Election legislation may undergo cosmetic changes
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.
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.