Jenny Hilton on her eye-opening visit to Belarus as an official observer of its presidential elections
Belarus is a strange country, still stuck in a Soviet time warp with almost all business owned and controlled by the government.
The President, Lukashenko has been in power for more than two decades and no one expected its recent general election to be democratic. After the one in 2010 there were demonstrations, and many politicians and journalists were arrested and imprisoned. It was hoped therefore, that our presence as election observers would prevent repeat actions.
My first surprise came at passport control where my documents were closely examined with a jewellers’ eyeglass. Minsk is a city that was flattened first by the German army and then by the victorious Russians in 1944. It has been rebuilt with wide boulevards and large buildings in neo-classical and early 20th Century styles.
Other surprises were to come with the conduct of the election, including the fact that is a criminal offence to call for a boycott of the proceedings. Most of the campaign was aimed at ensuring a high turn-out. The economy of Belarus is in increasing difficulties and is largely dependent on cheap Russian fuel. They have two oil-refineries which export to the west, along with a profitable potash mine. But their state-owned factories are old fashioned and many are now working three-day weeks. There is little entrepreneurship and it is difficult to attract western investors when there is endemic corruption.
There were four candidates in the election. Lukashenka himself, two who were avowedly his supporters and one, the only woman, Tatsiana Karatkevich, who concentrated her campaign on social issues. All four are opposed to Russia’s desire to build a military air-base on Belarus’s soil.
The first obstacle to becoming a Presidential candidate is that you have a month in which to collect 100,000 signatures, complete with identification and addresses so they can be checked.
Of the 73,000 members of Electoral Commissions only 40 are opposed to the President. The Chair of the Central Electoral Commission is Lidziya Yarmoshyna who has held the post since 1994. She denied that there was any electoral bias – although most media channels are state owned and 85% of the coverage was about the President. Other candidates were given air-time at 6am to make their presentations. Belarus is ranked 157th of 180 countries in the 2015 World Freedom Index compiled by Freedom House.
One astonishing aspect of the elections was the five days of ‘Early Voting’, during which students, soldiers and factory workers are encouraged to do just that. About 30% did, in what is a largey un-supervised exercise with ballot boxes being constantly sealed and unsealed for lunch breaks and overnight. On the day of the election itself, most polling stations were conducting orderly systems, with a constant trickle of voters. The boxes however, were sealed with string and plasticine, and there was a constant vagueness about figures. Not just on the numbers of early voters but also housebound individuals who had requested the mobile ballot box.
Almost all the ‘observers’ present were from government-funded organisations and they were kept well away, especially from the vote count. When counting took place it was conducted in silence, no figures were announced, no ballot papers were held up for inspection and individual members of the committee handed in results on slips of paper to the Chair for tabulation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, the result was a foregone conclusion – with Lukashenko re-elected with 83 per cent of the votes.
Baroness Jenny Hilton is a backbench Labour Peer
Published 3rd November 2015