Regaining Trust is Becoming the Main Political Issue for Lukashenko

April 22, 2016 18:24

According to the national survey conducted by IISEPS in December, the presidential electoral rating amounted to 31.5% and did not change much since June 2012. 1,500 respondents aged 18 and older were surveyed, with a sample error not exceeding 3 %.

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A stop in the growth of the electoral rating of president Lukashenko reinforces a dangerous trend for the country’s leadership, namely, voters no longer positively respond to how the government fulfill its promises to improve the standards of living of the population. Thus, for the next two years, the main internal political problem for the ruling group will be to regain people’s trust.

IISEPS’ December survey proved the previously noted downward trend of the electoral rating of Alexander Lukashenko against the growth of people’s incomes. Thus, according to official figures, real wages in January-November increased by 20.6% as compared to the same period in 2011 and almost reached the equivalent of USD 500 which had been promised by the president. Despite this, people’s willingness to vote for the acting president in the elections remains at 31%, and ,what is most important, has remained unchanged since the middle of summer 2012, accounting to 29.7% in June and 31.6% in September.

It has been the first time that we have observed such a long-lasting low rating of Lukashenko. During his third term as president from 2006 to 2012, his rating amounted to 40% which allowed the authorities “to buy” the required majority of 50% of the electorate by boosting the economy in the year of elections. Also, it gave electoral commissions an unwritten right to present “the right” results of the election. Therefore, although the ruling group has managed to fulfill their main election promise to increase an average salary to USD 500, it has failed to solve a serious problem, namely, to regain citizens’ trust.

A freeze in Lukashenko’s electoral rating has, as usual, not led to a growth in protest moods among the population and the growth of sympathy to other political actors. On the contrary, the majority of respondents (34.1%) behave conservatively and are reliant on president in their hopes that Belarus will overcome the economic crises, while only 8.6% pin their hopes on the actions of the opposition. If this conservative trend continues, it will most likely lead to a situation where the main problem of the next presidential election in 2015 will be not a "social explosion" in the form of mass protests, but a very low voting turnout , as it was the case during the parliamentary campaign of 2012.

It is probable that the low level of people’s trust in the country’s leadership reflects the situation within the state administration. This, in particular, can be proved by a notorious scandal with a failure of the state program for the modernization of wood-processing industry, a tragic suicide of a KGB officer, as well as information leaks, rumours and provocations. One of the last provocations was about an upcoming devaluation of the Belarusian ruble up to BYR 14 340 for USD 1 starting from January, 8. The information about it was allegedly sent out from the phone number of the National Bank to a few thousand users of Belarusian mobile operators. 

In response to these societal challenges, president Lukashenko will have to strengthen the populist rhetoric. In particular, during the New Year’s television address to the nation, Lukashenko first time made ​​his speech with family photos in the background. Previously, and also for the first time, his two sons Victor and Dmitry were shown in New Year TV programs together with their families. Also, at the end of December, for the first time since 2004, a deputies’ group lead by deputy Ivanchenko, a former president’s aide, established in the parliament. The group consists of 21 members and they have already started working visits to the regions.

It should be noted that such populist measures could bring a positive effect only if people’s incomes significantly increase. Therefore, it can be expected that the authorities will not give up the plan of economic growth by +8,5% in 2013 which had been accepted in autumn. They will step up efforts to seek financing abroad.

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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.