available languages: english August 21, 2020

While it is not clear whether the public protests in Belarus will succeed in effecting political change, they have surprised observers by their strength and determination. This article looks at possible pathways for a transition.

1. A revolutionary scenario

The demonstrators have so far acted in a highly civil manner. Despite the brutal attacks of state agencies, protests have remained peaceful. Demonstrations have taken place in public places, but, so far, have not specifically focused on centres of state power.

Importantly, the protesters are not calling for a revolution, but have rather demanded full respect for the constitutional guarantees for democratic elections and freedom of assembly. When Lukashenko addressed the workers of a Tractor Factory, one of the workers shouted: “We want fair elections, not revolution”.

A revolutionary scenario in which demonstrators storm institutions, such as parliament, ministries and take over state media is unlikely in these circumstances. So far, the size and determination of the protests have managed to change the stance of some institutional personnel, such as staff at the state broadcaster, while the brutality of the security services has provided momentum to the protests and bolstered support.

In this context, parts of the elite may well decide that the situation is untenable and force President Lukashenko and his inner circle to relinquish power. Such a scenario could result in his sudden resignation, though at the moment there is no indication for that.

In this scenario, if current elites fail to present a credible alternative (new personnel in key institutions, the promise of free and fair elections soon), the resulting power vacuum could be filled by opposition forces. It is worth noting that the political system is based on personal relationships with Lukashenko, leaving no strong structures to organize a post-Lukashenko situation.

In such situations, opposition parties and groups typically form temporary bodies to manage the transition towards free and fair elections. One recent example was Tunisia’s “Higher Authority for the Realisation of the Objectives of the Revolution, Political Reform and Democratic Transition”, an ad-hoc body with broad-based membership, which oversaw initial steps until elections were held in the wake of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution. The opposition in Belarus has already established a Co-ordination Council, to provide a leadership structure in such a scenario.

2. An orderly transition

There are several pathways towards an orderly transition:

  • Lukashenko may resign, in which case a new presidential election would need to be held within 30-70 days. A new election process could provide the nucleus for a wider political transition (see below) if held under democratic conditions (see also below).
  • Parliament has the power to remove the President, but the process is both lengthy and complex, ultimately requiring a two-thirds majority. This is unlikely as the current legislature is the product of the deeply-flawed 2019 elections in which only pro-government candidates won seats.
  • The Supreme Court could annul the 9 August elections, in response to various appeals that have been lodged. Annulment of the elections is the most direct pathway to a new election, but this would require that judges discover a sense of independence from the executive branch. If events move in favour of the protesters, the judges could well see an annulment as a means of ensuring their role in a future, democratic Belarus. Alternatively, the Court may declare the appeals inadmissible or confirm the official results.
  • A negotiated transition, in which Lukashenko withdraws or agrees on conditions for democratic elections is also possible.

The core of a negotiated transition is already present in the opposition demand for a release of all political prisoners and a repeat of the presidential election. While the former can be implemented by government order, conducting a new election is a complex and challenging task:

  • Repeat or re-count?

One option would be a recount of the ballots of the 9 August election, but this is highly problematic and has been rejected by most opposition figures. A falsified election leaves behind a crime scene on election night, which is now more than ten days old and could well have been compromised. Ballot papers are reported to have been destroyed. Large scale electoral fraud involves the falsification of ballots and counting protocols, making it impossible to reconstruct the voters’ intentions accurately. In short, it is too late to recount ballots.

Furthermore, genuine elections are much more than just voting. The serious shortcomings of the 9 August election (biased media coverage, denial of registration to opposition candidates, lack of transparency, suppression of independent election observation) cannot be rectified by a recount. The only genuine election possible is a new election.

  • Which election to repeat: president only, or also parliament?

Currently, the demand is for the 9 August presidential election to be repeated. If an opposition candidate were to win the presidency, this would represent a sea change in Belarusian politics. Given the centrality of the president in the overall power structure, significant change in all state institutions could be achieved by a new president supported by clearly articulated popular demands. A  new president could dismiss and replace the prime minister (article 106 constitution). If parliament failed to support such a course of action, the president could dissolve parliament and call for new elections.

It is worth recalling that the current parliament is the result of the flawed November 2019 elections which failed to meet the standards for democratic elections and Belarus’s commitments as an OSCE participating state. The OSCE/ODIHR election observer mission concluded that “fundamental freedoms were disregarded and the integrity of the election process was not adequately safeguarded”[1]. Not a single opposition candidate won a seat in the 110-member parliament.[2] In that sense elections for president and parliament at the same time would also be justified.

The 2018 local government elections were equally problematic, but whereas a case can be made for repeating both the parliamentary and presidential elections in parallel, adding the local level to the new electoral process could create logistical challenges and detract focus from the national elections. Nevertheless, a negotiated transition should include the conduct of new, democratic local elections within a reasonable timeframe.

A new president could also propose constitutional changes to undo the heritage of Lukashenko’s 26-year-rule, such as unlimited presidential terms, subject to approval by referendum.

  • Who should manage repeat elections?

Elections in Belarus are overseen by the Central Election Commission (CEC) – a key enabler of the country’s flawed elections. The CEC chairwoman, Lidia Yermoshina, and eight of her colleagues were on the EU’s sanctions list for falsification of the 2006 presidential election. The CEC further undermined is credibility when Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was held in its premises on 10 August and forced to read a prepared statement to explain her forced departure to Lithuania.

As part of any transition deal, the opposition may demand that a completely new CEC with credible, democratically oriented-personnel is established to manage new elections. However, any new commission would have to rely on its sub-ordinate commissions (53 Territorial Election Commissions and 6,129 Precinct Election Commissions) as well as other bodies and agencies needed to implement elections. If a new body was formed, care would need to be taken to ensure that its members have the skills and the authority to oversee the technical side of elections. Alternatively, the CEC chair could be replaced by a respected figure who commands broad-based support, and new members, such as representatives of candidates and civil society organisations, could be added to make sure commands public confidence. This model could be replicated for Territorial and Precinct Election Commissions.

The OSCE/ODIHR confirmed this point in its declaration on 19 August: “The authorities of Belarus are urged to take immediate steps to address the lack of impartiality of the election administration at all levels, which previous ODIHR election observations have found to be under government control.”

  • What technical aspects would be critical in a new election?

Transparency is critical. In contrast with previous elections, strong transparency guarantees would need to be in place for all phases of the electoral process, in particular during counting and aggregation of results. Stalin allegedly said: “It’s not the people who vote that count, it’s the people who count the votes.” Lukashenko put that into practice. Without transparency guarantees, OSCE/ODIHR reported on the 2015 presidential election that significant problems, particularly during the counting of votes and tabulation of election results, “undermined the integrity of the election.”

Fresh elections would, especially if administered by the existing electoral administration, require the strongest possible transparency provisions to deter fraud and build voter trust in the process. Such provisions must include: unhindered accreditation of election observers; unhindered monitoring of counting by observers, possibly including counting in polling stations being broadcast online; public display of polling station official results at each level of the electoral administration in hard copy and online; every polling station result should be visible in the overall results published by the CEC.

  • Beyond election management, what about other conditions of democratic elections?

Beyond voting and counting, the whole electoral process in Belarus is deeply flawed to benefit the incumbent. In relation to the 2015 Presidential elections, the OSCE/ODIHR noted that “legal amendments in 2011 and 2012 increased existing limitations on fundamental freedoms of association, assembly and expression. The law gives the authorities wide discretionary powers to deny registration or deregister political parties and public associations (…). Despite repeated applications, no new political party has been able to register since 2000, which is at odds with paragraph 7.6 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document. The amendments introduced burdensome procedures for obtaining permission to hold public assemblies and increased sanctions for organizing unauthorized meetings. Freedom of expression was further limited by a ban on calls and acts of disruption, cancellation or postponement of elections in addition to existing criminal and administrative offences for defamation and insult.”

Violations such as these were particularly pronounced in the 2020 elections. Before repeat elections could be held, it should be considered to amend the legal framework to remove barriers to the exercise of the fundamental rights of participation, association, assembly and expression. State agencies would need to be committed to upholding voters rights in the implementation of their electoral responsibilities. None of this can be done at short notice.

[1] “Elections proceeded calmly but did not meet important international standards for democratic elections. There was an overall disregard for fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression. A high number of candidates stood for election, but an overly restrictive registration process inhibited the participation of opposition. A limited amount of campaigning took place, within a restrictive environment that, overall, did not provide for a meaningful or competitive political contest. Media coverage of the campaign did not enable voters to receive sufficient information about contestants. The election administration was dominated by the executive authorities, limiting its impartiality and independence, and the integrity of the election process was not adequately safeguarded. Significant procedural shortcomings during the counting of votes raised concerns about whether results were counted and reported honestly, and an overall lack of transparency reduced the opportunity for meaningful observation.” The OSCE/ODIHR report on the 2019 parliamentary elections  can be downloaded here: https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/6/4/447583.pdf

[2] The 2019 elections were based on a majoritarian, first-past-the-post system for each of the 110  seats.  The system favoured candidates that were pro-government. In a new, free election, such as a system would be likely to favour the opposition. It is possible that no MP of the ruling party would be re-elected.

Democracy Reporting International (DRI) strengthens democracy by shaping the institutions that make it sustainable. We support local ways of promoting democracy with impartial analysis and good practices, bringing international standards to life. Sign-up to our newsletter to stay up-to-date.

Photo credit: Âme inconsolable/Flickr

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated a maximum period of 90 days for presidential elections after resignation. The maximum is 70 days.