Political reformists offer a deal to the authorities
Pro-state political parties offer Belarus’ authorities to reform the current majoritarian electoral system. High probability of low voter turnout in the next election campaign makes President Lukashenko’s entourage take this proposal seriously.
In the September issue, Belaruskaya Dumka, a Presidential Administration magazine published an article about a roundtable, in which representatives from three pro-governmental political parties and a quango “Belaya Rus” took part. Discussions focused on the parliamentary elections’ results.
The discussion about the need to reform the electoral system has moved up a level. Such a publication in the President’s Administration magazine immediately after the elections implies that Lukashenko’s surroundings continue to lobby for electoral reform. Undoubtedly, the First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, Mr. Radkov, who also chairs quango “Belaya Rus” is aware of this initiative and supports it.
The most important part of the discussion focused on the need to reform the current [majoritarian] electoral system into a proportional or mixed one. All the roundtable participants, Deputy Chairman of the quango “Belaya Rus” Mr. Orda, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belarus Mr. Atamanov, Chairman of the Republican Party of Labor and Justice, Mr. Zadnepryany, Chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party, Mr. Gaidukevich, have called for a reform.
Of particular interest were arguments voiced by Mr. Gaidukevich, who in fact openly offered a deal to the government: 50% of seats in the Parliament could be assigned to pro-government deputies, and other deputies should be elected by party lists. In Mr. Gaidukevich’s view, it would make it easier to ensure international recognition of the elections’ legitimacy and to avoid social unrest in the future.
The issue of low voter turnout in the recent parliamentary elections has not been raised during the discussion, but, clearly, the problem is recognized by the authorities and requires solutions, particularly in the light of the 2015 presidential campaign. Theoretically, the electoral reform will help the authorities to tackle this problem, as transition to a proportional or mixed electoral system will reduce the turnout requirement needed to validate the elections.
Today the minimum required turnout in Belarus is 50%, which is associated with certain costs for the authorities. In particular, each campaign requires society to be mobilized, including various kinds of repression and coercion. Moreover, each campaign entails turnout and voting rigging, as indicated by independent observers on a regular basis.
In these circumstances, especially given the extremely low voter turnout in the 2012 campaign, the authorities have an objective interest in reducing their own costs. Representatives of pro-state political parties and social movements (“Belaya Rus”) attempt to gamble on this interest. However, the President’s entourage calculate not only the risks from low voter turnout, but also the risks of having a fractional parliament in Belarus, and until recently the latter have been assessed as greater.
It should be noted that the Belarusian opposition’s main electoral tactics – boycott or participation – suit the interests of the two conventional and far more powerful groups: president’s entourage and nomenklatura. The boycott tactics aimed at reducing voter turnout, is fully consistent with the interests of “reformists’” from the pro-state parties and quango “Belaya Rus”, while the ‘participation’ tactics, which increases the turnout, corresponds to President Lukashenko’s interests, who has no interest in political reform. In this conflict of interests the Belarusian opposition has a ‘pathfinder’ role in a complex game between much more powerful political actors.
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.