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.
President Lukashenka continues to rotate staff and rejuvenate heads of departments and universities following new appointments in regional administrations. Apparently, new Information Minister Karliukevich could somewhat relax the state policy towards the independent media and introduce technological solutions for retaining control over Belarus’ information space. New rectors could strengthen the trend for soft Belarusization in the regions and tighten the disciplinary and ideological control over the student movement in the capital.
President Lukashenka has appointed new ministers of culture and information, the new rector of the Belarusian State University and heads of three universities, assistants in the Minsk and Vitebsk regions.
The new Information Minister Karliukevich is likely to avoid controversial initiatives similar to those former Minister Ananich was famous for, however, certainly within his capacities. Nevertheless, the appointment of Belarusian-speaking writer Karliukevich could be regarded as the state’s cautious attempt to relax environment in the media field and ensure the sovereignty of national media.
The Belarusian leadership has consolidated the trend for mild Belarusization by appointing a young historian and a ‘reasonable nationalist’, Duk as the rector at the Kuleshov State University in Mogilev. Meanwhile, while choosing the head of the Belarusian State University, the president apparently had in mind the strengthening of the ideological loyalty among the teaching staff and students at the main university in order to keep the youth movement at bay. Previously, Korol was the rector of the Kupala State University in Grodno, where he held purges among the disloyal teaching staff.
The trend for the renewal of mid-ranking executives and their rejuvenation has confirmed. The age of the Culture Minister and three new rectors varies from 39 to 44 years old.