Political situation: people’s expectations of the state’s social protection lowered while demand for systemic transformations increased

April 22, 2016 19:39

Main trends in domestic politics in 2015:

  • Low protest activity of the population amid a relatively high support for the president
  • Reduced capacity for election mobilisation for both, the authorities and the opposition due to the fact that, the presidential elections were not regarded as a realistic opportunity to change the political situation in the country
  • The opposition abandoned plans to change the Belarusian leadership during the 2015 presidential campaign
  • Departure from the concept of ‘Maidan’ as a way to trigger changes in the political regime on the election day
  • The influence of traditional opposition parties on protest electorate reduced and the ‘conventional’ opposition opted out from the presidential campaign

Belarusian society, including state nomenclature on a large part, realised that the Belarusian socio-economic model had exhausted its resource and required transformation. Meanwhile, President Lukashenka still believed that staffing policy and management optimisation could boost the model’s efficiency.

In 2015, the election year, the president set the following task before the anti-crisis "government of bankers" headed by Kobyakov – to keep the socio-economic situation under control and preserve stability on the financial and monetary market. The Cabinet and the National Bank have actually coped quite well.

Regardless of the public demand for change in Belarus’ social and economic policy, due to the economic slump, a significant part of the population did not support structural economic reforms and opted for the revival of the existing ‘Belarusian development model’.

Neither President Lukashenka, nor the government provided a holistic vision of the country’s development for the next five years, both before and after the election campaign. In addition, the president approved the new government only six weeks after the inauguration, which was due to the absence of a final decision about the path for development in the next five years and the need to raise external funding.

Before the election campaign, the president exploited the image of a strong leader who was in control of the situation in the country and was the only guarantor of political stability. That said, Lukashenka borrowed a motto for his election campaign from the opposition – ‘For the future of independent Belarus’. In addition, during the election campaign, he avoided populist rhetoric and election pledges.

Lukashenka dodged of direct participation in the campaigning as he lacked suitable plans for the population to drive the Belarusian model from a systemic crisis. After re-election, Lukashenka had disavowed all liberal rhetoric included in his election programme. For instance, in his inaugural speech, the president confirmed loyalty to the existing socio-economic model and its further conservation; he reiterated commitment to integration with Russia and normalization of relations with the EU; and emphasised a balanced approach to the events in Ukraine and preservation of the political course.

In the absence of a real opportunity to influence the change of power in the country, opposition structures demonstrated a low potential for political consolidation and unwillingness to act together. The authorities, in turn, refrained from large-scale repression against the opposition both during and after the campaign.

The long-running conflict in Ukraine and a mounting economic crisis had a major impact on the course of the presidential campaign. In addition, the elections recorded a gain in public apathy, which only increased with yet another electoral campaign. All participants in the campaign: the authorities, the opposition and the electorate, more than ever, regarded the presidential elections as a formal ritual undertaking with predetermined results.

In 2015, mobilisation capacity of traditional opposition parties reduced regardless of the economic crisis and fall in the living standards. That said, ‘conventional’ opposition did not even take part in the elections. In addition, negotiations by seven leading political forces over nomination of a ‘single oppositional candidate’ failed. Most political parties adhered to a variety of boycotting / neglecting tactics in the electoral campaign.

Traditional parties failed to collect the required number of signatures for the nomination of their candidates, indicating a deep crisis in their vision on the country’s development and the idea of regime change through mass protests. In turn, the only opposition candidate Tatsiana Karatkevich managed to harness the potential of the "People’s Referendum" campaign effectively and collected a protest vote. Amid the long-running crisis in Ukraine, Tatsiana Karatkevich’s proposal of a "peaceful change" was likely to gain adherers not only among the traditional opposition electorate, but also among new electoral groups. While official voting results for presidential candidate Karatkevich were quite modest – 4.4%, Gallup poll recorded a higher level of support for the only opposition candidate – 19%.

The elections resulted in a small rally, which was held without repressions and did not lead to mass emigration of opposition activists. On the election day, only about 200 protesters marched on towards the Independence Square following the same route as protesters in 2010.

Throughout the year, the government consistently raised costs for the opposition activity in the streets, including repressions, fines, fees for municipal and police services, period for issuing permits, etc. As a result, they achieved a well-controlled and minimised street activity. For instance, traditional opposition rallies ("Chernobyl Way" and "Freedom Day"), as well as other post-election protest activity gathered a record low number of participants.

In addition, analysts noted a decrease in electoral mobilisation capacity of the authorities with every electoral cycle. For example, according to IISEPS analysts, support for President Lukashenka before the election day was higher than that recorded by Gallup poll results – 51%. At the same time, the Belarusian Central Electoral Commission reported higher support for the president – 83.5% and record-high numbers for early voting – 36%. However, data from December IISEPS poll correlated with the Gallup data: Lukashenka – 50.8%, Karatkevich – 22.3%.

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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.