Incumbent president fully administrative leverage, the initiative groups of other candiates have to face obvious obstacles
Potential candidates for the presidency only have several days before the signature collection is finished.
The head of the initiative group Viktar Sheiman said that one million five hundred and seventy four thousand signatures of citizens have been collected in favor of the presidential candidate Aliaxandr Lukashenka. According to Mr. Sheiman, this number shows support for Lukashenka, which is increasing and “there are no reasons why the people’s desire to express support to the president should be limited”. The initiative group located in Minsk House of Officers even operates a public reception service to provide feedback to voters.
On 12 January Aliaxandr Lukashenka said: “We do not have to falsify the elections. Quite the other way round, we are doing all we can to prevent fraud accusations, even accidental ones. We registered even those who could not be registered, we are almost collecting signatures for them - and still, they are no happy. Who are the authorities interfering with? No one”.
However, during the entire signature collection term complaints have been arriving from people forced to sign in favor of Aliaxandr Lukashenka, which demonstrates the use of administrative leverage. At the same time, the initiative group of Milinkievich and Pazniak received warnings from the CEC, and signature collectors faces pressure, intimidation, administrative penalties, etc.
Radio Liberty looked for answers to the questions: are the signature collectors in equal conditions? what obstacles do the initiative groups have to face? Why did all of these obstacles still allow the teams of most candidates collect far more than 100 thousand signatures?
Below are the answers provided by Aliaxandr Bukhvostau, the head of the Milinkievich initiative group, Mechyslau Hryb, the head of the Kazulin election headquarters, and Kiryl Pazniak, the senior editor of the Belaruskiya naviny newspaper.
Mechyslau Hryb: “Collection of signatures in the place of the electors' residence, collection of signatures on the street and on special signature collection tables is one thing, and collection of signatures in the companies and organizations, in the dormitories is quite another thing.
As regards the first method, I can say that the authorities are not creating any major obstacles to our Kazulin initiative group (neither are they doing this to the other groups, I think). True, there are issues regarding individual districts, which I have reported to CEC.
As regards collection of signatures in the companies (open or closed ones), the conditions here are very different. If the members of our initiative group are even allowed inside, the heads of these enterprises receive an order that tells them to make sure all employees sign in favor of Lukashenka. This is the information that arrived from Atlant and Metalasklad. Now I have information from Navapolatsk, where during collection of signatures in favor of Lukashenka, the administration was telling people that they could only sign in favor of one candidate. At the BVK plant the signatures were collected by the shop heads rather than members of the initiative group. Pressurized by their managers, the plant employees put in the signature lists only the date and signature, all the other details - the passport number and registration details are entered by the HR department. These cases are numerous.
As regards dormitories, our people are not allowed there at all, the hours have to be agreed with the head of the company.
If you ask some people to leave their names, file a complaint and confirm the cases, they refuse to do so, being afraid. The people are scared.
The Central Election Committee pretends it does not see anything, as if this is none of its business".
Aliaxandr Bukhvostau: “Even members of the Central Election Committee voiced opinions, regarding an advantage enjoyed the president in the election campaign. I do not thinks this agrees with the principle of fair and equal conditions.
Mr. Hryb gave extensive information. I agree with him in many aspects. I would like to emphasize that after we just started to collect signature, the police created obstacles to our collectors. In some cases members of the initiative group were detained, and their signature lists confiscated. We sent numerous complaints to the Central Election Committee and the procurator’s office. The procurator’s office typically provided formal responses, and the CEC repeatedly stated that the conditions are equal for all. True, such cases occur less often then.
However, the campaign of collecting signatures in support of Lukashenka is also very peculiar. The authorities are fully using their administrative leverage, in a variety of different ways.
Welfare service officers treat their charges in a particular way, sometimes threatening some negative action if they do not give their signature. These are the facts we have. Then, post office workers – they bring, for example, the retirement benefit and require the receivers to leave their signature. We have information that some doctors have signature lists during surgery hours and they “take” signatures from the patients. State-controlled production companies use the system, where people come with their passports and HR departments complete signature lists and then the people put their signature in workshops.
Starting from Lukashenka, the authorities are acting according to semi-legal “notions” rather than laws. He said that all have to be registered - and all were registered. Tomorrow he may evaluate the situation and say “do not register this one” - and that person will not be registered. And whatever we do to make sure our signatures are ok, our candidate may not be registered, still.
The fact that we collected an adequate number of signatures is because we managed to organize activists and enough people in Belarus want changes. And the activity of these people increases. The authorities use these tactics not only to act on our nerves but also keep people scared. If they slacken the reins, and do not show who the boss is here, people may really think they are free and take to streets tomorrow”.
Kiryl Pazniak: “They collected far more signature in favor of the head of state than all the other pretenders did. You may believe that people are more willing to sign in favor of Lukashenka because he enjoys a broad election base. However, near those members of his initiative group that collect signatures in the street there are fewer people than near members of the democratic initiative groups. The presidential supporters do not visit people in their apartments more actively than the initiative groups of their rivals do. So, naturally a different version appears – that the signatures in favor of Lukashenka are really being collected, using administrative leverage – in the places of work or study. There is a lot of evidence to this effect, including the evidence voiced by Radio Liberty.
Generally, collection of signatures, in my opinion, causes the electors to act in a more lively way because this is one of the few sporadic periods of democracy in Belarus.
The people are happy to enjoy the right of signing in favor of someone they support. But those that are apathetic are more, there are also people who do not want show their true democratic allegiances. Meanwhile, the forced collection of signatures to provide a gigantic figure entails a risk for the authorities – on the one hand this tightens the "spiral of silence" or, more specifically, the spiral of political fatalism, the public opinion is being prepared for an "elegant victory" on 19 March, but on the other hand this may cause a wave of indignation based on the people's personal experience rather than opposition-led counter-propaganda.
This may result in more people mistrusting the results of the 19 March voting than there were after the referendum last year.
As regards the obstacles to the signature collection, I believe this is the inertia of the state machine.
As regards the warning, some independent polls reveal that the candidates that have the best chances in competing with Lukashenka are Milinkievich and Pazniak. And these warnings are the sword of Damocles suspended above these two candidates. There is a threat they can be removed from the electoral campaign and I believe that the authorities have not decided yet who Lukashenka will be with on the voting slip - with a sparring partner, a powerful or weak partner, one, two, three democrats, without Milinkievich to make sure there will be no street actions, or with Milinkievich to give the victory a more convincing feel. My forecast is that Milinkievich will be registered, the authorities are not interested in boycott, because the elections will in that case lack legitimacy to a greater extent. But the chances that the authorities will not register Zianon Pazniak are quite high, I think, because the authorities are afraid he may return after the registration as a candidate and this will give a boost to political life. Pazniak may revive street democracy. But the authorities still have the temptation to allow Pazniak to run, because he may attract a part of the Milinkievich vote. Though this factor will have meaning only if the votes are counted fairly”.