On 4 October the opposition had a small rally for “Peaceful Skies” in Minsk. Even though the rally was not very numerous, on 6 April 2015 Lukashenko felt the public mood and was compelled to comment on the subject of a Russian military base in Belarus. Rather cryptically, he underlined “There is no need for that base today. Especially the air force. We need specific weapons systems instead.”[iv] Then he added that he did not discuss it with anybody specifically.[v] While the Belarusian president was in all likelihood very reluctant to have a Russian military base established in his country that may ultimately put a stop to his careful foreign policy balancing act between the East and the West that he had been so good at until now, it is not entirely clear how he can possibly talk himself out of it.

What of election then? In a speech on 6 October Lukashenko explained what he regarded as an appropriate authoritarian mandate and in a sense suggested yet another rationale for a supermajority — an observed regularity in many nondemocratic regimes that political scientists commented on.[vi] Lukashenko proposed a novel argument that such supermajority makes it easier for a ruler to conduct international affairs, easier to negotiate international agreements. He also made an uncanny electoral forecast:

“Say 40% turn out. Or 50%, we cannot have below that. So 50% plus one vote, and a half of that will support [the candidate]. It makes 25% of the population in support behind him [the leader]. And how can he negotiate after? With the other heads of state?” … “If the president is strong, like you always supported me – 80%! Nobody would have any questions. If I arrive and negotiate, [my counterpart] understands that 80% is behind him.”[vii]

Ask and you shall receive. The vertikal that oversaw the election process met the desired targets on 11 October. According to the preliminary official announcement in the early hours of 12 October, President Lukashenko obtained 83.5%, Korotkevich 4.42%, and Haidukevich and Ulakhovich 3.32% and 1.67%. Despite the widespread apathy in the run-up to election, the official turnout was whopping 86.8%.[viii] There is clearly no surprise about the declared election outcome. The dominance of the incumbent in the media, the apathy of voters accustomed to leader’s supermajorities in every election, control over election process from start to finish could not have produced a different outcome. Belarus is a relatively homogenous country without ethnic, linguistic or religious cleavages. It is perhaps ironic that the factors that would have improved its chances of democratic consolidation also make it difficult to mobilize the public and challenge the ruling regime. But you can’t have it all.

Many criticized that Korotkevich’s candidacy legitimated the election for the Western audience eager to engage with Belarusian regime. Others equally criticized other opposition leaders who urged to boycott the election. In fairness, in the past the pro-democracy activists have tried almost everything, whether boycotting, or fielding one unity candidate, or two, or several at the same time, choosing a candidate from the “nomenklatura”, or a cultural figure, young and old, urging mass protests or appealing for calm. But they could not sway the majority. They could certainly not sway the electoral officials. How could they? Belarusian regime is strongly personalist. It is also, as Henry Hale[ix] describes, patronal: President Lukashenko, 61 years old, who had term limits lifted in 2004, is neither weak, old, nor has he ever expressed any intention to depart that may have influenced his officials in his patron-client pyramid that has been in place for two decades.[x] Almost at the very end of this uneventful ritual of an election where neither the public, nor the incumbent, nor his challengers counted on or even pretended that they anticipated anything but the president’s victory, the unexpected victory of the Nobel prize by Svetlana Alexievich somehow brought these two different contests into stark contrast. Two different victories, two different Belarusian winners that week. Time will pass and only one victory will be remembered.

Notes

[i] Adam Przeworski, Michael E. Alvarez, Jose Antonio Cheibub, Fernando Limongi 2000. Democracy and Development. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 16.

[ii] Andreas Schedler. 2002. “The Menu of Manipulation” Journal of Democracy 13(2), 36-50.

[iii] See http://www.iiseps.org/analitica/850, accessed 9 October 2015.

[iv] See http://news.tut.by/politics/467477.html, accessed 9 October 2015.

[v] It is not entirely clear what the president meant or whether his rhetoric indicated that he was reconsidering the agreement but the public record indicates that Belarus and Russia did discuss the subject of a Russian air base before. It was Russian defense minister Shoigu who following his meeting with Lukashenko in April 2013 went public about the plans on the Russian airforce military base in Belarus for the first time. Other Russian officials, including Sergei Lavrov and Dmitry Medvedev, also spoke about the military base, and implied that the question was settled and that only details on the terms of the agreement were still to be decided.

[vi] The observed and frequent supermajorities in non-democratic elections that are way above 50% vote shares necessary to win may be counterintuitive. Indeed, if one wins with 51% what is the point of aiming at 75% or higher? Alberto Simpser argued that such supermajorities however are instrumental and serve to project regime or leader’s invincibility to the public and the opposition so that the public remains apathetic and the opposition is more likely to be co-opted. See Alberto Simpser. 2013. Why Governments and Parties Manipulate Elections. Cambridge University Press. Milan Svolik and Ashlea Rundlett argue that supermajorities may be driven by the eagerness of electoral officials that oversupply votes for the ruler, see Milan Svolik and Ashlea Rundlett, “Deliver the Vote! Micromotives and Macrobehavior in Electoral Fraud” forthcoming, American Political Science Review.

[vii] See http://news.tut.by/politics/467477.html, accessed 9 October 2015.

[viii] See http://vybory2015.by/, official portal of the Central Election Commission, accessed 12 October 2015.

[ix] Henry Hale. 2014. Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

[x] In 2015 it was no different from earlier elections then. There was again a remarkably high number of voters — 36% — who could not find the time to cast their ballots on election day itself. Even though there was only one day designated for election, 11 October, from 5 to 10 October the polling stations were open so that everybody was able to cast her ballot in advance. The voters were not only not required to prove their need to vote in advance — they were encouraged to do so. De facto therefore there was not a single election day but election days — 6 days altogether, from 5 to 11 October. Even though an early vote is a voluntary decision, the authorities canvassed voters to cast their ballots early, and numerous groups dependent on the state, i.e., teachers, public sector workers, students, were compelled to vote early.

Alexander Baturo is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Dublin City University. He works on various aspects of comparative democratization, particularly presidentialism and personalism across the world, comparative political leadership, and post-Soviet politics. He has published in journals such as Journal of Politics, British Journal of Political Science, and Post-Soviet Affairs. His book, Democracy, Dictatorship, and Term Limits, was published by University of Michigan Press in 2014.

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