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 Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.