How to campaign during COVID-19
Candidates without masks, the authorities without a heart, and COVID dissidents at headquarters
On June 5th, 2020, Press Club Belarus, Our Opinion – the website of Belarus’ expert community, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies ( BISS ), and Belarus in Focus weekly analytical monitoring held an online meeting of the Expert and Analytical Club to discuss the specifics of the political work during the coronavirus pandemic.
The main speakers were the heads and representatives of the headquarters of various alternative candidates to presidential candidates:
Siarhei Vazniak - chief of Andrei Dzmitryeu’s campaign headquarters;
Nikolai Lysenkov - head of Siarhei Cherachen’s campaign headquarters;
Viktar Yanchurevich - head of Yury Hubarevich’s campaign headquarters;
Illia Dabratvor - representative of Valery Tsepkalo’s campaign headquarters.
Various representatives of the diplomatic corps, Belarusian analysts, and journalists also took part in the meeting of the expert and analytical club. Paulyuk Bykowski and Ekaterina Pierson were among them.
The discussion was moderated by Vadim Mojeiko (BISS) and Anton Ruliou (Belarus in Focus/Press Club Belarus).
- “Our candidate will not come, snap his fingers, and the virus will disappear” (Illia Dabratvor);
- “I bashed Dzmitryeu for not wearing a mask on the pickets, but he said, 'Leave me alone, I will be like this” (Siarhei Vazniak);
- “During a pandemic, it is impossible to fully exercise the electoral rights of citizens” (Viktar Yanchurevich);
- “We have 50 people a day getting sick in Stowbtsy, but they tell us that it’s a psychosis” (Nikolai Lysenkov);
- “I am a free person, I can choose myself whether to wear a mask or not” (Illia Dabratvor);
- “The authorities have no heart” (Siarhei Vazniak)
- “The pandemic will become an ally of the authorities in falsifying the turnout” (Illia Dabratvor).
Collection of signatures amidst epidemic and repressions
‘People are tired of being afraid – not only of the authorities but of this virus as well,’ Illia Dabratvor believes. This explains the fact that it is difficult to persuade collectors at the grassroots level to wear masks and gloves – even though branded masks were made at Valery Tsepkala's headquarters. As the beginning of the campaign fell on the peak of the epidemic, people discussed various new approaches for collecting signatures. In the end, however, ‘the classic schemes remained: picket lines and door-to-door canvassing’. At the same time, Mr. Dabratvor admits that the efficiency of door-to-door rounds has decreased by about 30-40%, but the majority of those who open their doors sign for the candidate without much talking. Siarhei Cherachen’s headquarters, however, focused on collecting signatures outdoors. Nikolai Lysenkov emphasized picket lines and door-to-door canvassing in small house suburbs in towns.
Siarhei Vazniak admits that "everything is not going as planned." It came as a surprise to him that the behavior of voters has not changed in any way: if they do not open the door to the collectors, then their motivation is the same (I do not believe in fair elections, etc.), and there are practically no cases that they were not allowed into the apartment because of the coronavirus. The same applies to the picket lines: ‘they approach picket lines boldly: people put on their masks and believe that they are protected’.
Viktar Yanchurevich notes that the epidemic influenced Yury Hubarevich's campaign for a long time, even at the stage of the primaries of the democratic opposition – it became necessary to make adjustments to the original plan and to curtail those activities associated with gathering people offline. Hubarevich’s headquarters proceed with the same approach after the registration of his initiative group, and therefore they don’t aim at collecting 100 thousand signatures. ‘We stand for responsible politics ... During a pandemic, it is impossible to fully exercise the electoral rights of citizens,’ Yanchurevich said. The collection of signatures in support of Hubarevich is carried out formally, only to legitimize street activities such as an information campaign about the problem of the coronavirus in Belarus and the “cover-up of the real numbers of the infected by the authorities”, as well as the collection of data of those who wish to become observers and members of the election commissions. The representatives of the headquarters are unanimous: the repressions against Siarhei Tsikhanouski only politicized the society and helped to collect signatures. Illia Dabratvor notes, ‘At the beginning of the campaign, people were not so eager to sign in support of the presidential candidates, but after Tsikhanouski's arrest people began to come to picket lines themselves and sign.’ Siarhei Vazniak believes that ‘collecting signatures is easier now than in 2015, despite the epidemic’: after Tsikhanouski's arrest people sign in support of every candidate, not just theirs.
Viktar Yanchurevich mentioned the traffic police cars that accompany Yury Hubarevich's trips to the regions, and summed up, ‘We understand that we are at risk – today every Belarusian who goes out on the street and does not observe isolation measures is at risk... But the desire for change among Belarusians is stronger than fear... Someone will face the consequences; it is hard for me to predict as to who exactly will suffer from the growing repressions.’
Candidates without masks are not afraid neither of the virus nor of the CEC warnings
Only Viktar Yanchurevich confirmed that his candidate is campaigning wearing a respirator and gloves while also using a hand sanitizer – his whole team does the same.
He mentioned the ‘exemplary anti-picket line’ near the Ministry of Health, where the activists of the Hubarevich's team were almost wearing chemical protection suits.
On the contrary, Illia Dabratvor says, ‘Our candidate travels not wearing a mask, communicates with people not wearing a mask, he does not hide.’ He admits that Tsepkala’s team already ‘has some first-level contacts... we stop all contacts with them, including on their initiative. Such people cannot collect signatures.’
Nikolay Lysenkov notes that all Cherachen’s team members are protected with branded masks and there were no cases of infection. At the same time, Siarhei Cherachen himself does not wear a mask at the electoral rallies.
Siarhei Vazniak bashed Dzmitryeu for not wearing a mask on the pickets, but he said, 'Leave me alone, I will be like this … It’s easier for a candidate to communicate with voters without wearing a mask.’ At the same time, Siarhei Vazniak himself, just like the head of Dzmitryeu’s initiative group Tatsiana Karatkevich, use masks. However, not all their team members do the same. He says, ‘There are some COVID-19 deniers in our team… We’re all wearing protections, however, God knows if COVID-19 deniers do the same, I can’t control or bash them’. Illia Dabratvor seems to be close to COVID-19 deniers himself as he is dissatisfied with the European policy against the coronavirus. He said, ‘People are stressed by this pressure... I am a free person; I can choose whether to wear a mask or not.”
In response to the statements by CEC head Lydia Yermoshina which noted that the candidates can be removed from the race if their representatives don’t wear masks and gloves, Illia Dabratvor recalled that the electoral code does not prohibit collecting signatures without masks – this is nothing more than a recommendation from the CEC. He is supported by Paulyuk Bykowski: he believes that the CEC may issue a warning for collecting signatures without masks, but this should not be an obstacle to registration. Bykowski recalls that in the previous elections there were warnings for early campaigning, but they did not become a reason for not registering candidates.
Siarhei Vazniak also demonstrated a sort of a philosophical attitude to Belarus’ CEC warnings. He noted that Andrei Dzmitryeu received a warning for advertising on social networks in the parliamentary elections, “but we decided that it’s not scary, it doesn’t have any effect on anything” – and in these elections, Dzmitryeu continued to use social media ads anyway.
'The authorities have no heart, they don't give a damn about the people'
During the discussion, a consensus was formed - the topic of coronavirus is not in the focus of public attention: people are more concerned about the behavior of the authorities and economic problems associated with the pandemic than with the disease itself.
Viktar Yanchurevich noted, ‘the society is getting used to the idea that we will live with it for a long time,” besides, “as always, Belarusians are counting on a miracle.’ In such a manner, the topic of the coronavirus took a back seat to the discussions about the authorities and ‘how it lives, what are they are guided with, and how high the citizen’s interests are.’
Siarhei Vazniak agrees with Yanchurevich: people have begun to get used to the epidemic, feel it as a lesser threat, and notes that ‘life is going on.’ The epidemic itself is not near the top of the agenda (in contrast to the problems of the lack of work and low salaries), but it showed that ‘The authorities have no heart, they don't give a damn about people”. Because of that, people increasingly perceive the authorities to be directed against the people.
Nikolai Lysenkov notes similar trends, as people are embittered by the president's rhetoric: ‘We have 50 people a day sick in Stolbtsy, but they tell us that it is a psychosis.’
Illia Dabratvor believes that against the background of the economic problems, the potential quarantine rather scares people, ‘People are afraid to be left without means of subsistence... Everyone understands that the state will not come to our aid.” Besides, Tsepkalo’s team does not make the epidemic a key topic of the campaign ‘simply because this is a global problem - our candidate won’t be able to make the virus disappear at the snap of his fingers.’
The epidemic, too, does not seem to be a hindrance to future agitation. Nikolai Lysenkov noted that Siarhei Cherachan will have both ads on social networks and public gatherings: ‘Mask, gloves - and let’s go.’ ‘Tsepkalo is the Belarusian internet’, Dabratvor noted quite radically. At the same time, he clarified that the traditional public gatherings were planned as well, including picket lines. Siarhei Vazniak Sergei Wozniak plans to ditch meetings in the halls in favor of the outdoor meetings – as the campaign is taking place at the height of the summer. Thematically ‘most likely it will be an anti-Lukashenka campaign’, with the slogan ‘Tell the truth. Appreciate people.’ To change the authorities which don’t appreciate the people as a reaction to the behavior of the authorities during an epidemic which showed that they didn’t.
Election Observation: Different Approaches and New Challenges
The representatives of the headquarters demonstrated a completely different approach to observing the elections. The most familiar plan was voiced by Viktar Yanchurevich: regardless of whether the Movement for Freedom supports any of the candidates, they plan to nominate people as observers in cooperation with the Right of Choice campaign.
However, Tell the Truth conducts the latest observation campaigns individually. Siarhei Vazniak noted, ‘After some strange conflicts with the Right of Choice, we conduct observation independently using their manuals. We have registered observers everywhere except for Brest.’ However, at the same time, he is sure that locally the independent observers from different organizations will have to cooperate.
Tsepkalo's headquarters has an unusual approach: according to Illia Dabratvor, they will participate to win not to observe. They see no point in being distracted by the organization of observation when there is the Right of Choice and Viasna, which have been doing it well for years. However, Tsepkalo's headquarters are not planning to prohibit their activists from participating in other observation campaigns.
Nikolai Lysenkov sees the situation differently, ‘We must observe and not to blindly trust what is written in the official protocols.’ Therefore, Cherachen’s team is planning to nominate all 1000 people from the initiative group as observers from his Hramada party, as well as volunteers. They are also ready to cooperate with other structures.
Siarhei Vazniak drew attention to a relatively new challenge: at the last elections ‘the groups of pro-governmental observers began to form, who are not observing the elections, but are opposing us.’ Therefore, he proposes to change tactics. He proposes nominating not 2 but 5 to 6 observers to one voting station, even to the detriment of the number of the voting stations covered by the independent observers. Viktar Yanchurevich agrees with him, ‘There is no such thing as too many observers... nowadays, 3-5 people per site is the norm.’ Otherwise, it is difficult to fight provocations as the electoral committee can remove one of the observers from the voting station; it is also hard to organize the election observation of the voting at home.
Illia Dabratvor believes that home voting can become a special problem in these elections, ‘The pandemic will become an ally of the authorities in falsifying the turnout.’ The authorities will use the pandemic as a cover-up and they will sharply increase the percentage of the votes in portable ballot boxes. Dabratvor refers to his unique experience of observing the elections in Belarus during the epidemic on May 17th, 2020 at the by-election to the local council in Kalodzishchy: 19 people voted early there, 6 voted on the election day, and another 209 allegedly used home voting. In similar cases, the independent observers also need their cars, because the commission won’t let them in their cars and the observation, in such a manner, will stop.
Paulyuk Bykowski sees a challenge in the fact that for the first time a situation may arise when the Right of Choice will not have any contact with the headquarters, none of the registered candidates will want to cooperate with the campaign, and then it will be even more difficult for the observers.
Full video of the discussion: