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General elections and referendum in Byelorussia, 17 october 2004

General elections and referendum in Byelorussia, 17 october 2004

17/10/2004 - Analysis

Byelorussia, independent since 25 August 1991, has been under the strong rule of Alexander Loukachenko. This totalitarian president looks back on the Soviet period with nostalgia and uses repressive methods with enthusiasm; he reigns supreme over the small republic whose administration and society he controls entirely. General elections are to take place on 17 October next, the free and democratic nature of which are already being seriously questioned by States in the West.

The Byelorussian Political System

The Byelorussian Parliament comprises two chambers. It has a Chamber of Representatives (Palata pretsaviteley) with 110 members who are elected by a majority based method for a four year period; then there is the Council of the Republic (Natsioalnoye sobranie) that has 64 members, 56 of whom are elected by the soviets in the capital, Minsk and six of the country's regions; eight are appointed by the President of the Republic.

The majority (92) of the 110 members of the Chamber of Representatives claim they are independent and are distributed as follows:

six are affiliated to the Communist Party (KPB) ;

five to the Agrarian Party (AP) ;

two to the Republican Party of Work and Justice (RPPS) ;

one to the Liberal Democrat Party (LDPB) ;

one to the Social Party of Sport (BSSP) ;

one to the Social Democrat Party for Popular Harmony (PPA) ;

one to the Iabloko Union (Apple Union);

one to the Civic Union Party (CAB).

The representatives affiliated to the Social Democrat Party for Popular Harmony, the Iabloko Union and the Civic Union Party are openly opposed to the President.

The candidates in the elections, either general or local, are generally men and women without any political experience, appointed by the presidential administration. Public company directors, managers of kolkhozes or sovkhozes, soldiers, hospital directors, managers of local administrations are all associated with the present government to whom they owe their place in society. The electoral commission for its part comprises exclusively representatives of the ruling power. We should remember that the opposition boycotted the general elections of October 15 and 29 2000.

The Byelorussian regime is presidential; Alexandre Loukachenko has all the power. Former teacher of communist ideology in the Red Army, political commissioner with the border guards, Loukachenko was appointed manager of a sovkhoze in 1987. He was elected representative of the Supreme Soviet of Byelorussia in 1991 and two years later became president of the parliamentary anti-corruption commission within the Supreme Soviet of Byelorussia. On 20 July 1994, at the age of 39, he was elected President of the Republic thanks to a populist programme that promised compensation for financial losses caused by the spiralling rise in inflation. Since his rise to State leadership the President, who is incidentally banned from visiting a number of European States and the USA, has worked unceasingly to maintain himself in power.

In November 1996, he organised a referendum that enabled him to extend his mandate by two years (that ended in 2001) and to widen his presidential prerogatives although the Byelorussian electoral law prohibits the modification of the Constitution by referendum.

Alexander Loukachenko was re-elected as head of State in the first round of the election on 9 September 2001 for a five year mandate by 75.65% of the vote versus 15.65% for his main adversary, opposition candidate, Vladimir Gontcharik. We should remember that this presidential election was not acknowledged by observers of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and was contested by the opposition.

On 7 September last Alexander Loukachenko announced that he intended to organise, on the same day as the general elections, a referendum on the possibility for him to undertake a third mandate as head of State prohibited by the Byelorussian Constitution at present.

The referendum question will be as follows: "Do you permit the President of the Republic of Byelorussia, Alexander Loukachenko to stand as candidate for the Presidency of the Republic of Byelorussia?"

In June last representatives of the opposition went on a two week-long hunger strike in demand of amendments to the electoral law with the aim of preventing the President from standing for a third mandate. These representatives were also protesting against the arrest, in April, of Mikhaïl Marinitch one of Alexander Loukachenko's main adversaries. Also as soon as the election was announced the USA expressed "serious doubts" about the regularity of the future referendum. "Alexander Loukachenko is offering the people the opportunity to establish a medieval monarchy in Europe", declared Vintsuk Vecherka, leader of the Byelorussian Popular Front (BNF), the main opposition party.

An authoritarian regime

On 30 January 2004, the Council of Europe decided to maintain its ban from Europe on Byelorussia by refusing to grant it the status of special guest - withdrawn seven years ago for the disrespect of democratic norms. Byelorussia is the only European State that is not a member of the Council of Europe. For the very first time on 17 April last the country was also condemned by the Commission for Human Rights at the UN for arbitrary detention, disappearance and execution of opponents, harassment of NGO's, opposition parties and independent media. The Commission requested the trial and conviction of those responsible for political murders as well as the independence of the country's judicial system.

Former Interior Minister, Iouri Zakharenko, disappeared in May 1999, five months later it was the turn of former president of Parliament, Viktro Gontchar and businessman Anatoli Krassovski to disappear. Finally in July 2000 Dmitri Zavadski, a journalist of Russian State TV ORT also disappeared. The Parliamentary Assembly at the Council of Europe requested the breaking off of all political contact with Byelorussia on 28 April - as long as an inquiry into the involvement of high level representatives in these disappearances has not been launched.

The Byelorussian regime also controls civil servants, unions, associations and the media. The Byelorussian Federation of Unions, that has over four million members, was transformed into a State organisation in 2002 and its management was granted to Leonid Kozik, a close colleague of Alexander Loukachenko. Ministers can "warn" any state organisation, if they think that they are undertaking activities contrary to the State interest. After two warnings the organisation can be banned from all types of activity. Associations are also tightly controlled and are often suspended. The most spectacular prohibition came in November 2003 and after a sham trial of Viasna, an association for the defence of Human Rights that had denounced the presidential election of 2001. In September 2003, the Oleg Voltchek Centre, that provided people with free legal aid was also closed. As far as the media are concerned independent journalists are all under reprieve, with the permanent threat of arbitrary closure or economic asphyxia. In 2002, the international community unanimously denounced the trial of the chief editors of two independent publications - Pahonia and Rabochiy. In August last Narodnaïa Volia (Popular Will) and Rabotchaïa solidarnost (Workers' Solidarity) were closed by the authorities; the first one due to the publication of an interview that accused the former director of the State TV and radio channel, Egor Rybakov, of poor management; the second was closed due to the dissolution of the Byelorussian Labour Party, its founder. In 2003, four independent newspapers -Bielorousskaïa delovaïa gazeta, Solidarnost, Ekho and Predprinimatelskaïa- were suspended for three months. Finally on 7 September the authorities suspended the appearance of six new publications for petty reasons.

Alexander Loukachenko has established a State ideology, an entire system of anti-liberal values (liberalism is defined as an ideology that symbolises social inequality between men in favour of individualism) that must now be taught in all secondary schools and establishments of higher education as well as in companies (an ideology officer officiates within each of these). "The ideology prevents the creation of an anti-authoritarian breach within the State structures. The mobilisation of the administrations is both a means to control executive activities and yet simultaneously provide ideological coherence to the presidential policy and avoid excessively brutal methods towards State employees" writes Alexandra Goujon, a doctoral student at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

On 23 June the OSCE believed that Byelorussia had regressed in terms of democracy. "The present atmosphere is no guarantee for free and honest elections in Byelorussia", declared Uta Zapf, officer at the Parliamentary Assembly for Byelorussia; he denounces in particular the difficulties encountered by the opposition to gain access to public media. But Alexander Loukachenko pays no attention to this criticism. "Our elections do not need acknowledgement from the West. They have to take place according to our laws, as they do in the USA, Great Britain or in France", he maintained recently. Hence it will be a sham election and popular consultation that will take place in Byelorussia on 17 October next. It is true that any election, and the Georgians showed us this two years ago, even if it is undemocratic, is never a foregone conclusion.

Reminder of the general election results on 15 and 29 October 2000 in Byelorussia

Participation rate: 61.1%

Source Interparliamentary Union (UIP)
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
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