And Then There Were None: The 2012 parliamentary elections in Belarus
The cover photo shows the invitation to the 2012 parliamentary elections in Belarus and reads: 23 SEPTEMBER 2012 / ELECTIONS OF THE MEMBERS / OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES / OF THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY / OF THE REPUBLIC OF BELARUS / EVERYONE COME TO THE ELECTION!
The September parliamentary elections were probably the most boring and predictable of all the election campaigns in the country since Soviet times. The special feature of this campaign, an attempted boycott, didn't manage to replace the East European “coloured revolutions” of the early 2000s. So, was there anything positive about this electoral process at all?
Human rights violations, mass falsifications, a lack of unity in the opposition, endless debates on who is better at shaking the regime, and above all, extremely low public interest – these are the characteristics of this sorry campaign.
Just six months ago, I was actually looking forward to these elections. The desolation after the December 2010 presidential elections, the political prisoners, and the worsening economic situation and frozen relations with the European Union, were all new conditions under which to conduct an election campaign. What new thrilling approaches would the opposition suggest to take advantage of these changing circumstances?
The opposition raised the idea of a boycott. After 12 years on the shelf, this tactic was back on the table. It seemed exciting – finally, a common stance for pro-democratic forces that stressed the pointlessness of participating in the sham process organised according to the undemocratic script of the Lukashenko regime.
The moral argument for a boycott
The moral argument of the opposition was even more appealing: no participation in the political process when many of its leaders are not able to compete on an even playing field. With 14 political prisoners still behind bars, this position sounded convincing and even noble.
And above all, it seemed like an easy way to demonstrate disaccord with the regime’s repressive policies. Just stay at home during the voting process, and automatically join the club of the enlightened. So simple. So positive. Where do I sign up?
That’s when things started to get a bit complicated. One had to choose between three variants of the boycott strategy: boycott everything, call for a boycott while participating in the election campaign and withdraw on the eve of voting, or participate until the end while boycotting only in one district. So many choices! What to do?
Another major question also kept bothering me. What would happen on the day after the elections? No one was calling for demonstrations or suggesting a long term strategy to boycott state institutions. How exactly was I to stress my righteous pro-democratic beliefs on Monday September 24th?
The answer didn't become clearer as the elections approached. Instead of getting their messages out to voters, the pro-democratic political forces concentrated on the more exciting issue of who might or might not be working for KGB. The opposition once again chose to make the elections about themselves rather than about the people.
On the bright side, the people didn’t even notice this self-isolation of the opposition forces. The majority claimed that the newly elected parliament would not represent the interests of society* and that their voice would not matter in any case**. So basically, the opposition could roll out as many techniques as they pleased or make absurd statements as if no one was listening; because no one was listening.
Staying on a positive note, this also meant that society was not listening to the state propaganda either. Despite a huge state apparatus of hundreds of official newspapers and dozens of technically modern television and radio stations, all attempts to discredit the pro-democratic forces went in vain. The people just didn’t care.
On Election Day, there were some positive developments. No violence, so typical for recent campaigns, followed the closing of polling stations. Since nobody was calling for demonstrations in the first place, the government didn't have to resort to its usual practices of brutally dispersing crowds. Although the assessment by the OSCE/ODIHR was negative, at least nobody got hurt.
Apparently, this accidental non-violence gave the regime hope for improving relations with the West. To sweeten the pot, they even released two political prisoners on the eve of the EU Council’s meeting on Belarus. While the international community was able to amuse itself by again witnessing one of the regime's favourite ploys: “Forgive me, O EU, for I have sinned, but now I’ve repented”, the EU was not deceived and extended its previous decision of imposing targeted visa and economic sanctions.
Of course, these positive points all have a duel nature. For each positive, there is an indisputable negative. The elections were indeed boring, they didn't bring any change in relations between the opposition forces and society, or between the opposition and the regime, and the pre-election day repression and post-election falsifications were massive and upsetting.
On the other hand, since the opposition didn't invest many resources in this campaign, no time needs to be wastied picking up the pieces after the predictable crash. The opposition now has the opportunity of starting to prepare for the next presidential campaign in 2015, when the memory of their successes and failures is still fresh. If they use this opportunity, the next elections have the chance of becoming the most planned in advance campaign in the history of the Belarusian opposition. This would, indeed, be one huge positive aspect of the 2012 parliamentary elections.
* 46.2 per cent believed parliament didn't represent the interests of the people as opposed to 38.4 per cent: http://www.iiseps.org/data12-26.html
** 54.5 per cent believed their voice wouldn't matter as opposed to 36.7 per cent: http://www.iiseps.org/data12-26.html
Katerina Barushka works for the independent Belarusian TV channel, Belsat, covering political and social issues in Belarus. She has also been working in the Belarusian NGO sector for the past ten years, dealing with human rights, international affairs and youth activism in Belarus.