Election legislation may undergo cosmetic changes

April 22, 2016 18:23

On 5 December the Belarus’ Central Election Commission submitted to the President a package of proposals on the amendments of the current election legislation. The proposed changes have touched upon the issues on the nomination of candidates to deputies, the financing of campaigns and also the practice of the election campaigning and boycotting of elections. 

The proposed measures are superficial and do not touch upon the underlying rules of conducting the election campaigns in Belarus. The authorities are interested in formally keeping the existing majority system, and especially with a view of preserving the existing system of informal control over candidates and voters during elections. 

The proposals sent to the President should be classified as a "cautious improvement." Thus, it is proposed to allow the republican public associations which have one thousand members to nominate candidates to the Deputies of the Parliament. It is also proposed to increase the electoral funds of candidates for President, for the Deputies of the Parliament and for local Councils; to abandon the radio debates and the budget sponsorship of candidates for the production of campaign materials (leaflets, posters, etc.). Finally, the Central Commission (CC) proposes to remove the concept of boycott from the article on the election campaign. 

The first proposal has caused the greatest impact in the independent media because of suspicions that it is made in favor of the most noticeable public association in Belarus – the "Belaya Rus" - and will therefore extend its influence. However, it should be noted that the "Belaya Rus" has enough influence on the electoral process even without these amendments to the Electoral Code. In particular, at the last elections the “Belaya Rus” was able to bring to the Parliament 63 of its members and in such a way it has a majority in the Parliament (taking into account a non-significant role of the Parliament in the political system of the Republic of Belarus, it is before all an "arithmetic" majority). 

In practical terms, the enlargement of the possibilities on the nomination of candidates will most likely have the opposite effect: reduction of the level of political activity in for the cause of elections. In fact, such an effect was observed during the 2012 parliamentary election campaign, when appeared the opportunity to be nominated by political parties, even in the constituencies where a party did not have its structure registered. As a result, a number of nominees from the citizens by the signature collection declined by 30% in comparison to the parliamentary campaign 2008.

The increase of the financial possibilities for candidates also seems to be a conditional and cosmetic measure. The main obstacle to the financial activity of candidates is not the formal restrictions imposed by the Election Code, but the informal and unwritten conditions according to which the Belarusian business and the power interact. Thus, the authorities make it clear that they do not welcome "well-wishers", who would fund the political campaigns of the mismatched candidates (the phrase "well-wishers" belongs to the Chairwoman of the Central Commission Yermoshina). The demonstrative arrests of businessmen at the eve of elections (e.g, Y. Dan’kov in September 2012) are done in order to remove the remaining doubts.

Finally, the proposal to remove the concept of boycott from article No. 45 of the Electoral Code on the election campaign is a kind of revenge of the authorities for the last campaign. If this measure is approved, the candidates’ possibilities to campaign for a boycott in the state media (i.e. at the cost of the state budget) will be reduced to zero. In its turn, the possibilities of campaigning in the non-government media (i.e. at the cost of a candidate) are significantly limited by the described above system of informal relations of the authorities with business and individual citizens.

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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.