Window of opportunity for Belarusian opposition parties to increase popular support slightly opened
Demand for changes in Belarusian society is gradually transforming into support for alternative proposals and the opposition, so as the authorities do not seem to have a bailout plan. Apparently, Lukashenka’s core electorate has narrowed to circles around the state apparatus and groups having access to state resources as they dwindle. The opposition parties and leaders may gain in popularity during the parliamentary election campaign, provided there are no repressions and that the authorities become more open.
According to the IISEPS poll in June 2016, equal number of voters would vote for Lukashenka supporters and his opponents in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Unpopular decision to raise the retirement age did not have a direct impact on Lukashenka’s ratings. Compared with IISEPS March 2016 poll, the president’s electoral rating grew from 27.3% to 29.5% in June 2016.
In addition, according to independent sociologists, there is a serious change in traditional support groups for the president among the population. Unlike in 2006, pensioners and rural residents are no longer the electoral core of the incumbent president. Only 21.8% (in 2006 - 41.4%) of respondents said that the president relies on pensioners, and only 11.5% (in 2006 - 30.2%) - on rural population.
Perhaps, this is due to significant economic problems, unemployment and falling wages in rural areas, as compared with major cities and the capital. For example, in Minsk, the average wage is circa USD 517, and it is half of that in the regions. Unlike in the regions, labour market in the capital is less prone to stress. Moreover, the authorities’ popular ratings are likely to go down among city pensioners, especially after the increase in tariffs for communal services and public transport. In addition, in the capital and in large cities, protest activity among pensioners has grown.
Besides, Lukashenka is losing his aura of "the people’s president", who protects the interests of ordinary citizens. Only 8.2% believe that he relies on ordinary people (34.2% in 2006). The Belarusian society is marking the increasing isolation of President Lukashenka from the people and his increased support for the presidential vertical (54.4%) and public officials (32.1%).
During the electoral campaign, the window of opportunity will slightly open for the opposition to translate their ideas and win the support from wider population. According to independent sociologists, before the start of the parliamentary elections, the support rating for opposition parties has almost doubled from 11.3% in March to 21.3% in May.
Perhaps, the opposition ratings have grown due to demand for alternative ideas to reform the existing social and economic policies. However, opposition leaders’ ratings are low as ever: only 5.1% would vote for Tatsiana Karatkevich (a sharp decrease), 4.5% for Mikola Statkevich, and 3.1% for Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu and Alexander Milinkevich (each). That said, the popularity of street protests has increased in Belarusian society to 14.7%.
Regarding candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections, Belarusian society has divided into four equal groups: supporters of the opposition, supporters of the authorities, supporters of candidates from the "third force" and those who have not yet decided whom to vote for.
The turnout in the upcoming parliamentary elections is unlikely to be lower than in the previous parliamentary campaign. As there is no boycott and almost all political parties participate in the elections, the turnout is likely to be even higher. Already, more than half of voters (51.8%) are ready to cast their votes, and their number usually increases as elections draw closer thanks to currently ‘undecided’ (25%).
Nevertheless, depending on the opposition tactics, the number of those who vote for alternative candidates could be lower than the actual support of the opposition parties in society. For instance, a significant number of democratic supporters have lost confidence in the electoral procedures and may not turn out at the polls. For example, 19.6% of respondents said they would not participate in the elections, and 43.4% do not believe the authorities will create a democratic atmosphere.
European integration started to recover its position in Belarusian society amid a cool down in relations with Russia. In the context of a clear choice, the number supporters for the EU membership has increased to 34% (in December 2015 - 25.1%), and supporters of rapprochement with Russia have reduced to 42% (in December 2015 - 53.5%).
Overall, during the election campaign, the opposition may consolidate its ratings among the traditional protest electorate and possibly reach out to new support groups, given the absence of repressions and additional restrictions on the activities introduced by the authorities.
The rapid increase in wages has led to a decline in the ratio between labour productivity and real wages to one. Previously, the rule was that enterprises, in which the state owned more than 50% of shares in the founding capital, were not allowed increasing salaries if this ratio was equal to or less than one. The authorities are unlikely to be able to meet the wage growth requirement without long-term consequences for the economy. Hence, the government is likely to contain wage growth for the sake of economic growth.
According to Belstat, In January – August 2017, GDP growth was 1.6%. The economic revival has led to an increase in wages. In August, the average monthly wage was BYN 844.4 or USD 435, i.e. grew by 6.6% since early 2017, adjusted for inflation. This has reduced the ratio between labour productivity and real wages from 1.03 in January 2017 to 1 in the first seven months of 2017. This parameter should not be less than 1, otherwise, the economy starts accumulating imbalances.
The need for faster growth in labour productivity over wage growth was stated in Decree No 744 of July 31st, 2014. The decree enabled wages growth at state organizations and organizations with more than 50% of state-owned shares only if the ratio between growth in labour productivity and wages was higher than 1. Taking into account the state's share in the economy, this rule has had impact on most of the country's key enterprises. In 2013 -2014 wages grew rapidly, which resulted in devaluation in 2014-2015.
Faster wage growth as compared with growth in labour productivity carries a number of risks. Enterprises increase cost of wages, which subsequently leads to a decrease in the competitiveness of products on the domestic and foreign markets. In construction, wholesale, retail trade, and some other industries the growth rate of prime cost in 2017 outpaces the dynamics of revenue growth. This is likely to lead to a decrease in profits and a decrease in investments for further development. Amid wage growth, the population is likely to increase import consumption and reduce currency sales, which would reduce the National Bank's ability to repay foreign and domestic liabilities.
The Belarusian government is facing a dilemma – either to comply with the president’s requirement of a BYN 1000 monthly wage, which could lead to new economic imbalances and could further affect the national currency value, or to suspend the wage growth in order to retain the achieved economic results. That said, the first option bears a greater number of negative consequences for the nomenclature.
Overall, the rapid growth in wages no longer corresponds the pace of economic development. The government is likely to retain the economic growth and retrain further growth in wages. Staff reshuffles are unlikely to follow the failure to meet the wage growth requirement.