Village Councils might be left out of Belarusian political system
Local self-governance is not functional in Belarus, at least, at the grassroots level. Acknowledging this and not planning major changes to the existing political system, the central government may give up elections in village Councils. Thereby the government intends to “optimize” its institutional structure and make budgetary savings. Higher level Councils will increase their administrative weight, objectively increasing population’s interest in the upcoming local elections, including the opposition.
Central Election Commission Head Lydia Yermoshina, in an interview with the State TV Channel, said that elections to village Deputy Councils could be scrapped. “The issue of whether to preserve Village Councils is rather urgent due to difficulties in finding candidates and then providing for their operations, given how little power they have. Higher level Councils and other executive-administrative bodies manage land and other riches anyway”, Yermoshina said.
In fact, due to low participation of citizens and political parties, regional governments actually have to use ‘administrative tool’ to force the local officials to put forward their candidacies in local elections.
The government (through Yermoshina) recognizes that local governments in Belarus are dysfunctional, for obvious reasons: they “have very little power”. Extending their powers will imply decentralization of management at the grassroots level, which is not what the top management intends as is clear from the launched administrative reform. One of the reform’s objectives is to “optimize” budget expenditures and the CEC Head’s initiative, by envisaging savings of about 30% of the local elections costs, fits in perfectly. Moreover, by abolishing village Soviets the government also makes substantial savings from their operational costs.
In 2010, 1495 local Councils were formed in Belarus, of which 1288 – village Councils. 15 329 Deputies were elected to the village Councils. The following local elections are scheduled for 2014.
Rural population, which may lose the opportunity to elect local deputies, will hardly feel the loss. For the abovementioned reasons, they hardly had any benefits from these bodies, and they have no experience with fully functioning self-governance at place.
In comparison, even in Russia (not to mention Western Europe), local councils and executive bodies have fairly broad powers: disposing of land and municipal property. They form their budgets not only due to various federal transfers, but also from local taxes. Both, Council Deputies and Heads of local administrations, are elected directly by citizens. The real influence these bodies have causes fierce competition in the local elections, making the turnout often higher than in the regional and federal elections.
Belarus’ regional officials unofficially approve the possible scrapping of the village councils, but they doubt this initiative will be implemented.
If implemented, “Yermoshina Plan” will have political consequences too. The administrative weight of higher level local Councils will inevitably increase (they will assume functions previously performed by rural councils), resulting in increased competition for the seats in the next elections. Accordingly, the opposition’s interest in participating in these elections will increase too – they will improve their political activity in the current year. In turn, the government will be forced to tighten control over the electoral process, and in particular, making sure that political opponents do not win seats in the new ‘full-weight’ Councils.