By Orest Deychakiwsky and Winsome Packer
The conduct of the September 28 parliamentary elections in Belarus fell significantly short of international standards, despite some hopes that there would be improvements following the August release of political prisoners, Belarus’ reluctance to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia and statements by senior Belarusian officials raising expectations. The Commission followed the run-up to the elections closely, holding a hearing on September 16 titled “Business as Usual? Belarus on the Eve of the Elections,” and issuing a press release expressing concern about the pre-election climate and encouraging last minute steps, including transparency in the vote count and full access for OSCE observers. [Both the hearing and the press release are available on the Commission’s website.]
Two members of the Commission staff traveled to Belarus as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s delegation of the overall OSCE Election Observation Mission, observing in Minsk and Smolevichi. In its statement, issued the day after the election, the OSCE election observation mission concluded that despite minor improvements, the conduct of the parliamentary elections in Belarus “ultimately fell short of OSCE commitments for democratic elections.” On election day, voting itself was generally well conducted, though the vote count was assessed as bad or very bad in 48 percent of OSCE observations.
The experiences of Commission staff on voting day were consistent with those of other OSCE observers. For the most part, the voting itself in the precincts staff visited went smoothly. However, the vote counting process was particularly problematic, given the lack of transparency. All 110 elected members of the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly (lower chamber of parliament) are pro-government. No opposition activists from out of 70 nominated by the democratic opposition were elected.
The vote count in one Minsk precinct in which Commission staff observed jointly with a Swedish member of parliament was dramatically lacking in transparency. There were three candidates on the ballot in this precinct, including one opposition member. Both the OSCE and domestic observers were hindered from having a full view of the vote counting proceedings. The precinct electoral commission set tables up as barriers about three meters from the tables on which the ballots were being counted. Further obstructing the observers’ view of the ballot count were the electoral commission workers themselves, who were positioned in such a way as to make viewing difficult. Attempts by observers and a proxy of the opposition candidate to clarify which provisions of the electoral code permitted this behavior by the electoral commission went nowhere. All of the ballots – from the early voting, mobile voting, and regular voting were mixed in together. When an OSCE observer took a picture of the vote count, or, more accurately, of the election commission members blocking the vote count, the chairwoman interrupted the count to write a complaint against the observer. After about 20 minutes, the opposition candidate’s proxy notified her that according to Article 55 of the electoral code, “the count must be performed without a break until the results of the voting have been obtained.” Only at that point did the Chairwoman cease writing and resume the count.
In the North-East Minsk district that other Commission staff monitored with an Irish senator, the experience was similar. The voting process at the eight polling stations that they monitored was orderly and transparent. The problems came in the counting process. Similar to the reports from other observers, Commission staff and the Irish observer were prevented from standing close enough to watch the vote counting in a manner that allowed them to see the names and other distinguishing information on the ballots, even though the importance of this facet of observation was stressed to the government by the OSCE and the Interior Minister assured observers in a briefing on September 25 that election monitors would be able to watch the counting from a close vantage point.
In a far departure from this promise, the precinct officials refused to announce what boxes they were opening during the process. They would lift a box, dump its contents on a table on the other side of the room from where the observers were seated, and ten or so people would crowd around the table to separate the ballots and “count” the votes. Observers could not distinguish which ballots came from early voting versus the ballots cast on election day, or spoiled ballots. They refused to announce the results of the count or record them in the protocol as was delineated in the procedural manual provided by ODIHR. They then huddled with a calculator to tabulate numbers, write them on a piece of paper in complete silence. Afterward, the precinct chair posted all of their numbers on a bulletin board. They then gathered up the ballots and left the building without a word. It is apparent that further legal and cultural changes are required for truly democratic elections to occur in Belarus.
Several problems that manifested themselves during the actual voting were that the material used to seal the ballot boxes was easily manipulable and could be removed and put back on (clay dough and a string). In a number of precincts, the early voting ballot boxes were not in plain view, as required by law. Early voting was significant in several precincts, up to 39 percent in one case.
Before voting day, there appeared to be a certain willingness on the part of some in the West to give the benefit of the doubt to the authorities, in part due to the minor improvements that had taken place in the election campaign, such as slightly increased access of opposition representatives to district election commissions, and the decision to repeat the airing of the candidates’ five-minute campaign spots on state TV and radio stations. This, together with the release of political prisoners Aleksandr Kozulin, Syarhei Parsyukevich and Andrei Kim (which led to the temporary lifting of U.S. sanctions on two subsidiaries of Belarus’s giant petrochemical conglomerate Belnaftakhim), and Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenka’s unenthusiastic response to Russia’s occupation of Georgia and refusal to date to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia created an atmosphere of optimism that Lukashenka would be willing to take steps towards democratic reform and engage in a dialogue with Europe and the United States.
The stark lack of transparency in the vote count was also surprising to many because it flew in the face of Belarusian authorities’ pledges prior to the vote, and it was probably unnecessary. Given the overall election campaign climate, which did not allow for genuine political competition and where the opposition had extremely minimal representation on precinct election commissions, the vast majority of pro-governmental candidates would have won in any event. This is within the context of the wider extremely inhospitable environment for the democratic opposition, in which for almost 15 years the Lukashenka regime has tightly controlled the media; vilified the opposition; repressed the independent media; disappeared, detained, imprisoned, and beaten opposition members and democracy activists; harassed and suppressed non-governmental organizations and, in short, done its best to stifle independent thought.
Notwithstanding the EU’s temporary lifting of some visa sanctions against senior Belarusian officials, Mr. Lukashenka may have yet again missed an opportunity to move Belarus towards democratic Europe, which would enhance Belarus’ independence, at a time when it especially needs to be strengthened, given intensifying Russian pressure on Belarus. Notwithstanding the flawed elections, both the United States and Europe have displayed a willingness to continue to engage in dialogue with Minsk and to encourage Belarus to move forward along the path of compliance with freely undertaken OSCE human rights and democracy commitments. The poor quality of the September 28 elections did not facilitate this process, as had been hoped by the West. Nevertheless, if the Belarusian authorities take steps to increase political freedom and respect for human rights, the real possibility exists for a gradual opening in U.S.-Belarusian relations – for Belarus to begin the process of reducing its self-imposed isolation and eventually taking its rightful place among the community of European nations.