Electoral Code amendments: de-politicization and budget savings
President Lukashenko has submitted the draft Electoral Code amendments to the House of Representatives. It is anticipated that the bill will be considered on October 2nd, when the autumn session opens.
It has become a tradition for the authorities to amend the Electoral Code on the eve of local elections. It allows the new rules to be tested prior to the most important political event, in this case, the 2015 presidential campaign. The proposed amendments aim to close the loopholes used by the opposition during the 2012 parliamentary campaign and when choosing questions for the People’s Referendum. The amendments also aim at reducing the cost of the election campaigns and de-politicizing Belarusian society.
Traditionally, the authorities have used local elections as a ‘test ground’ for the Electoral Code amendments. The Electoral Code was amended in 2003, 2006 and 2010, prior to the local campaigns. In 2010 the local council elections were held six months ahead of schedule. In most cases the amendments reflected the authorities’ desire to de-politicize society and to improve the legitimacy of the electoral process and state institutions in the eyes of the population.
In 2006 the second round in local elections was abolished, and has recently been removed in the parliamentary elections. In addition to budgetary savings, this change shortens the campaigning stage and minimizes the campaigning timeframe for the opposition.
Holding elections will become cheaper for the state. Funding from the state budget (one of two sources available in the past) will no longer be available for candidates. Now they will have to rely solely on funds which they raise themselves. While the threshold for funds which candidates can receive has been increased from 3,000 to 9,000 basic units (around 100,000 USD), it will be difficult for the opposition to raise these funds. Oppositional candidates have little of their own money, and foreign donations are forbidden by law. Meanwhile, the procedure for donating funds means that a donor is obliged to provide his full identity, as well as other limitations. Depriving candidates of even the small amount of budgetary support previously available from the state will complicate their campaigns.
However, the level of funding will be too small to organize an effective campaign. Campaigning funds spent per voter will come to USD 0.014 in presidential elections and USD 0.18 in parliamentary and local elections. This means that not all voters will receive campaigning materials from candidates. In addition, the higher the level of elections, the less will be spent on agitation per voter.
The authorities have narrowed the space for opposition parties and coalitions to conduct legal activities, and have put up additional obstacles. The ‘People’s Referendum’ Coalition will be unable to include certain questions in their referendum – for instance, those concerning authorities’ resonant and unpopular decisions. The 50% turnout requirement for the parliamentary elections will be preserved, but de facto, a ban on campaigning for election boycotts will be introduced. Observers during the 2012 parliamentary elections reported that in some polling stations in the capital and regional centers the turnout was a record low and did not reach the 50% threshold.
The following amendments will aim to de-politicize society and reduce the opposition’s influence: candidates will no longer be able to perform ‘trustee’ functions; candidates will have to inform about their criminal record and about their income if they are not officially employed; the term of limitation for appeals against violations will be shortened; candidates will be unable to run in several constituencies. During previous election campaigns, many opposition candidates for local councils often were each other’s ‘trustees’. Thus they could increase the number of nominees and organize observation at their polling station.
The proposed amendments also do not allow the ‘Belaya Rus’ quango to become a serious political force. None of their proposals were included in the bill. The president is wary of creating political structures and strengthening their influence on the political process, even if they are loyal.
Thus, the proposed Electoral Code amendments are cosmetic in nature and reduce the opportunities for the opposition. If adopted, the amendments will be ‘tested’ during the local elections in 2014. In anticipation of improved EU-Belarus relations, the said amendments will be presented to external observers as a significant Electoral Law improvement.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.