Belarusian authorities prompted to apply efforts to boost public interest in elections
The Belarusian authorities have not yet formulated the key messages for Lukashenka’s election campaign, which would have mobilised the population to support the incumbent president. In order to boost voter’s interest in the elections, the Belarusian state print and electronic media’s coverage of the early stages of the election campaign has been neutral, including campaigning by alternative candidates. Nevertheless, the authorities are prepared to take harsh actions against opponents who may attempt to mobilize president’s opponents beyond the election campaign.
In a video address on www.vybory2015.by Central Election Commission Head Lidia Yermoshina said that the initiative group for nominating Alexander Lukashenka as a candidate in the 2015 presidential elections had already collected 100,000 signatures needed for his registration.
Candidate Lukashenka has not yet presented the final version of his election programme. As a rule, President Lukashenka voices major theses for the next five-year programme at the All-Belarus People’s Assembly, which takes place two-three weeks before the presidential elections – during the campaigning stage of the campaign.
During the previous election campaign, the president’s focus was on social and economic development and on improving people’s well-being. The authorities offered voters some material benefits (such as higher incomes) in exchange for loyalty and low profile participation in the political life of the state.
Interestingly, Lukashenka has started the 2015 election campaign with a slogan, which he has borrowed from the opposition: “For the future of independent Belarus”. For instance, a few months before the start of the presidential campaign, “Tell the Truth!” former leader Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu launched a social movement “For the Statehood and the Independence of Belarus”, as well, the opposition has long talked about the threat to Belarus’ sovereignty from the Kremlin. That said, Lukashenka’s initiative group head, Trade Unions Federation Chairman Mikhail Orda, recently talked about people’s demand for a strong leader amid growing external threats related to tense situation in the region and the conflict in Ukraine: “Today, people are consolidating around a strong leader. People have already decided, and they know who to vote for”.
In turn, potential candidates from the opposition (Tatsiana Karatkevich from the "People’s Referendum”; Sergey Kalyakin, the “Fair World” party leader; and Anatoly Lebedko, United Civil Party leader) have attempted to seize the authorities’ rhetoric and presented their vision of further socio-economic development in their programmes.
The process of collecting signatures for alternative candidates’ nomination is quite challenging due to the holiday season and low activity of the population. The overall number of collected signatures to date is lower than during the 2006 and 2010 presidential campaigns.
In a situation of political apathy, the authorities have been prompted to grant access to the media for alternative candidates in order to reach out voters. For instance, for the first time in many years, state print and electronic media provided neutral or even slightly positive coverage for some opposition candidates, who mainly focus on socio-economic issues.
Nevertheless, the authorities are watching closely so that the opposition candidates do not fall out of the topic of elections and strictly follow the authorities’ elections scenario. For example, the CEC has warned Anatoly Lebedko for holding a rally in support of political prisoners. In addition, the state media has published several critical articles about Anatoly Lebedko.
Most likely, the Belarusian authorities have changed their tactics vis-a-vis their opponents in the 2015 elections due to the desire to continue the normalization process in relations with Brussels. For instance, the Belarusian authorities have agreed to take part in the first round of the dialogue between Belarus and the European Union on human rights in Brussels. During the meeting, one of the main topics was the release of political prisoners.
Deep apathy and marginalisation of the electorate jeopardizes the authorities’ ability to ensure the necessary turnout on the election day. The authorities are unlikely to interfere with campaigns of alternative candidates during the signature collection stage, at least with those who mildly criticise the Belarusian leadership. In order to boost public interest in the elections the authorities are likely to enable access to the state media for the opposition candidates.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.