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Why boycott is the only way to hurt Belarusian regime

Presidential elections in Belarus will be held this Sunday, and there is no need to hold your breath. Belarusians already know that Lukashenko, the President of Belarus since 1994, is going to win. There are two reasons for this.

First of all, the whole governmental machinery is working on securing a win for Lukashenko. As OSCE interim report suggests, despite having kicked off on September 10, 2015, the presidential campaigns have been largely invisible due to a lack of coverage by the media, which are predominantly controlled by the government (especially those with the greatest outreach like TV and radio), and because possibilities for campaigning are limited by law. Consequently, unfavourable electoral environment disproportionately targets independent candidates because Lukashenko receives all visibility he wants owing to the fact that he is the President first and only then – a contender for the seat he occupies.

Secondly, Belarusian regime has been notorious for rigging elections in the most obvious manner – the votes are not counted, and the results are predetermined by elections’ architects and engineers. OSCE has been routinely making a point about good voting and extremely bad counting since at least 2001. This was true for Parliamentary elections of 2004, 2008 and 2012, as well as Presidential elections of 2001, 2006 and 2010. But do not take OSCE’s word for it, let Lukashenko himself speak. In 2006, he publicly admitted to a room full of Ukrainian journalists that his government rigged that year’s elections, claiming, in particular, that 93.5% voted for him, but he actually had to lower the result to please the West. Unsurprisingly, none of these elections were recognised by international community as free and fair.

OSCE’s routine reporting

Presidential elections of 2001

“The two most dominant problems reported were observers’ inability to access polling stations and non-transparency in the vote count and results tabulation procedures. Of the latter, most cases claimed fundamental problems in the count and tabulation process, often indicating either the observer’s inability to see the count or flagrant discrepancies between the visible quantities of ballots collected for each candidate and the final result protocol.”

Presidential elections of 2006

“The process deteriorated during the vote count, which often lacked minimum transparency. Observers assessed the count negatively in 50 per cent of reports. Shortcomings included disregard for procedure, presence of unauthorised persons, inappropriate handling of complaints and tampering with result protocols. Almost 70 per cent of PECs did not announce the number of votes for each candidate before completing the protocols.”

Presidential elections of 2010

“While the overall voting process was assessed as good, the process deteriorated significantly during the vote count, undermining the steps taken previously to improve the election process. Observers assessed the vote count as bad and very bad in almost half of all observed polling stations. Clear instances of ballot stuffing and tampering with the results were noted by international observers. The count was largely conducted in a nontransparent manner, generally in silence, which undermined its credibility and raised questions about the integrity of the election.”

There are no signs that voting and counting will be any different this year. At the same time, Belarusian voters and politicians alike wonder, what strategy would be the most useful to make Lukashenko’s guaranteed victory less sweet. The most popular (and maybe the only) independent candidate Tatyana Korotkevich admits that the elections are likely to be rigged: “The regime counts the votes for itself [for its own information, not publicly]”. Nevertheless, she still calls on people to vote, claiming that “if a different candidate wins it [the regime] will know, and it won’t be able to ignore us. Then I will be able to continue agitating for peaceful changes.” As silly as it sounds, this point is made by contenders to Lukashenko’s seat with grim determination every five years.

Lidiya Ermoshyna, the head of the Central Electoral Commission, is often named as an architect of Belarusian flawed elections. Photo credit:
Lidiya Ermoshyna, the head of the Central Electoral Commission, is often named as an architect of Belarusian flawed elections. Photo credit:

One simple truth that evades Korotkevich and evaded her predecessors is that participating in elections, either by putting forth your candidacy or casting a ballot, makes sense only when there is a real contest, when ideas, programmes and policies have a chance to and actually compete with each other and, most importantly, when votes are counted.

In an electoral system, where it does not matter how the electorate votes and, therefore, where it is impossible to vote out the acting government, the only viable option to express dissent is a boycott. Belarusian regime may not care about international recognition of elections’ results, but it does care that the elections are perceived as legitimate, however flawed they may be, by Belarusians. Therefore, the government applies a tremendous effort to make people vote. Significant turnout of voters allows the regime to attribute fixed elections results to the will of the predominant majority.

In making this effort, the government is trying to lure voters to the polling stations by so-called “moving buffets”, where cheap food and alcohol are served, but it is also forcing people to vote, especially during early voting that goes on for five days this year. Early voting is poorly observed and also offers the regime space and time to manipulate the results.

Unsurprisingly again, a steady flow of reports have been coming in, documenting the instances where students, workers at government-owned factories and many others linked in any way to the government are “encouraged” to vote early. As of today, 20% of all registered voters have already cast their ballots in the early vote, more than ever before. The government does not deny the coercion, but it justifies it as a part of a necessary “civic upbringing”.

When a government marches its population to the polling stations, it reveals its insecurity and its real “soft spot”. To participate in Sunday elections, is to give the regime a helping hand in legitimising its results. Dissent can only be expressed through boycotting this farce, ironically called elections, altogether. If you want your voice to be heard, do not vote.

Cover photo credit: Yahoo News

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