Belarusians are preparing for elections on 23 September in an atmosphere of fear and frustration never before experienced in independent Belarus.
The crackdown in 2010 on peaceful demonstrators protesting the results of the presidential election has intimidated many to the extent that politics is no longer a subject of discussion even between friends, let alone a reason for taking to the streets. The suppression of the subsequent 'silent protests' – timid attempts of expressing discontent by clapping hands – has brought it home that change is all but impossible.
The most open election in the history of independent Belarus was the one which brought the current president, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, to power in 1994. Two years later, he disbanded the 'dissident' one-chamber legislature and replaced it with a loyal bi-cameral National Assembly and significantly cut constitutional parliamentary powers. Since then, the opposition has been de-facto excluded from parliament, and the legislature has been effectively reduced to a rubber stamp, sanctioning presidential decrees and endorsing laws drafted by the presidential administration. Belarus’s parliament is not organized along party lines, and prospective MPs are hand-picked by the presidential administration from local elites. The authorities hold regular elections only as a means of maintaining the semblance of a popular democracy and fraud is widely used to ensure that selected loyalists get seats in parliament.
This time round, the campaign has been particularly dull. The opposition, whose modest scores shrunk even further after December 2010, is little motivated knowing it is highly unlikely they will make it to parliament. The main opposition has withdrawn from the race and is calling for an election boycott, after declaring that the authorities did not meet their demands to release political prisoners and ensuring a level playing field. It hopes that if it succeeds in keeping great numbers of voters away from the polls, this will de-legitimise the elections and weaken the regime’s credibility. Yet, the opposition is not planning post-election rallies and the chances of a disenchanted public taking to the streets are minuscule.
Only 37% of Belarusians say they believe that the election outcome depends on their vote. Public opinion polls predict a voter turnout of around 60%, which is unusually low for Belarus, and warn that in certain constituencies, especially Minsk, the turnout may be below the 50% threshold required for the elections to be valid. The authorities have therefore been fervent in pushing for high turnout. With 80% of the economy controlled by the state, this can be easily achieved by putting pressure on the senior management of factories and businesses.
Students and public employees are most susceptible to such pressures. Who they cast their vote for at the ballot box is irrelevant as the result can be readily manipulated. The first three days of early voting saw 12.5% of the electorate having already cast their ballots. In Belarusian elections, on average, up to a third vote this early, mostly as a result of government pressure. Voters need no official excuse in order to cast ballots early and the procedure is open to abuse as ballots can be substituted overnight when observers are not allowed to monitor the boxes.
The Belarusian authorities do not fear condemnation from the West. EU attempts to bring Belarus into the fold have failed while the clampdown on dissent has increased. Giving in to EU demands to open up the political environment would put Lukashenka at risk of losing power.
Knowing that the Kremlin would back him politically and economically, Lukashenka cracked down on the 2010 protests, conscious that it would lead to a rupture in relations with the EU. Continued Russian support has enabled Lukashenka to stand firm. Russia’s economic support has amounted to $US 6-9 billion in gas and oil subsidies in 2012, which has helped Belarus to recover from the 2011 financial crisis.
The economic prognosis is not optimistic. The economy is export-oriented and hence vulnerable to external shocks: the $410 million reduction in foreign trade balance which occurred in July exposed the economy to significant risks. Inflation is growing, forecast to reach 19-22% at year end. Wages have increased while labour productivity has declined. The rouble has started slowly depreciating again, and this year Belarus will have to repay debt equivalent to the size of its foreign currency reserves.
Instead of introducing efficient economic policies, the government is cutting expenditure for the most vulnerable groups, such as pensioners and public employees. These actions have contributed to a lowering of Lukashenka’s electorate rating to 29%. 77% of people say they desire a change (which is even higher than 61% in the 2011 financial crisis). Yet this is unlikely to result in direct action in the streets: fear of oppression remains and even opposition leaders do not enjoy wide-spread support.
Future developments in Belarus depend on how much money Moscow will be prepared to spend on upholding Lukashenka’s regime. But even if subsidies from Russia stop, Lukashenka is still capable of retaining control of the security forces to ensure that any potential protest is suppressed.
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