Observer Mission of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE) for the General Elections and the Republican Referendum in Belarus Conducted on October 12-17, 2004: Initial Report
Date: October 18, 2004
The Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE) organized an independent observer mission consisting of 18 journalists from Azerbaijan, Czech Republic, Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan, Poland, and Russia in order to monitor the Belarusian elections from October 9 to 18, 2004. In addition to the journalists, observer mission included the Honorable Senator Zbigniew Romaszewski from Poland.
The aim of the observer group was to investigate in detail the General Elections and the Republican Referendum on proposed amendments of the Belarusian Constitution scheduled on October 17. The observers monitored the elections and referendum in the cities and regions of Minsk, Bobruysk, Brest, Mogiliev, Molodechno, Borysov, and Novopolock.
For the elections, Belarusians were to decide upon the composition of 110 seats of the parliament, with representatives elected in one-person constituencies by majoritarian vote. Parallel to the elections was the referendum on the proposed changes to the Constitution. The question presented in the referendum was as follows: “Do you allow the first President of the Belarusian Republic, Lukashenko A.G., to participate as a candidate for the seat of the President in the forthcoming presidential elections and also agree that the first part of Article 81 of the Constitution might be amended to the following: ?#152;The President is elected for five years in the direct election by the Belarusian Nation in the free, equal, universal, direct and secretive elections under the Election Code’?” In order to successfully amend the Constitution, there was required a 50 percent plus one positive vote of all eligible voters.
The Legal Principles
It should be stressed first that the Belarusian Electoral Code does not require electoral commissions to include any opposition members. The regulations do not even mention that the commissions should provide the opposition with the adequate opportunity to fulfill their duties. The opposition might suggest its members for the electoral commissions, but the commissions are not obliged to accept any of the opposition members.
It means that there are no real safeguards in effect for controlling the commissions and that the commissions can freely manipulate voters’ lists, ballots, and the vote count itself. Even in the rare event a commission allowed external observers (journalists or opposition members) to participate in its proceedings during the electoral process and in the vote count, they were almost always requested to sit in a remote place from which they could not effectively observe what took place at the commission’s table or near the ballot boxes.
Furthermore, the Belarusian Electoral Code restricts the possibility of conducting a proper electoral campaign. For example, a candidate’s campaign expenses cannot exceed $450, the amount provided by the state’s budget. The dissemination of electoral materials is also significantly restricted by the Code. They cannot be displayed freely on streets, nor disseminated as inserts in state-published papers. These strict legal regulations were often used as a premise to remove candidates from the lists for violating the electoral law. Only opposition or independent candidates were removed through this means. These regulations were hardly ever applied against the government’s candidates, notwithstanding the fact that they were the most frequent violators of such regulations.
At the same time, electoral campaigns in Belarus are a rare occasion for the opposition parties and politicians to express their views and openly advocate in their favor. In Belarusian reality, the dominating majority of the mass media is state-owned, while the independent press remains suppressed by various administrative means.
During the electoral campaign in September and the beginning of October, MP candidates were not provided with an equal opportunity to address their supporters. Opposition candidates were given only 5 minutes of airtime on TV and radio, while the government’s candidates were frequent visitors on various informational and analytical shows, thus escaping any comparison.
During the campaign for the referendum, all of Belarusian society, especially television viewers, were subjected to a dominating pressure to vote in favor of the amendments to the constitution, which would suspend presidential term limits and enable the incumbent president, Alexandr Lukashenko, to be elected for a third term. Lukashenko fully occupied Belarusian television’s screens (according to data from the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Lukashenko took up 75-77 percent of airtime). Official propaganda tried to convince society that Lukashenko was the sole person who could secure Byelorussia’s stability, save the country from engaging in international conflicts, and prevent social disintegration, rising crime, and the invasion of foreign capital.
The October 14th issue of the state-published newspaper Sovyetskaya Byelarus is a classic example of such propaganda. In this issue, it stated its circulation as 863,125 copies, but other sources confirmed that on this day over 3,200,000 copies of the paper were distributed.
At the same time, the number of independently published papers was rigorously restricted. Real or alleged excessive numbers of each paper were punished by a fine, closure or suspension, and, finally, by the removal of the candidate linked to the paper. The aforementioned restrictive measures were applied only to opposition candidates. It should be noted that the evidence of those offenses was either fabricated or not even presented.
During the election campaign, over 10 non-state titles were suspended, including the local newspaper in Volkovysk and the regional newspaper in Molodochno.
Despite the fact that elections were scheduled for October 17, the balloting effectively started on October 12. According to official statements, voters who could not for whatever reason participate in the scheduled election and referendum were offered the chance to vote before the scheduled date. In reality, immense pressure was put on a vast number of voters to participate in elections in the week prior to the 17th and especially students housed in state-owned dormitories, workers in state-owned factories, administration employees, and soldiers.
Shortly before the elections and the referendum, the president issued an administrative decree changing the employment basis for all state-employed workers, shifting them from permanent employment to one-year renewable contracts. At the same time, the government issued a secret decree that the “contractualization” of the workforce should be finalized before the 6th of October 2004.
Certain army units completed their balloting long before the official voting day, using 100 percent of the allocated ballots by Friday, the 15th and Saturday, the 16th of October.
In general, the pre-electoral voting was plagued by shortcomings and systematic breaches of the Electoral Code. Above all, only one voter list was provided, with the voters signing once for double ballots, regarding both the general elections, as well as the referendum. Additionally, during the first days of the pre-electoral voting, there was no official code in accordance to which the electoral commission could differentiate between the numbers participating in the general elections and in the referendum.
Unacceptable Practices Observed Nationally
1. Many polling stations bore the official propaganda of pro-government candidates and position. A specific example were the referendum posters marked with the checked “In favor” option. Such agitation on the premises of voting stations is prohibited by law.
2. Ballot boxes were often placed on the tables of electoral commission and no cabins for secret balloting were provided. This is a breach of the Belarusian Constitution, which guarantees a secret ballot in general elections. In polling station No. 26 of the city district Molodechno, for example, voters were forced to check their ballots in the school director’s office, in the presence of the Militia officer and the chairman of the electoral commission.
3. In many of the stations, electoral commissions did not seal the ballot boxes, leaving centimeters-wide gaps between the lid and the box. In some districts, the chairmen of the electoral commission opened the ballot boxes each day and counted votes.
4. Hardly any of the commissions included opposition members.
5. During the pre-electoral voting period, the election commissions deleted names from the list of eligible voters. Many voters were removed, it was claimed, because they allegedly phoned the commissions to state their refusal to take part in the elections. This was a nation-wide undertaking aimed at lowering the number of eligible voters of every district and thus making it easier to achieve the referendum requirement for 50 percent plus one approval by all eligible voters.
6. During the pre-electoral voting period prior to the actual election day (October 17), more than 20 of 152 opposition candidates were removed from voting ballots solely based on falsified or simply ridiculous reasons.
The Belarus Popular Front (BPF) candidate Aleksey Yanukievich was removed from the list in Minsk on the basis of two letters from voters, one of which was anonymous. The authors of those letters complained that during the campaign two young people persuaded them to vote for Yanukievich and against the referendum. As a proof, they attached Yanukievich’s electoral handouts, a single copy of a newspaper Narodnaya Vola as well as old informational handouts distributed six months earlier. For the members of the district’s electoral commission, no further evidence was needed. They spoke with neither of the authors of these complaints and unanimously removed the candidate from the list.
Another BPF candidate, Alexey Michalevich, was removed from the candidate’s list in Minsk, after his team was alleged to have distributed campaign materials without the number of copies printed being indicated. In fact, the compromising material included 22 grammar mistakes, while the candidate was a graduate of a Belarusian-language secondary school. The photograph on the falsified handout was the exact one the candidate submitted during the registration process to the electoral commission.
On Sunday, October 17, the elections and referendum officially took place. The voting was conducted in systematic violation of the Electoral Code, many examples of which we have described already above. In addition, we note further violations of the Electoral Code. One example: in polling station 15 in District 84 in Minsk, a number of voters were allowed to sign voter’s lists not only in their name but also in the name of absent voters, whose ballots could then be abused. We have also noted that at numerous polling stations voters were provided with more than one set of ballots.
The Vote Count
In the majority of polling stations, independent observers, journalists, and appointed representatives of the opposition were kept at a distance from electoral commission tables, so that they could not verify the count. One commission member in Bobruysk testified that he saw a signed version of the election protocols with final election results as early as October 13. In polling station 495 in Minsk District 107, one observer obtained the protocol with the final results well before the end of voting on election day. The results (save one number) were the same as those that were officially released a couple of hours later. According to Vladmir Labkovich, a representative of an opposition party, the commission in polling station 510 in Minsk did not even bother counting the ballots after the end of voting, just stacking them in two piles and wrapping them with a string. The grounds for the voting results published soon afterward by the commission remain a mystery. We have also observed that the chairmen and the members of electoral commissions were visibly more agitated as the election day went by, to the point where commission members, without any provocation, physically attacked two of our independent observers.
Our observer mission also gathered numerous testimonies from individuals corroborating the overall assessments. From the beginning of our stay, we collected a great deal of testimony indicating that the final results of the elections were decided upon long before the vote itself. After witnessing the electoral process and the vote count, we conclude that the officially published election results do not reflect the real will of the Belarusian people
What we have observed in Belarus from October 12 to 17, 2004 does not meet any electoral standards of democratic states and not even of the Belarusian Electoral Code. A primary principle of a democratic election is transparency, as the citizens need to be sure that the final results are in accordance with their decision. The decision on the results of the General Elections and the Republican Referendum in Belarus 2004 was hidden from the view of the Belarusian and the international public.
Signed On Behalf of the IDEE Observer Mission:
Petruska Sustrova, Journalist and Mission Coordinator
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For further information, please contact: Eric Chenoweth/Irena Lasota, Co-Directors
Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe “IDEE” / 202-677-6300 / firstname.lastname@example.org