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What new election should the Belarusian society demand?

The recent fraudulent presidential election in Belarus has triggered continuous mass protests throughout the country. The violent crackdown of the protests resulted in substantial international condemnation of the activities that Lukashenka’s regime undertook. Among those calling for dialogue, there are voices in favour of a new free and fair presidential election with international observers.

August 31, 2020 - Kiryl Kascian - Articles and Commentary

Mass protest in Minsk, August 16th 2020. Photo: Maksim Shikunyets (cc) wikimedia.org

An analysis of the available results presented by alternative (compared to official government) vote counting platforms and based on the outcomes from many polling stations with real figures throughout Belarus confirms two observations. On the one hand, the election was fraudulent in favour of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. On the other hand, the real result of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was significantly higher than the 10,12 per cent announced by the Central Electoral Commission.

Two important questions, however, remain in this situation. First, could Tsikhanouskaya be acknowledged as the elected president based on the available data from the polling stations? The answer is no because this data could neither confirm this fact nor dismiss it. The answer to the first question is important to determine the status of Tsikhanouskaya after the election in legal terms. Based on the available data, she could be defined as a contender against Lukashenka who could probably be the winner of the election. This is not enough to define her as the elected president, but still sufficient enough to designate her as the symbol of the protests.

Second, could Lukashenka claim that he really received the majority of votes in this election? The answer again is no. Thus, Lukashenka could not be called the elected president, but rather the ruler who currently effectively holds power in Belarus. In addition to the legal dimension, this rejection also has a substantial psychological component. For Lukashenka, with a record of 26 years in the country’s top position, it means that his rule is about to decline or even collapse. For a society which has been living under his regime for a quarter-century, it stands as a sign of hope for change, legitimised by the apparent lack of support for the ruler by a majority of society and loosely validated by the electoral fraud.

This situation legitimises the claims of protesters and simultaneously creates a power vacuum. There is no certainty of whether Belarus has an elected president. At the same time, Lukashenka’s regime has discredited itself by its violent crackdown of protests, which obviously further reduced his electoral capacities, even more so than on election day. Belarus, however, currently lacks any governing institution that could be viewed as fully legitimate in the eyes of domestic and international audiences. The effective balance between different branches of power in Belarus has been distorted by the country’s constitutionalism since 1996, while all its current governmental institutions are embedded in the ‘vertical’ system, centred around the position of the president.

International reactions and framework for dialogue

The post-electoral situation in Belarus produced a significant international reaction. There is no need to list all of the statements which asserted the election was far from being free and fair and condemned the excessive violence that the authorities used against protesters. A more reasonable approach is to focus on what has been proposed as the solution. Following the election, the OSCE ODIHR expressed its sympathy with the country’s civil society and urged for dialogue. The EU’s reaction backed the OSCE proposal for dialogue and expressed its readiness to assist in this cause. It called for protection from arbitrary arrests and for the halting of violence against the actors advocating for political changes. The EU also announced its plans to impose individual sanctions on those who were in charge of election fraud and the subsequent violent crackdown of protests. The statement by the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) served as a reminder that the assembly repeatedly ‘urged the authorities in Belarus to move towards a “truly competitive political system” in which parties and candidates can register and campaign without hindrance, and voters can make free and informed choices.’

The above excerpts produce three questions. The first is about the sanctions. If the EU (re)introduces them against the individuals designated above, will these sanctions be essentially different from those that existed from 2004 until 2016? It is highly probable that there will be little difference, if any. Thus, sanctions would rather be a symbolic act of solidarity with virtually no effect on relations between authorities and the country’s civil society. Consequently, as Josep Borrell stated, the EU will have to deal with Lukashenka irrespective of whether it acknowledged him as the legitimate winner of the election.

The second question is in regards to dialogue and its possible forms. Domestically, this need is embodied in the creation of the ‘Coordination Council’ which seeks to ‘start negotiations and develop mechanisms to restore the rule of law and hold new elections.’ Still, its status is largely based on Tsikhanouskaya’s electoral support and enhanced by the public’s rejection of the brutality against peaceful protesters from uniformed agencies. The data confirms the assertion of Tsikhanouskaya, who said that the protesters represent the majority of Belarusians. Nevertheless, the ‘Coordination Council’ is an advisory body without a clearly defined public mandate. Another problem with this channel is Lukashenka’s willingness to keep his power and inability to maintain dialogue with the protesters, which is embodied in his statements and actions.

The third question relates to the PACE president’s statement and Belarus’ potential transition to a competitive political system. This option seems logical and feasible in terms of Belarus’ prospective return to democracy. This option, however, requires a strong parliament with real powers that could replace the current bicameral National Assembly, which is in essence an imitation of parliamentarism.

Why should the parliamentary election be of first-rate importance?

There are numerous voices calling for a new free and fair presidential election with international observers in Belarus. If this scenario is implemented, with or without Lukashenka, several issues arise. First, if the free and fair presidential election is conducted under the current rules, the newly elected president will be the only legitimate authority, with full international recognition as such. Second, a new president will retain all the current powers of Lukashenka, including all related potential risks. Third, s/he will also need to change the constitution to restore the independence of different branches of power and thereby fully legitimise their status. In other words, the main challenge of this scenario is the personalisation of potential political changes by the elected politician.

If the parliamentary election is proposed as a feasible scenario, the question of the parliament’s status arises. It should be reminded that Lukashenka distorted the balance of power in Belarus in 1995 as a result of a controversial referendum that vested him with the powers of the early dissolution of parliament. Following the controversial 1996 referendum, Belarus’ legislature took on its current imitative form. If the constitution is restored as originally framed, it will reinstate the role of parliament as an independent legislative body and simultaneously limit the presidential powers. It seems that termination of all constitutional amendments adopted in the referenda during Lukashenka’s rule could be done without any new referendum, due to major irregularities during all the referendum campaigns in question. This termination would also have a significant psychological effect both on Lukashenka and the society as it would imply a fresh restart of Belarus’ state machinery. In any case, following a free and fair parliamentary election, the country would gain 260 MPs who would jointly express the people’s will and be responsible for the country’s transition. The acknowledgment of this body’s legitimacy by international actors would contribute to ensuring its role in domestic changes (including possible constitutional reform) and progress in the dialogue with major international actors. It would also be parliament’s full responsibility to announce the new presidential election and its terms.

This scenario seems feasible to implement as a result of the dialogue happening within Belarusian society, and more importantly  Lukashenka’s personal factor is relatively irrelevant in its implementation. Moreover, it would ensure the country a smoother transition towards democracy after more than a quarter-century under authoritarian rule.

Kiryl Kascian holds doctoral degree in law from the University of Bremen. Currently he is a board member at the International Centre for Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity Studies and a member of the CUREDI database project at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.

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