17/10/2004 - Results
On Sunday evening the Byelorussian authorities announced victory of the « yes » in the referendum organised by the President of the Republic, Alexander Lukashenko, in order for him to lead a third mandate as head of the country. Three quarters of the electorate (77.3%) voted in favour of the adoption of an amendment to the Constitution lifting the limit of the number of times the President of the Republic can be re-elected. Alexander Lukashenko can now stand for as many presidential mandates as he wishes. According to the Electoral Commission the participation rate rose to 90%. We should note that in Byelorussia as in neighbouring Russia, participation in the elections gives people the right to reduced prices on foodstuffs. Beer was also on free tasting in some polling stations.
For this election over 17% of the electorate voted early, since six thousand of the country's polling stations were open as early as 12 October. One third of the electorate (30%) voted in this way in the previous general elections on 15 and 29 October 2000. The early voting system has often been accused of promoting electoral fraud, since the ballot boxes are left unattended during overnight. Many people (students, teachers, and civil servants) said they had been subject to pressure to go and vote early. A controversial system of mobile ballot boxes had also been established to enable people to be mobile during the vote.
Opposition parties centred on the Coalition of « Five Plus » called for a demonstration on 18 October in the capital of Minsk. A crowd of two thousand, amongst them a number of young people, gathered behind a big banner where « Niet » was written in red letters and demonstrators called for « Lukashenko's resignation » and « Byelorussia is alive ». The police made twenty arrests. A few hundred people then marched to the KGB headquarters shouting « KGB give us back the missing ». A demonstrators' delegation was allowed to enter the building to meet with the management. For the first time around 500 people also demonstrated on Sunday 10 October in Minsk, since the announcement made by Alexander Lukashenko on 7 September about the organisation of the referendum. «No third mandate », « Byelorussia yes, Lukashenko no » were the slogans to be read on the banners held up by demonstrators. Three of them were arrested by the police and consequently released.
Although the international community did not react on Sunday evening to the results of the Byelorussian election, the ambassadors of the USA, France, UK, Italy, Poland and Lithuania did however attend an opposition meeting that same evening at the headquarters of the Popular Front. « We have been given a typical illustration of the suffocation of civil society by a totalitarian and authoritarian regime », declared the former President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel; he added that Byelorussia was the last country in Europe where a « true dictatorial regime » held power. Neighbouring Russia, for its part, was pleased by the smooth running of the referendum and the general elections, as indicated by its Foreign Affairs Minister Sergueï Lavrov, saying that its observers had not remarked any irregularity and greeting the « high level of good citizenship amongst the electorate».
The two hundred and sixty international observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) who were responsible for monitoring the election did, for their part, condemn a number of irregularities. « The elections in Byelorussia were wide of the OSCE demands in terms of democratic elections. The Byelorussian authorities failed to ensure the fundamental conditions necessary for popular vote to serve its purpose in founding government authority ; freedom of expression, association, and gathering were particularly threatened », maintained the vice-President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Organisation, Tone Tingsgaard. For her part, Audrey Glover, the head of the delegation of permanent observers highlighted the lack of transparency in the counting of the vote. Hence many people were entitled to vote without having to present any identity paper; likewise the ballot boxes were judged to be incorrectly closed and some observers were not allowed to enter the polling stations or were excluded from the counting.
On the day of the election State TV broadcast the results of a survey, counter to electoral law, with the results of an exit poll undertaken by the Ecoom Institute, an unknown organisation to date, that said that the « yes » would win the election by far. State TV also broadcast an entire day of advertisements in favour of Alexander Lukashenko, in spite of a legal ban to campaign on the day of the election. Finally on Sunday evening the journalist on the leading Russian channel and former correspondent for his country in Byelorussia, Pavel Cheremet, author of a critical biography of Alexander Lukashenko was arrested by the police. The latter maintained that a criminal case had been opened up against him for a minor administrative offence referring to 56 of the Penal Code. Pavel Cheremet is supposed to have been accused of having taken part in a fight.
As during the entire electoral campaign, Alexander Loukachenko rejected criticism from the international community calling on the USA to « sit down and shut it ». « I think that you have similar problems at home, so take care of your problems, » he remonstrated, addressing the West as he went to vote.
The first round of elections was clouded by the referendum and the official results are still unknown. However the Electoral Commission announced that 800 of the 110 seats in the Chamber of Representatives, the lower Chamber, had been won by candidates in favour of Alexander Lukashenko. The latter maintained at the beginning of the week that pro-government forces would take all of the 110 seats in the Chamber of Representatives. The opposition had four representatives in the former Chamber.
« If the people says yes, I shall work harder and I shall be more confident in my initiatives, » said Alexander Lukashenko last week ; he did not hesitate to increase pensions by 30% and promise civil servants a 50% rise in salary just a few days before the election. In a country where the private sector is almost inexistent and where the State controls 180 of the biggest companies, the population, 41% of which live below the poverty level according to the UN, will therefore have to wait to be able to live in a democracy and to see the reform that the country so badly needs.
Within a climate of fear that does not encourage democratic elections, Byelorussians hardly had any other choice but to say ‘yes' to Batka (father in Byelorussian) as Alexander Lukashenko likes to be called. These elections will not help Byelorussia to emerge from its isolation and to improve the reputation of its President, the only head of State to be banned from staying in the EU and the USA, a step that had only previously been applied to the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic.