Election campaign: censorship inside the country and liberalization for export
Authorities are interested in the domestic election campaign being a routine which attracts minimal attention of the population. At the same time, the fact that the CEC registered additional candidates may be used as a positive signal “for export” indicating certain liberalization in the electoral process. However, the inertia of the electoral system significantly limits the abilities of the central management to control the campaign in the regions.
During the past week, the Central Election Commission upheld complaints from 11 citizens who have previously been refused registration as a candidate, and banned elections’ boycott propaganda clips in the state media prepared by some candidates.
Decision of the Central Election Commission to override 11 decisions of the district commissions speaks, above all, about the poor quality of internal communication within the electoral system. This is a well-known feature of the district commissions’ work: they stick to prohibitive method of candidates’ registration. Since active public policy is considered a threat by the Belarusian management, the district commissions’ heads prefer not to take risks and register either few candidates or screen out the most active ones (the most dangerous).
The overriding of 11 decisions by the Central Election Commission, which would be assessed as a sign of the good will by the observers, could have an opposite effect on the entire electoral management system.
This problem was noted yet during the 2008 campaign. In particular, it was noted that regional election commissions were confused about the signals coming from the top: for example, about a more liberal approach to the votes counting, they preferred to act on inertia to reduce own risks. This is a peculiarity in the functioning of a large bureaucratic election machine, which this year engaged about 70 000 people (district and precinct election commissions) and significantly limits the central government’s ability to try new “liberal” experiments.
The CEC’s censoring of candidate’s speeches indicates that the authorities are not going to carry out this campaign in “liberal” mode, as it was in 2008 and particularly in 2010, and will try to keep domestic political activity at low profile. Therefore, the most critical of the ruling authorities, speeches by candidates will be banned from broadcasting. The CEC bases its decision on the Supervisory Board assessment, which monitors compliance with the campaigning rules in the media, and traditionally is made up from state media representatives.
Another prove of the authorities’ desire to stick to the narrow traditional campaigning framework were the arrests of political groups moderators in social networks, held in Minsk on August 30th. In general, the tactics of the authorities at this stage of the campaign can be described as strict control over all political activity inside the country and sending out very cautious signals about the possible mitigation of the game rules to the outer world.
The Belarusian authorities could to step up the opposition representation in local councils, should party members demonstrate potency. The Belarusian leadership is unlikely to have the resources to ensure 100 percent pro-government candidates in the local elections. The authorities have exhausted the grassroot support and have no funds to pay for the loyalty.
The Belarusian Central Election Commission has proposed to hold the elections to the local Councils of Deputies on February 18th, 2018.
The president has repeatedly emphasised the importance of the local councils in the power system and the state machine always tried to ensure the necessary local election results. Candidates have been decreasing in number with each elections and the authorities dealt with that by reducing the deputy corps. That said, during the rule of President Lukashenka, his electoral base has changed substantially. Over the past decade, most Belarusians have moved to cities and lost their local roots. The rural population is ready to support the president, but rural residents are constantly decreasing in number.
The Belarusian leadership is likely to permit broad participation in the election campaign and an increase in alternative representatives in the local councils. However, the opposition would have to boost its activity, so as so far it has been passive in defending its interests. In addition, the authorities, while determining the date for the local elections, have taken into account the fact that the opposition is usually the least active in the winter time.
Overall, both, the opposition and the local authorities have exhausted their grassroot support, however new local leaders may still come on political stage, although the party opposition has not yet shown sufficient aspirations.