ELECTIONS TO LOCAL COUNCILS OF DEPUTIES OF THE REPUBLIC OF BELARUS OF THE 24TH CONVOCATION. GENERAL CONCLUSIONS
The elections to local councils of the 24th convocation demonstrated that Belarusian authorities do not have the intention to change the election legislation and the practice of its application to make the election procedure more transparent and democratic. Unfortunately, the official authorities did not take into account the recommendations of ODIHR OSCE and Association of Central and Eastern European Election Organizers (ACEEEO), as well as proposals on amending the election legislation, made by non-governmental organizations and political parties in opposition.
The practice of application of the existing legislation in the sphere of elections, as well as the violations, observed during monitoring of all stages of the election campaign, provide all grounds to state that the local elections of the 24th convocation were undemocratic, and did not meet the international standards of elections.
The local elections demonstrated clearly again, that the existing election legislation is imperfect and needs further improvement.
The main problems of the Election Code were revealed:
 No exactly specified procedure of keeping ballot papers and ballot boxes;
 No sufficient protection of ballot papers and ballot boxes;
 No guaranteed membership in election commissions of all levels for representatives of political parties and non-governmental organizations
 No specified stated rights of observers
 Early voting
 Control over the election procedure by the administrative “vertical” authorities
All these flaws in aggregate make the election procedure not transparent, and not open for the control of the broad civic society, and provide for the possibilities to manipulate and forge the voting results.
The analysis of the local elections of the 24th convocation, presented below, is made on the ground of information, provided by the regional branches of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", which observed all stages of the election campaign, including early voting and the Election Day, as well as information, provided by the Central Election Commission and publications in the official press.
LEGAL REGULATION OF THE ELECTIONS TO LOCAL COUNCILS OF DEPUTIES OF THE 24TH CONVOCATION
The legal base, which regulates the procedure of organizing and conducting the election to local councils of deputies, are the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, the Election Code of the Republic of Belarus, other normative and legal acts, which regulate the pre-election activities, as well as the Rulings of the Central Election Commission (CEC).
The Rulings, issued by CEC for the 24th local election, have changed the procedure of conducting the election campaign, limiting the rights of the election subjects. At the same time, CEC recommendations for the work of the territorial and divisional election commissions have not regulated the procedure of keeping the ballot papers and ballot boxes to the sufficient extent. The Central Election Commission issued the total of 15 Rulings for holding the election. It’s worth mentioning, that by adopting some of the Rulings, the Central Election Commission has transgressed the bounds of the Election Code of the Republic of Belarus, exceeding its authority.
The CEC Ruling, dated 16 December 2002, item 1, prohibited to use the resources of candidates, their proxies, political parties, non-governmental organizations, and other citizens for the purposes of making promotion posters. Meanwhile, Art 45, part 8 of the Election Code says, that from the moment of candidates’ registration, political parties, working bodies, citizens, who have nominated candidates, and candidates themselves have the right to produce promotion posters, appeals, statements, inscriptions, leaflets, photo-materials (further -- posters). Thus, the Ruling of the Central Election Commission contradicts the requirement of the Election Code of the Republic of Belarus.
The CEC Ruling, dated 14 January 2003, determined, that outdoor meetings with voters should be treated according to the Law (of 30 December 1997) “About Meetings, Rallies, Street Marches, Demonstrations, and Picketing” and the Presidential Decree # 11 “About Certain Measures to Improve the Order of Holding Meetings, Rallies, Street Marches and Other Events, and Picketing in the Republic of Belarus” (2001). The Election Code contains such limitations only in Art 45 part 4, and mentions only meetings of voters for discussion of the issues, submitted for a referendum.
The CEC Ruling, dated 25 November 2002, which regulates the procedure of election observation, contradicted the requirements of Art 13 and Art 155 of the Election Code, limiting the number of observers in each polling station. The same Ruling stated, that central bodies of political parties and non-governmental organizations can send observers only to the meetings of the Central Election Commission. Thus, the Ruling limited the rights of political parties and non-governmental organizations, decreasing the possibilities to observe the election. This contradicts the Law “About Non-Governmental Organizations”, which says, that non-governmental organizations with the national status have the right to act on the whole territory of the Republic of Belarus. Besides that, non-governmental organizations, according to their statutes, might have no regional structures. In this case, they lose their right to observe the election in territorial, constituency election commissions and on polling stations. It should be especially stressed, that from the very beginning of the election campaign the Central Election Commission created the atmosphere of secrecy around the methodical recommendations it had worked out. The Central Election Commission refused to provide the elaborated recommendations for divisional election commissions to the Human Rights Center "Viasna" for examination. The Human Rights Center "Viasna" and the Independent Society for Legal Research addressed the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Belarus on this matter. In his reply head of the Constitutional Court U. Vasilevich recognized, that it is necessary to create the conditions for at least familiarizing the interested subjects with these materials. Since 9 December 2002 methodical recommendations and Rulings of CEC, information about the course of the election were really published on CEC web-site and were available to the broad circle of users. However, the information was incomplete and irregular. For instance, the methodical recommendations for divisional election commissions did not contain the sample of a final report, approved by CEC. In conjunction with that the Human Rights Center "Viasna" addressed the Central Election Commission with the request to provide the sample of the report for examination. CEC refused, referring to the fact, that this information is only for members of divisional election commissions. The Human Rights Center "Viasna" had to again address the Constitutional Court and the Prosecutor General of the Republic of Belarus.
Imperfection of the election legislation became the reason for numerous violations during preparation and holding the local election. Independence of election commissions from the executive authorities, transparency and openness of all stages of the election campaign was not ensured.
FORMATION OF ELECTION COMMISSIONS
The process of formation of territorial and divisional election commissions was absolutely not transparent. Overwhelming majority of commissions were created out of representatives of enterprises’ administration and members of local state-governing bodies by signature collection. It’s worth mentioning, that numerous election commissions were created out of representatives of one working body, often 100 per cent of commission members belonging to one enterprise. At the same time often heads of the same enterprises were running as candidates to local councils.
We observed a pronounced tendency among enterprise administrations to interfere and control the work of divisional commissions. The election legislation does not specify the procedure of considering the applications for membership in election commissions. On this ground numerous representatives of non-governmental organizations and political parties were refused membership. They were neither explained the reasons for refusals, nor invited to the meetings of the decision-making bodies. In certain cases the refusals were grounded on the lack of experience in the work of election commissions. Nomination of representatives to election commissions was complicated by the CEC Ruling, which said that political parties and non-governmental organizations had to have subordinate structures to be able to nominate representatives to election commissions.
Thus, the authorities totally ignored the requirements of Art 11 and 35 of the Election Code and violated the principles of broad representation and transparency in creation election commissions.
NOMINATION AND REGISTRATION OF CANDIDATES TO LOCAL COUNCILS OF DEPUTIES
Candidates to local Councils of deputies could be nominated by signature collection, by political parties and by working bodies.
It’s worth mentioning, that the nomination procedure, established by the Election Code, is not equal for political parties and working bodies. In order to nominate a candidate, political parties need to have a registered structural unit, and working bodies – only signatures of their members.
The main reasons for refusing registration of candidates were inaccuracies in application data, incomplete information in income declarations, and invalid signatures on signature sheets. A the same time, there were no instructions on correct filling of declarations, available to contenders to candidacy. Election commissions refused to consult contenders on the order of filling the application materials and declarations, although it is required by CEC Ruling 36, clause 1. As the result, numerous contenders were not registered as candidates because of inaccuracies in income declarations, often the undeclared income was very insignificant. Often candidates were ascribed property they did not own. On appealing to higher commissions and courts against denials of registration, several contenders were registered as candidates, but they lost time for promotion campaign. The process of nomination went under strong pressure from the authorities and employers of contenders, which resulted in many contenders refusing to participate in the election race.
According to Art 45 of the Election Code, the citizens of the Republic of Belarus, political parties, non-governmental organizations, working bodies, proxies of candidates, initiative groups are provided with the right to free and overall discussion of election programs of candidates, their political, business, and personal qualities, campaigning “for” or “against” candidates on meetings, rallies, in mass media, and during meetings with voters. However, the CEC Ruling of 14 January 2003 limited the possibilities of promotion during outdoor meetings with voters (see chapter LEGAL REGULATION OF ELECTIONS TO LOCAL COUNCILS OF DEPUTIES).
Meetings with voters were conducted in rooms, determined by territorial commissions together with local authorities. The number of such meetings was determined by the territorial commissions themselves, and not the candidates. In certain cases local authorities did not sanction pickets for the purpose of holding meetings with voters.
Possibilities for producing promotion materials were also limited. The CEC Ruling of 16 December 2002 significantly limited the possibilities to produce promotion materials of, first of all, independent candidates and candidates of political parties. The resources, allotted for promotion purposes were insufficient for organizing promotion campaigns in big cities, where constituencies often consist of up to 20 thousand voters. If a candidate exceeded the allotted resources, his/her registration was cancelled. At the same time such decisions were taken only about candidates, independent from the authorities and were often very questionable. Thus, Raisa Mikhailowskaya, candidate to Minsk city council, was cancelled registration only for having laminated her promotion posters to protect them from the snow. According to the commission, by doing this she has exceeded the allotted resources (8 basic units – app. 45USD).
Simultaneously, many candidates enjoyed the support of local administrations. They were provided with premises for organizing various lectures and speeches (during parents’ meetings at schools, offices of communal services, etc.). The support of authorities was also demonstrated by usage of subordinates in promotion campaigns, and publications about candidates’ activities in local state-owned mass media (owned by local administrations, regional and city executive committees, etc). Very often the circulation of the mass media with such publications exceeded their official circulation and were handed out to voters free-of-charge. Meanwhile, independent candidates and candidates of democratic political parties did not have a chance to use the same mass media or participate in the meetings with voters during parents’ meetings in schools, communal services’ offices, and other places, which had been not officially determined by territorial commissions. It’s worth mentioning, that a big number of promotion materials in support of candidates loyal to the authorities, were spread without the printing data, which was absolutely impossible for democratic candidates.
Thus, the requirements of equal possibilities for candidates, guaranteed by the Election Code of the Republic of Belarus, were neglected. The candidates, supported by the authorities, widely used the administrative resources for their promotion campaigns.
Early voting, according to the requirements of the election legislation, started five days before the election day – on 25 February 2003.
According to Art 53 of the Election Code, a voter, who does not have an opportunity to be in the place of his residence on the Election Day, has the right to fill the ballot paper in the polling station and put it in the ballot box not earlier than 5 days before the Election Day. It is not required to explain the reasons for impossibility to vote on the Election Day.
Such a liberal norm, in aggregate with imperfect election legislation, allows the authorities to manipulate the votes during early voting. The most spread form of manipulation is organizing forced early voting.
The authorities, having tested this form of manipulation during the elections of 2000-2001, actively used it during the local election of 2003. University and technical college students (especially those living in dormitories), workers and employees of state-owned enterprises and organizations participated in early voting under pressure of their administrations. Observers of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" registered facts of forced early voting in the majority of big cities of the country. It is noteworthy, that at some polling stations elections have already taken place during the period of early voting. It is a special concern, that observers and candidates’ proxies are not able to control the early voting. When the voting is over, polling stations are closed, and during all 5 days and nights the ballot boxes are located in polling stations, guarded by police officers on duty. At the same time representatives of local administration had access to ballot boxes. No special measures to protect ballot boxes and ballot papers were taken. The only requirement is that ballot boxes must be sealed, and after the end of early voting, the slot of a ballot box must be sealed up with paper. There are no instructions on keeping (place and way of keeping) of ballot papers and ballot boxes. All this in aggregate provide for unlimited possibilities for manipulation and falsification of election results. According to observers, the fact of organized forced voting testifies the desire of the authorities to use such possibilities.
The Central Election Commission reported on 1 March, that 14% of voters participated in early voting. The biggest number of early voters was in Vitsebsk region – 17 %, the least – in Minsk city – 12 %. However, when the election was over, the number of citizens, who had participated in early voting, changed dramatically, and reached 21%. According to the official data of the Central Election Commission, these numbers were: Brest region – 23.18% of voters, Vitsebsk region -- 20,8%, Homel region – 18,7%, Hrodna region -- 21,7%, Minsk region – 20,7%, Mahilow region – 23,3%, and Minsk city – 17,9%.
VOTING ON THE ELECTION DAY
The main voting took place on 2 March 2003 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. According to the data of the Central Election Commission, the total of 73% of voters voted in the local election (including early voting).
Observers from NGOs, including the Human Rights Center "Viasna", expressed a number of remarks about the way the election was conducted, in particular: some polling stations did not have polling-booths or separate rooms for secret voting, cases when two and more ballot papers were given to one voter, mobile voting with violations of procedure, provided for by the election legislation.
However, the main criticism was about the procedure of vote tabulation. According to Art 55 of the Election Code, before ballot boxes are opened, all unused ballot papers must be counted and cancelled, then put in packages, sealed and signed by the commission head and secretary in the presence of other commission members. Ballot boxes are opened and votes are counted in turn: first ballot papers in the early voting ballot box, then – ballot boxes for mobile voting, and in the end – ballot papers in the boxes for voting on the Election Day. The tabulation results are put in the report. However, the sample of the report, approved by the Central Election Commission, does not provide space for reflecting the separate vote count. According to the sample, all results are given together.
Election commissions did not contribute to open and transparent election process by refusing to inform the observers about the number of voters, who participated in early voting. At the same time, election commissions reported this information to local administrations and district executive committees after each day of early voting. Observers, who were present at polling stations during the early voting, independently registered the number of early voters. However, the numbers of early voters, voiced by election commissions on the Day of Election, often exceeded the data of observers.
The very procedure of vote counting roused censure of observers. Observers were appointed places far away from the tables, where votes were counted, so that they had no chance to fully observe the procedure. Observers registered a lot of cases, when commissions did not cancel unused ballot papers before vote counting and did not conduct the real vote counting.
Members of political parties, non-governmental organizations, and candidates’ proxies observed the 24th local election. According to Art 55 of the Election Code, an observer is a person, empowered by a political party, or a non-governmental organization. Art 13 of the Election Code guarantees representatives of political parties and non-governmental organizations the right to be present at polling stations without any limitations in number. The CEC Ruling of 25 November 2002 has significantly limited the possibility to observe the election, by ruling, that only political party or NGO members can be observers. The Ruling also has established the limitation of number of observers at a polling station – one representatives of a political party or an NGO, more observers per organization are allowed on permission of head of election commission.
Often observers, besides official nomination from their organizations, had to present copies of registration of structural units of political parties, NGOs, and their membership cards. Such demands created additional obstacles for observation. Some NGOs, which had nominated observers, had to undergo sudden examinations of the departments of justice. For instance, when Minsk city branch of Frantsysk Skaryna Belarusian Language Society sent observers to a number of polling stations, the Justice Department of Minsk city executive committee started examination of their record keeping. The examiners were especially interested in the minutes of the branch meetings, which nominated the observers. It’s worth mentioning, that similar tactics was widely practiced during the presidential election of 2001.
ELECTION DISPUTES AND PRACTICE
According to the legislation, persons, defined in Art 13 of the Election Code, when revealing violations of the election legislation, have the right to address the proper or higher commission, and prosecutor offices with request to liquidate the violation. Using this right, already on the earlier stages of the election campaign, candidates, their proxies, and NGOs appealed to prosecutor bodies, and higher commissions complaining about violations of the election legislation, made by election commissions and other candidates.
The practice of appeals to court against the actions of election commissions should be stressed separately. According to the Code of Civic Procedure of the Republic of Belarus, one can appeal to court against inaccuracies in voters’ lists and other actions of election commissions. The Election Code provides for the right to appeal to court against commission decision not to register a candidate, if a higher commission does not satisfy the appeal. At the same time, court decisions are final and are not subject to cassation appeals.
Very often courts refused to consider complaints on the ground that the term of appealing in a higher commission was over. The total of 14 candidates managed to get registration through courts and higher commissions. It is a special concern, that it is impossible to appeal to courts against actions of the Central Election Commission, as well as it is impossible to appeal to courts against decisions of territorial commissions about recognizing the election valid.
It should be pointed out, that legislative limitation of possibilities to appeal against all actions of election commissions significantly limits the rights of the subjects of the election process.
The general analysis of the trends of organizing and holding the election to local Councils of deputies of the 24th convocation allows to say that on the whole the elections were undemocratic.
This conclusion is grounded on the fact that the following principles of democratic elections were not met:
 Forming election commissions which are independent of administration
 Providing equal opportunities to all candidates during the promotion campaign
 Prevention of usage of the administrative resource
 Transparency of all stages of the election process
The elections to local councils of deputies of the 24th convocation demonstrated clearly again the need for amending the existing election legislation and bringing it to conformity with the international standards in the sphere of elections.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" states, that the elections to local councils of deputies of the 24th convocation do not meet the principles of democratic and open elections
6 March 2003