Vote rigging in Belarus is nothing new. The pattern is always the same. This time, however, the electorate doesn't accept the falsified outcome. Matthew Frear, expert on Belarus, explains what has changed in the domestic political landscape. The damaged Lukashenka clings to power, but will be forced out, now or somewhat later. His rule is entering its last phase.
Belarusians protest against the vote rigging in Vilnius. Photo Jan Smit
by Matthew Frear
In the evening of 9 August 2020, after polls closed in the Belarusian presidential election, state-supported exit polls and preliminary results from the Central Election Commission gave the incumbent, President Aliaksandr Lukashenka [also spelled as Alexandr Lukashenko, ed.], 80 per cent of the vote in the first round.
There was surprise from some foreign commentators that the result seemed to have been so blatantly inflated. In fact, this election very much followed the pattern of previous presidential elections in Belarus, in which Lukashenka is presented as the overwhelming victor, with a share of the vote similar to his very first win, back in 1994. The candidate who emerged as his main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya [or Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, ed.], was awarded 10 per cent of the vote, actually the best result for an opponent according to the official figures since 2001.
Yet there has never been such a visceral public reaction to vote rigging as there has been this year, which has led to a violent government crackdown in response. What were the features of the domestic political landscape that meant elections that were neither free nor fair where passively tolerated by many voters in the past, what has changed in 2020, and how can the Belarusian authorities respond?
The manipulation of elections in Belarus follows a tried and tested pattern. Spoiler or regime-loyal candidates are allowed to stand against Lukashenka, to ensure the appearance of competition. Some genuine opposition candidates might also be allowed to register, but face an uneven electoral playing field in terms of media access and opportunities to campaign. The five days of early voting before polling day provide possibilities to compel certain groups dependent on the government to come out to vote, such as students, educators and workers in state-run enterprises. In addition, there is plenty of time for ballot stuffing. On polling day itself, anybody who has been an observer at a Belarusian election will recognise that the counting of ballots and tabulation is highly flawed and lacks transparency. The final result is reliably about 80 per cent support for Lukashenka on a purported turnout of approximately 90 per cent of voters.
The manipulation of elections in Belarus follows a tried and tested pattern. Photo from twitter
There have been protests after previous elections, notably in 2006 (the Denim Revolution that never was) and in 2010. These tended to be limited to opposition politicians and activists in the capital, Minsk, and were eventually dispersed - quite brutally in 2010. While such actions may have discouraged voters from openly opposing the regime, in addition there was a proportion of the electorate who were willing to grudging accept these fraudulent results, due to the standard of living they enjoyed under Lukashenka.
Many are dependent on the state for their employment or education. A move by the authorities to more short-term contracts made many of these positions precarious, and people were wary of radical change or an alternative candidate that might not offer anything more than being anti-Lukashenka. Private enterprises have emerged, most notably in the IT-sector, but the state still dominates the economy. Previous campaigns by Lukashenka have promised, and often to certain extent delivered, socio-economic stability and wage increases.
Lukashenka was 'the devil you know'
However, global and regional financial crises over the past decade have rendered it hard to still provide economic benefits to Belarusians driven by the electoral cycle. Instead, the authorities have adapted to increase the emphasis on sovereignty, order and stability, in particular after the Euromaidan revolution in neighbouring Ukraine and the subsequent military interventions by Russia. With nearly three decades in power, Lukashenka might have been viewed as an experienced pair of hands, capable of handling Moscow after years of practice.
While voters may have been willing to vote for an alternative to Lukashenka, many did not see that in the ranks of the alternative candidates put up by the traditional opposition forces. These forces themselves were often seen as deeply divided on matters such as economics and geopolitics, which actually mattered to most voters in their everyday lives. Lukashenka may not have been beloved by larges parts of the electorate, but he was perhaps begrudgingly tolerated as ‘the devil you know’.
The incumbent voting for his re-election. Photo president.gov.by
A number of developments coincided in 2020 to challenge the authorities ability to smoothly managed the election in the usual manner. Many ordinary Belarusian felt that their standard of living was still not as good as it used to be. 2017 had witnessed a wave of protests nationwide against the so-called parasite law, which would have fined the long-term unemployed for not being able to find a job. Relations with Moscow remained fraught, with pressure from Moscow to more closely integrate the two countries in the format of a Union State.
On top of this, Lukashenka’s initial response to COVID-19, which included dismissing it as a psychosis and recommending saunas and vodka to ward it off, alarmed many in the country. Crowdfunding and volunteers, alongside an health sector that made progress in spite of, rather than thanks to, Lukashenka, meant that eventually the country appeared to flatten the curve of new infections. However, the consequence for employment and finances weredire, and the government was not seen as addressing them fast enough.
Furthermore, new faces had emerged on the opposition front, not linked to the traditional parties and movements. The banker Viktar Babaryka [Viktor Barbariko, ed.] and the YouTuber and video blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski [Sergey Tikhanovski, ed.] emerged as two leading candidates. Unliked most recent elections, thousands of citizens turned out in support of potential opponents of Lukashenka during the signature collection stage of registering as a candidate. Lukashenka himself secured his customary two million signatures, or 20 per cent of the country’s population, if you were to believe his campaign team. Babaryka and Tsikhanouski were both arrested by the authorities on dubious charges, a tactic usually reserved for after the election. Tsikhanouski’s wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, stood in his stead, and was register for the ballot. The authorities may have regretted that decision as she became the rallying focus for opposition forces.
Opposition rally in Minsk, the woman in the middle is Tsikhanouskaya.
Upward of 60,000 people came out in Minsk for one campaign rally in support of Tsikhanouskaya, one of the largest political crowds in the history of post-Soviet Belarus. She also attracted large numbers in regional cites and smaller towns. Her simple promise was that if she won, she would hold proper free and fair elections within six months. After 26 years in power, Lukashenka was not no longer viewed by many as being able to offer anything new. The ‘devil you know’ no longer inspired with promise of wage rises, appeals to state-approved patriotism, and raising the spectre of outside threats from East or West. In the dying days of the campaign, Lukashenka made a point of stating that he was willing to deploy police and security service to defend Belarus in the face of various forces who might seek to destabilise the country, and of making high profile visits to various barracks.
On polling day, the Central Election Commission claimed that 41 per cent of the electorate had cast their ballot during early voting – a record high for Belarus. International observers had not been invited, and independent domestic observers found their work severely curtailed. Nevertheless, monitors suggest that the real turnout during early voting may have been half that. A problem for the authorities was that this year, many supporters of Tsikhanouskaya came out to vote on polling day itself. Her team encouraged people to turn up on the afternoon of 9 August, leading to long queues in some polling stations and various attempts to restrict the ability of Tsikhanouskaya’s supports to vote. By the end of the day, official turnout figures had been massaged down to ‘just’ 84 per cent, with reports that some polling stations ran out of ballots or recorded turnout of over 100 per cent because figures for early voting had been inflated so much. In a few polling stations where a fair count was observed to take place, Tsikhanouskaya often beat Lukashenka by a healthy margin, but it one cannot assume that these would truly reflect the country as a whole.
Since the election, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has report detaining some six thousand people over three nights of protests. These have not only been in the traditionally pro-opposition capital, but in dozens of towns across the entire country. Police, riot police, anti-terrorism units and the security services (still called the KGB in Belarus) have all been deployed on the streets, using tear gas, stun grenades, and on at least one occasion, live rounds. Hundreds have been injured, some fatally. Internet and mobile communications have regularly been cut, to prevent communication between protestors and limit the ability to share video and images of violence meted out on protestors to a wider audience. Apparently under pressure from the KGB, Tsikhanouskaya left the country and was given safe haven in Lithuania.
Crack down in Belarus. Photo rh.by
Although the authorities have shown their willingness to crack down on protests before, as seen in 2010, there are differences when it comes to 2020. The protests have been genuinely nationwide, not just the usual suspects on one central square in Minsk. This means that the police and security services that responds have to be spread across the entire country. So far they have been able to handle this, but a further problem has been that there is no one single leadership for the protest movement. Tsikhanouskaya became a symbol, but she and her team were not the coordinators of protests, which are far more ad hoc and grassroots. This means that there can be pockets of resistance that move around the city, and can be more difficult to track down. As a result, some arrests and beatings by the authorities appear to have been indiscriminate. The official line in the state media, is that the disturbances are the result of provocateurs, which Lukashenka claims are supported by various puppet masters in Russia, Poland, Czechia and the United Kingdom.
The Lukashenka regime is being rocked by a convergence of factors – economic difficulties at home, tensions with an external patron in the form of Russia, and a global pandemic that Lukashenka very publicly dismissed before ultimately succumbing to COVID-19 himself. An electorate that had not usually felt it was worth their effort to protest previous fraudulent elections were no longer willing to be as forgiving in the face of these issues. This has only been exacerbated by the brutal crackdown on protesters since election day, which show no signs of abating. The traditional stereotype of a docile, apolitical, indifferent Belarusian citizen who would not challenge the regime has been shattered.
Loyalty of security forces
The authorities having demonstrated that they are willing and able to use extreme force against their own citizens, claiming that they are being manipulated by outside powers against the interests of Belarus. So far, there has been no serious chinks in the unity of the law enforcement and security agencies. Nevertheless, in some smaller towns riot police were reported to have laid down their shields on the first night of protests, and there have been social media clips of some rank and file officers quitting the services. Lukashenka can still draw on the largest police force per capita in the region, that possibly outnumbers even the Belarusian armed forces. So far the most loyal and reliable forces remain on the ground in Minsk, but the resolve and commitment of officers in the regions might not be so strong.
Belarusian policemen post their resignation on social media. Photo from twitter
It is worth remembering as well that Lukashenka’s eldest son, Viktar, has held a position on the Belarusian Security Council since 2007, so also has links with the internal security and defence agencies. Babaryka and TsIkhanouoski remain in prison, and Tsikhanouskaya has been forced to leave the country, having already sent her children out of Belarus earlier after threats to their safety. Lukashenka appears to be in no mood to compromise or negotiate, dismissing protestors as unemployed people with criminal pasts and having some of the protestors in jail paraded on state television.
Uncertain road ahead
Lukashenka’s political obituary has been written many times before, not least after his re-election in 2010 and the crackdown that followed. In the short term, he might well be able to crush the current protests, but at great cost to any remaining domestic support or international legitimacy. In the longer time, it is unlikely that he will be able to address the nationwide dissatisfaction to numerous aspects of his rule that has been very visible throughout this campaign. Passive consent from voters has been replaced by active coercion from the regime. While Lukashenka might not be deposed immediately, although this cannot be ruled out, he has been seriously damaged. At a later juncture, a few months or years down the line, divisions may open up in the elites, in particular on the more moderate, technocratic wing. They might come to believe that they, and their personal business interests, would be better served by a future Belarus without Lukashenka as president.
As seen elsewhere however, the departure of an autocratic ruler, be it at the ballot box, through a palace coup, or revolution on the streets, is no guarantee of a smooth transition to democracy. The Belarusian people face an uncertain road ahead, but for the moment at least, it appears the traditional status quo is no longer tolerable for many, and the longest-serving leader in Europe is entering his end phase.
Matthew Frear is a lecturer at Leiden University teaching Russian and Eurasian politics and international relations, as well as comparative authoritarianism. Last year he published the book 'Belarus under Lukashenka'.