Opposition parties and the presidential election: Self-withdrawal from the legal political process

Valeria Kostyugova


The main event that determined the life of political parties in 2015 was the presidential election and its results. Preparation, conduct and results of the election campaign determined the reformatting of the party field. During the election campaign, as in the case of all significant political campaigns, the opposition was divided. This time the split line happened in relation to the issue of cooperation with the authorities: conventionally constructive and conventionally ‘ultimative’ oppositions formed. It is unlikely that the current division of the opposition will be more sustainable – in 2016 for the first time during eight years, the majority of parties decided to participate in elections. Reduction of ultimativeness in relation to the authorities is not likely to be limited only to electoral processes. However, the formation of stable coalitions of democratic forces is also unlikely in 2016.


Regulatory environment: nowhere to limit

With a few exceptions, there were no significant changes of the legislation governing the activities of political parties in 2015. Law No. 268-З of June 4, 2015 made another clarification, i. e. from what foreign entities it is forbidden to receive help for political parties.1 In addition, Decree No. 52 excluded anonymous donations from the concept of foreign aid.

In early 2016 in Belarus there were 15 registered political parties and 1 127 party organizations,3 the number of the latter increased by 56 during the last year, which is quite significant for Belarusian conditions. It is believed that new parties have not been registered since 2000, when the Conservative Christian Party Belarusian Popular Front obtained a legal status. However, the rigidity of the regulatory environment and various administrative obstacles force organized political structures to act either in the form of registered associations (e. g. the movement For Freedom) or the organizing committees of the parties (Belarusian Christian Democracy), or the civil campaigns (Tell the Truth). The organizing committees of the parties and public associations submit the documents for registration and always get rejected.4

It should also be noted that the Republican public association Bielaja Rus, of which most members belong to powerful government organizations, fails to achieve a resolution on the transformation into party. After the resignation of Radkov, the head of the organization, from the post of the Presidential assistant, the prospects for institutionalization of the embryo of the ruling party are regarded as even more elusive.

In 2015, on the background of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and shortly before the presidential election, the relations between Minsk and the West normalized. According to many Belarusian experts and heads of parties, the increased interaction of the EU and the USA with the official Minsk led to a loss of interest in the local political sector. For this reason, or for some other ones, it is obvious that in the reporting period, the parties functioned under much more hostile conditions, having received from their former allies no substantial support for participation in the main political campaign on a five-year plan.

Factions and splits before the election campaign

Unchanged conditions for the functioning of parties, excluded from the political process (that is, from the struggle for parliamentary seats and government positions), prevent any unified efforts towards stability. In fact parties can compete only with each other, which makes their long-term cooperation meaningless.

At the beginning of the year the seven largest structures still tried to find a compromise on the nomination of a single candidate on behalf of the democratic forces. Preparations for the nomination of candidates of smaller associations had begun as early as November 2014– in the framework of the campaign People’s Referendum, which united Tell the Truth (TT), the movement For Freedom, BPF, BSDP(H), on the one hand, and the block Talaka that consisted of the United Civil Party (UCP), the party Fair World (FW) and smaller organizations, on the other hand. The parties were unable to agree on a procedure for the nomination of delegates to the Congress of Democratic Forces, which was supposed to define a single candidate for the presidency.

Trained in the collection of signatures, the participants of People’s Referendum wanted to add the nomination by collecting signatures to the gatherings of organizations activists, contrary to the plans of the UCP and FW. However, while seven parties were trying to agree on the procedure for the nomination of delegates to the Congress, Alena Anisim, an activist of the Belarusian Language Society, announced her plans for the presidential campaign, and so did the ex-Deputy of Parliament Valery Frolov and some more people, which reduced the already weak motivation for nominating a single candidate from political organizations.

Attempts to unite political structures before major campaigns have always been subject to three factors: (1) convenience for media – since the days of black-and-white printing; (2) convenience for external partners who are not very interested in the native peculiarities. Finally (3) the strongest figures in political organizations hope for a wave of uniting to improve their position in the political field, i. e. to ‘steamroll’ allies. Since the hope to win is excluded from the game, this threefold motivation is not enough to overcome the ambitions of political rivals among democrats.

In 2015, Anatol Liabiedzka, the head of the UCP, and Uladzimir Niakliajeu, the leader of Tell the Truth, revealed their presidential ambitions. As a result of long bargaining Niakliajeu ‘slammed the door’ and left the negotiation process, as well as the movement Tell the Truth, which is led now by Andrey Dzmitryjeu. At this stage, the remaining members immediately announced their nominations: Tatiana Karatkevich was nominated from People’s Referendum, Anatol Liabedzka –from the UCP and Sergey Kalyakin – from the left-wing party Fair World. The nomination of two candidates from the single block of Talaka without licensing or registration required for their validity fixed the disintegration of this coalition. From the parties supporting the government, but not included in it, Siarhiej Haidukevich, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus and Mikalaj Ulakhovich, the leader of the Belarusian Patriotic Party ran for the presidency.

The collection of signatures and election campaign

The stage of forming of initiative groups and collection of signatures reflected the progressive erosion of the core groups of the parties that has taken place over the past fourteen years. At the 2015 election, the CEC registered the initiative group of three candidates from the democratic political organizations – Tatiana Karatkevich’s one with a group of 1 993 people, Siarhiej Kaliakin’s (with 1 510 people), Anatol Liabiedzka’s (with 977 people). A total of eight initiative groups were registered, while registration for the group of Mikalaj Statkevich, a former candidate for the presidency in 2010, was denied.

In 2015, the average number of participants of initiative groups of democratic forces amounted to about 1 500 people. In 2010, the number was 1 870 people, in 2006 – 2 660 people, in 2001 – 2 828. The largest initiative group of 2015 of Tatiana Karatkevich (1 993 people) was much smaller than the groups of the leaders of the previous years: in 2010 Uladzimir Niakliajeu had 3 271 people, in 2006 Alexander Milinkevich had 5 137 people, in 2001 Uladzimir Hancharyk had 4 054 people. The authorities decided to enlarge the initiative group of Aleksander Lukashenko to 10.5 thousand people, while the group of Siarhiej Haidukevich, the LDPB leader, was reduced to 2.5 thousand people from 10.4 activists in 2010.

To collect 100 thousand signatures for a candidate required by the law has always been a daunting task for political organizations due to the reduction of initiative groups and the lack of finance for these purposes. The impending socio-economic crisis and the lack of significant obstacles from the authorities to collect signatures did not help – Liabiedzka’s and Kaliakin’s groups did not cope with the task and did not submit documents for the registration of candidates. Signatures of the veteran of election campaigns Tereshchenko were invalidated – perhaps the CEC wanted to show that it is only ‘structures’ that can collect signatures.

In the end, the CEC registered four candidates – Alexander Lukashenko, Tatiana Karatkevich, Siarhiej Haidukevich and Mikalaj Ulakhovich. Thus, the democratic political organizations managed to register only one candidate.

Opposition parties and organizations questioned the authenticity (and/or the sufficient number) of signatures collected for the nomination of Karatkevich. These doubts were the original grounds for refusal to support her candidature by competing political organizations. Then the allies in the People’s Referendum, including the BSDP(H) (by the way Karatkevich is a member of this party) refused to support her, however, they did not obstruct the participation of their activists in her campaign.

The result was a paradoxical situation: the only democratic candidate was not supported by any of the opposition parties (which is mentioned in the PACE election results report5 as a separate passage). Moreover, some politicians and media representatives said that Karatkevich and Dzmitryjeu, the leader of Tell the Truth, acted in agreement with the authorities to ensure the recognition of the elections.

Refusing to support a single democratic candidate at different stages, a part of political organizations announced the ‘ignoring’ of the election. The ‘ignoring’ aimed at a broad information campaign, in the result of which the turnout could be less than 50%. According to preliminary surveys by the IISEPS, the turnout would significantly exceed 50%, so the real purpose of the ‘ignoring’ campaign was to ensure the non-recognition of the presidential election by the International bodies and Western countries. In a strict sense, the ‘non-recognition of the election’ implied the maintaining of the status quo in relations between the EU and the USA both with the Belarusian authorities and with the democratic opposition.

The ‘ignoring’ campaign, which lasted, as the campaign of the presidential candidates, till the election day, was originally supported only by the emigrant information resources. After the failure with the collection of signatures for Liabiedzka the UCP joined this campaign as well as the BCD, Niakliajeu and Statkevich, who was released on August 22 along with four other political prisoners. The party Fair World urged its supporters to vote against all. The BPF and movement For Freedom did not join the campaign, in fact, having limited their participation in the election by collecting signatures for the nomination of Tatiana Karatkevich, and the monitoring campaign. In the framework of the ‘ignoring’ campaign there were four relatively small protests in the center of Minsk, as well as dozens of publications in the independent media and a number of publications in social networks.

The campaign was modest, if not poor. In accordance with the changed rules, in 2015 the state did not fund the campaigns of candidates, it supported only the information campaign of the CEC, in the framework of which the CEC sent out to voters photographs and brief biographies of the candidates and pasted them on special information panels. Candidates had to hold other events at their own expense or with the help of donations. Donations to special accounts of candidates amounted as follows (in BYR million): Lukashenko – 1 580, Haidukevich – 42.8, Ulakhovich – 33.3, Karatkevich – 25.5. The campaign of Karatkevich was held using the resources of Tell the Truth plus activists of other political organizations such as the BSDP(H), BPF, For Freedom.

The campaign was almost unnoticeable for voters. The candidates gave two presentations on television and two on radio, 30 minutes each. The results of the media monitoring held by the OSCE/ODIHR, indicate that broadcast media devoted 48% of their political broadcasting to the current President, 8% – to Karatkevich, 7% – to Haidukevich and Ulakhovich, 22% – to other political figures and 8% – to the CEC.6

The authorities interfered little with the campaign events of the candidates, having limited specially allocated places for candidates’ meetings with voters in cities (except Minsk). Haidukevich and Ulakhovich held pickets in their support mainly in Minsk, Karatkevich was actively present in regions as well, having visited more than 60 cities during her campaign. In terms of restrictions on other forms of interaction with voters she focused on personal meetings with voters.

Observation and results

Parties and political organizations carried out two observation campaigns – The Right of Choice and For Fair Elections. The campaign The Right of Choice included eight political structures: the BPF Party, the organizing committees of the BCD and the Party of Freedom and Progress, the BSDP(H), the movement For Freedom, Tell the Truth, the Belarusian Green Party, the Trade Union of Radioelectronic Industry (REI). The campaign For Fair Elections included the United Civil Party, the party Fair World and other organizations.

The reduction in core groups of political organizations affected the observation campaigns: there were fewer aspirants nominated to territorial election commissions (TEC), precinct election commissions (PEC) and the observation than in 2010. At all stages the authorities selected nominees of the democratic opposition even in a more rigid way than before – despite the fact that according to part 2 of Article 34 of the Electoral Code, at least one third of the commission members should be representatives of political parties and public associations. This requirement was fulfilled by designating the membership to the participants of commissions in state NGOs (Bielaja Rus’, state trade unions and the Belarusian Republican Union of Youth), regardless of the method of their nomination (mostly through labor groups).

Democratic opposition nominated 63 representatives to TEC, and only 10 were included (in 2010 there had been 71 nominees and 14 had been accepted).7 Political organizations nominated 516 people to PEC, which is less than in the 2010 election (1 073 people). Despite the obvious shortage of nominees from democratic forces, the failure rate of their inclusion in the election commissions was very high – from 85% to 98%. Appeals of decisions on refusal of inclusion of representatives of political parties in the electoral commissions did not have any success.

In 2015 early voting, which provides the greatest potential for falsification of the voting results, was unprecedentedly high: 36.05% of voters voted early. In those electoral precincts where independent observers were present, the turnout in early voting was lower by about a quarter.

During early voting observers of the campaign the Right of Choice recorded 1 154 cases of violation of the Electoral Code, including tampering with the voter lists, voting by people not entitled to vote, voting by organized groups, improper preservation of ballot boxes. On the voting day, October 11, the observers of the Right of Choice recorded 419 violations, having found frequent understatements of voter lists, implausible proportions of voters voting ‘at home’, the manipulation of voter turnout, a non-transparent counting of votes, reduction of the number of those voted for Karatkevich and the overstatement of those who voted for Lukashenko, impediments to the work of observers.

According to the CEC, voter turnout amounted 87.3%, while 83.5% of all voters voted for Lukashenko, 4.4% – for Karatkevich, 3.3% – for Haidukevich, 1.7% – for Ulakhovich, 6.3% – against all.

The data of the IISEPS of the results of the voting confirmed the heterogeneity of the protest electorate8 and the futility of the idea of a single candidate, for the approval of the candidature of which the democratic organizations waste their time and efforts each electoral season. According to exit polls, 50.8% of voters voted for Lukashenko, 22.3% – for Karatkevich 8.9% – against all, 7.4% – for Haidukevich 2.7% – for Ulakhovich. In 2010, 27.8% voted for all democratic candidates, 51.1% – for A. Lukashenko, 5.1% – against all. The data of 2006: 63.1% voted for Lukashenko, 18.8% – for Milinkevich (the single candidate), 4.7% – for Kazulin (in total 23.5% voted for the democratic candidates), 3.4% – against all. In 2001, 48.2% voted for Lukashenko, 21.0% – for Hancharyk, 7.1% – against all. This implies that a single candidate is equivalent to the decrease in the level of the protest vote as a whole, and to the increase of the proportion of voters who voted against all.

Tatiana Karatkevich, having combined the data of the observation campaigns of the Right of Choice and Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections filed a complaint to the Central Election Commission concerning numerous violations during the election campaign. The CEC considered the complaint, but rejected it. Under the law the CEC decision cannot be appealed in court. However, it should be noted that Karatkevich’s campaign was very successful for Belarusian circumstances – especially given that campaign work was carried out mostly by Tell the Truth and was not officially supported by any of the parties.

An important feature of election-2015 is the fact that during the election campaign none of the participants called for voters to file a protest of election results publicly.


In 2015, a clear demonstration of the weakness of the parties was a direct consequence of harshly restrictive regulatory environment for political activities, the wide use of repression against political activists and a progressive increase in the closeness of the authorities. However, the participation of democratic organizations in the election of 2015 proved the costs of those amenities that a legal (registered) status provides for political organizations: party activists are discouraged by the possibility of ‘list’ nomination for the parliamentary local elections. After a series of boycotts and ‘list’ participations, they lost some of the organizational skills of collecting signatures and of regular communication with the population.

In this situation one cannot count on the stability of coalitions after the presidential election. In spring 2016, three organizations – the UCP, the BCD and the movement For Freedom announced the formation of a centre-right coalition to participate in the parliamentary elections and the nomination of a single candidate for the presidential election of 2020. However, the BPF, which is also a center-right party, refused to participate in this coalition.

On the left flank there are no unifying processes. A policy of ‘peaceful changes’ and ‘a dialogue with the government’ declared by the movement Tell the Truth is perceived as conciliatory and opportunistic by other parties. Despite the fact that Tatiana Karatkevich did not recognize the election results (and the main argument of the refusal to support the single democratic candidate was the thesis that Karatkevich recognizes the election results and thereby ‘legitimizes’ them) the criticism and dissociation of democratic organizations from Tell the Truth will intensify.

In turn the ex-presidential candidates of 2010 Statkevich and Niakliajeu are trying to create a coordinating body of all democratic organizations “without communists and KGB members” (i. e. without Fair World and Tell the Truth) with the generalized goals of the victory of democracy in Belarus and protection from the ‘Russian world’. Political organizations with regional structures and activists are ready to join the initiative, but are unlikely to agree to endow the coordinating authority with real power.

However, even in the Belarusian political system there is no visible alternative to parties in terms of participation in legitimate political processes.