Parliamentary Election: Human Rights Defenders draw preliminary conclusions
Minsk, September 29th, 2008
Elections to the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus, 4th convocation.
From the moment of announcement of the elections to the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus of 4th convocation Belarusian Helsinki Committee, in cooperation with the human rights defenders, began the monitoring of the election. The monitoring was conducted on the basis of long-term observation of the main stages of the election campaign: formation of district election commissions, registration of initiative groups, registration of candidates, election campaigning, early voting and Election Day voting, and summing up the voting results. The election was monitored in 86 election districts. 490 monitors, registered as observers in the district election commissions and at polling stations, participated in the work. Information and analytical centers were created in order to collect, analyze, and distribute the information.
As a result of the monitoring of all stages of the election to the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus of the 4th convocation we come to the following preliminary conclusions:
Short description of the political situation before and during the election
The parliamentary election took place in the context of the difficult situation with human rights. Basic civic and political rights, such as the freedom of speech, freedom of peaceful assemblies and associations, remained significantly restricted by the Belarusian authorities. Facts of politically-motivated persecution of the opponents of the regime by the official authorities of Belarus, including criminal prosecution, were the matter of our deep concern. Three political prisoners remained behind bars: Alexander Kazulin, Andrei Kim, and Alexander Parsiukevich. 14 people, who took part in the peaceful protest actions of entrepreneurs early this year, were sentenced under criminal procedure to fines and restriction of freedom. All these circumstances did not help to create the atmosphere of trust for the election time. Despite numerous promises of representatives of the Belarusian authorities to hold free and fair elections, they failed to fulfill the OSCE recommendations, made during the previous elections. The Central Election Commission also refused to participate in the negotiations with the representatives of the UDF about the possible improvement of the conditions for the election campaign.
Early release of political prisoners has become a significant step to change the situation for better. Although the level of control over the society remained as high as it was earlier, release of political prisoners could facilitate the improvement of the climate of trust in the society and of the election climate. We should point out, during the election we have registered facts of detention of election participants by police, summons of opposition parties’ activists by tax agencies, the department of financial investigation of the State Control, agencies of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and KGB. The peculiarity of this election was the fact that it was carried out on the background of the events that took place in Minsk on July 3rd, 2008, during the official celebration of the Independence Day. A number of state printed and electronic media with their unrestrained position, practically accusing the opposition forces of preparing and committing a terrorist act, did not contribute to calm atmosphere during the election campaign. In conjunction with investigatory measures carried out on the case, many participants of the election process were summoned to police and KGB, interrogated, their finger prints taken, etc. We should point out, often the participants of the election process perceived that as the politically-motivated pressure.
It’s worth pointing out, during the elections the authorities refrained from mass detention actions and preventive arrests of representatives of the opposition parties and movements.
Formation of district election commissions
According to Article 28 of the Election Code, the elections to the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly are prepared by district and precinct election commissions.
According to the Calendar Plan for holding elections to the Chamber of Representatives, approved by the Ruling of the Central Election Commission, representatives to the district commissions took place from June 26th 2008 to July 11th, 2008, inclusive.
The political parties which are members of the United Democratic Forces (UDF) coalition, created a unified list of their representatives nominated to district election commissions. The list was adopted by the Political Council of the UDF on June 8th, 2008. The list consisted of 110 people, and had such well-known public and political figures as Stanislau Shushkevich, Mechyslau Hryb, Alexander Sasnou, Paval Kazlouski, Leu Marholin, and others.
In her turn, CEC chair Lidziya Yarmoshyna stated, the wishes of the United Democratic Forces about including their representatives in district commissions would possibly be taken into account. According to Yarmoshyna, “Lukashenka was positive about including members of political parties into district election commissions. It should be considered however whether these persons have work experience and other accomplishments, including political maturity”.
Joint sessions of Presidiums of oblast executive committees and oblast Councils, and Minsk city executive committee and Minsk city Council, which considered formation of district election commissions, took place on July 14th, 2008.
Those bodies of local self-governance created 110 district election commissions. Entities which are entitled by the law to nominate representatives to district election commissions (citizens, working bodies, non-governmental organizations, and political parties) nominated the total of 1853 candidates to commissions. It’s worth mentioning, the maximal number of district commission members is 1430 persons.
According to the Central Election Commission, among the nominees citizens’ representatives were on the leading position – 39.8%, representatives of non-governmental organizations came second (25.5%), and representatives of political parties (20%) and working bodies (14.7%) were last. The political parties which position themselves as “parties in opposition” nominated 118 people to district election commissions (31.9% of all representatives nominated by political parties). Another 18 individuals were nominated by BPF Adradzhennie NGO. This is 3.8 % of all representatives nominated by non-governmental organizations. This way, the United Democratic Forces nominated the total of 136 people.
The biggest number of political party representatives was nominated by the Communist Party of Belarus – 91 (24.5% of all partisan nominees) and by Belarusian Agrarian Party – 62 (16.7%). The United Civic party nominated 50 people (13.5%), and BPF Party nominated 34 (9.2%).
Among the non-governmental organizations, 109 (23.2%) representatives were nominated by Belarusian republican Youth Union (BRSM); Belaya Rus nominated 94 representatives (19.4%), and the Belarusian Veterans’ Association nominated 71 representatives (15.2%).
This way, 38 representatives of the Belarusian political parties in opposition became members of district election commissions, making up 30% of all their nominees.
This is a significantly higher figure in comparison with the previous parliamentary election in 2004, when only 7% of nominees of the coalition 5+ were included in district commissions. At the same time, the authorities failed to fulfil the minimal demands of the UDF political parties to include one representative in each district election commission.
It’s worth pointing out, the above-mentioned joined sessions of oblast executive committees and oblast Councils were not transparent in the majority of cases. Persons nominated to district commissions, representatives of political parties, NGOs, and independent media were not invited to the sessions. BHC representatives were denied the right to look through the minutes of meetings of work collectives which nominated their representatives to district commissions. In cases where observers and journalists were allowed to attend the sessions of oblast executive committees and oblast Councils, they pointed to formal nature of those sessions: candidacies were not discussed, the session participants just approved the previously composed lists.
Just as during the previous elections, the selection criteria for membership in district commissions remained unclear.
Formation of precinct election commissions
According to the Central Election Commission, 73, 576 people were nominated to 6, 485 precinct election commissions. More than half of the contenders -- 37, 936 – were nominated by citizens through signature collection; work collectives nominated 24, 144 contenders, political parties -- 1, 237, and non-governmental organizations – 10, 259.
Among the political parties the biggest number of contenders was nominated by Party of Communists of Belarus – 425. The United Civic Party nominated 344 contenders, BPF Party – 201, the Communist Party of Belarus – 195, the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) – 70. The Agrarian Party and the Republican Party of Labor and Justice nominated one representative each. This way, representatives of political parties made up 1.7 % of the total number of people nominated to precinct commissions; 84.1% of them are representatives of the parties in opposition.
Among the non-governmental organizations the biggest number of contenders was nominated by the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) -- -2, 518; Belaya Rus nominated 1, 817 contenders, the Belarusian Union of Women – 1, 051, the Belarusian Association of Veterans – 612, the Belarusian Union of Officers – 60, and BPF Adradzhennie – 113.
The entities which are part of the UDF coalition nominated 1, 515 contenders. They nominated contenders both by meetings of organizational structures and through signature collection. Under the UDF decision, the applications for nomination of contenders to precinct election commissions through signature collection indicated their party membership.
The general number of people who became members of precinct election commissions, was 69, 845. 36, 071 out of them were nominated by citizens through signature collection, 21, 869 – by work collectives, 9, 032 – by non-governmental organizations, 2, 712 – by bodies that create commissions, and only 161 represent political parties. 116 representatives of the Communist Party of Belarus (CPB), 3 – of the patriotic Party, 1 – of the Agrarian Party, and 1 – of the Republican Party of Labor and Justice were included in the precinct election commissions. As for the parties in opposition, 29 representatives of the Party of Communists of Belarus (PCB), 7 – of the United Civic Party (UCP), and 4 – of BPF Party became members of precinct election commissions. As for the general number of representatives of all entities that are members of the UDF, only a small part of them were included in precinct commissions: 48 out of 1, 515 nominees, which is 3.1 %. This way, the UDF representatives make up only 0, 07% of the total number of precinct commissions members. That is less than the number of pro-democratic representatives in the precinct commissions during the previous parliamentary election in 2004 (0.2 %).
Formation of precinct election commissions was even less transparent that formation of district election commissions. Sessions of rayon executive committees and rayon administrations (in the cities with rayon division) were often (in most cases) closed for public. Representatives of non-governmental organizations, independent media were not admitted, while nominees to precinct commissions were not invited to the sessions.
Observers were deprived of the opportunity to look through the minutes of the work collectives about nomination of their representatives to precinct election commissions. For example, in Kopyl observers revealed, 29 persons in 8 precinct commissions were included there illegally, because they were not members of those work collectives. This fact was confirmed by prosecutor’s examination. However, even after that the executive committee refused to let the observers look through the nomination documents, and those people continued to work in commissions.
Observers registered the fact that in Yuryeuski precinct of Smaliavichy rayon the elections were held by commission members who are still being checked by the prosecutor’s office for possible falsification of the local election.
Practically all sessions of rayon executive committees and administrations were a formality and were held without real discussion of the contenders nominated to precinct commissions. In fact, during the sessions the committees only formally approved the lists of commission members that had been formed in advance.
The authorities kept the tendency typical for precinct commissions in previous elections: the commissions were formed according to the "company" principle, out of representatives of one work collective, although formal nominations were done in various ways. In addition, as a rule, the person to whom the other commission members are subordinate to, was chosen as a commission chair.
Registration of initiative groups and candidates to the Chamber of Representatives
According to the official election schedule, applications for registration of initiative groups were accepted by 24 June. According to the information of the Central Election Commission, district election commissions received 447 applications for registration of initiative groups.
The candidates on the UDF list submitted 97 applications for initiative group registration. UCP applied for registration of 28 groups, BPF – for 24 groups, PCB – 18 groups, BSDP (H) – 13 groups, and BChD – 4 groups. The shut down Belarusian Party of Women “Nadzeya” applied for registration of 3 groups, and members of Labor Party – submitted documents for 4 initiative groups. We should point out, during the previous election, 635 initiative groups applied for registration. This demonstrates the significant decrease in the number of participants of the election process from the very beginning of the election campaign.
The district election commissions denied registration to 23 groups. Comparing with the parliamentary elections in 2004, we see that in 2004 11.2% of applications were turned down (71 initiative groups), while in 2008 5.1% of the initiative groups did not get registered. The commissions turned down two applications of the UDF candidates. One BPF and one UCP initiative groups were denied registration. This fact indicates significant improvement of the attitude of the district election commissions to opposition contenders.
The very procedure of signature collection has also improved significantly. Monitors practically did not register obstacles, detentions during signature collection, or pressure on members of initiative groups of pro-democratic contenders. Just as during the previous elections, we observed great part of usage of the administrative resource during signature collection for the candidates supported by the authorities, compulsion to sign in support of such candidates, collection of signatures by people who were not members of initiative groups, restriction of access of the opposition initiative groups to workers’ and student dormitories, and to military units.
As a whole we should point out, in the process of signature collection we observed improvement of the situation and more opportunities for initiative group members.
According to the Central Election Commission, 365 persons were nominated as candidates for the Chamber of Representatives and 276 of them were registered as candidates. 119 of them were nominated by collection of signatures, 96 – in a double way (by collection of signatures and by assemblies of working collectives), 20 – by citizens and political parties, 4 – in a triple way (by citizens, parties and working collectives), 11 – by working collectives and 26 – by political parties.
84 potential candidates (23% of the total number of those who were nominated) were denied registration.
The majority of representatives of the United Democratic Forces, nominated in different ways, were registered. 76 out of 98 UDF candidates (77,5% of the total number) were registered. 23 out of 51 representatives of the European Coalition (45%) were registered. Thus, 99 out of 149 persons nominated by pro-democratic forces (66,5%) were registered. At the parliamentary election 2004 only 126 out of 227 representatives of the democratic coalition 5+ (about 55%) were registered.
This time the election commissions registered as candidates 26 out of 29 representatives of the United Civil Party, 16 out of 21 representatives of the Belarusian Popular Front Party, 13 out of 18 representatives of the Party of Communists of Belarus, 13 out of 17 representatives of the Communist Party of Belarus, 11 out of 14 representatives of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), 8 out of 9 representatives of the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus, 3 out of 5 representatives of the Republican Party of Labor and Justice, and one representative of the Agrarian Party.
The election commissions registered 50 out of 56 persons who were nominated by assemblies of parties.
The leaders of the Belarusian Popular Front Party Viktar Ivashkevich and Vincuk Viachorka were not registered as candidates.
58 persons (21% from the total number of the registered candidates) are women, 18 (6,5%) are under 30 years old and 38 (13,8%) are incumbent MPs.
This way the number of unregistered representatives nominated by UDF and the European Coalition was 33.5%. In 2004, 40% of pro-democratic nominees were not registered.
We should point out, the signature collection and registration of initiative groups and candidates was relatively calm, although we have registered cases of pressure on some opposition candidates. For instance, candidate Vital Karatysh was promptly drafted to the Army, while candidate Mekh was fired from work and experienced pressure from the KGB.
According to the law, candidates had an opportunity to appear with the programs on certain tele-and radio channels, to print platforms of the established size in the state newspapers. According to the assessment of media experts, presentations of candidates were broadcasted in a very inconvenient time. Later, in conjunction with the critical remarks of the observers, TV presentations of candidates were broadcasted again under the decision of the Central Election Commission. The determined conditions of publication of candidates’ platforms and their TV and radio presentations, and the size of state campaign funds remain insufficient for serious campaigning.
Some opposition candidates have been put in unequal conditions at placing of their campaign materials. In a number of districts an administrative resource was used in campaigning with printed campaign materials. Pro-governmental candidates had all possibilities to post the election posters in crowded public places: shops, official institutions, and enterprises.
According to observers, in the majority of the regions, decisions of allocation of special places for placing campaign materials, as a rule, did not provide candidates with sufficient possibilities for campaigning. Only one site for placing campaign materials per precinct was allocated, which was obviously not enough. In order to be able to place their campaign materials in shops, enterprises and state institutions, candidates needed to ask for permission of their heads, which also made campaigning a lot more complicated.
In many cases, the decisions to determine conference rooms for meeting with voters were made in such a way that it did not help to create the necessary conditions for organizing such meetings.
State mass media actively informed the voters about activity of certain candidates who occupy certain state positions, practically campaigning for them in a hidden way.
During this election we registered less censorship of the candidates’ campaign materials. However, still some facts of censorship were registered.
Voting and vote counting
The way early voting was implemented was repeatedly criticized by both domestic observers and the international institutions which observe elections.
It was repeatedly pointed out, the authorities, heads of work collectives, educational establishments massively use the dependence of voters (at work or in their studies) in order to force them to vote early.
One can think such a compulsion to early voting has several goals aimed at manipulation of the voting results.
Mass compulsion to participate in early voting provides for an opportunity to secure the turn out of voters.
Forced participation in early voting and imposing secrecy on the number of people who have voted early and the number of voters registered in precincts, allows artificial increasing or decreasing of the number of voters in a given precinct. That makes it possible to correct the turn out figures in concrete precincts and the district in general.
Bearing in mind that keeping of ballot boxes and their sealing are not transparent to observers, the participants of the election process have a suspicion that replacement of ballot papers is carried out in the end of early voting. This is done to completely secure the victory of the pro-governmental candidate. The suspicion is reinforced by the fact that there are practically no representatives of the pro-democratic political parties and NGOs in precinct election commissions.
We should also point out during the previous election, the number of people who participated in early voting was decreasing. During this year elections the Central Election Commission is also trying to understate this figure. However, even the official numbers of the people who voted early this year are higher than in the parliamentary election of 2004. Observers point out, the real figures of people who voted early in Belarus are about 30%. Compulsion to participation in early voting acquired mass nature. Just as during the previous election campaign, the main categories of voters who were forced to vote early were students (especially those living in student dormitories), residents of worker dormitories, and staff of state-run institutions (teachers of schools and other educational establishments) and staff of the military, police, etc. Observers also registered facts of organized early voting in some villages where people were taken to polling stations on buses.
During early voting restriction of the rights of observers in receiving information was registered everywhere. Observers were not informed about the number of voters, of ballot papers received by precinct election commissions, and about the number of people who voted early. Observers did not receive any explanations why that kind of information is kept in secret from them. These facts demonstrate, at this stage of the election the principle of transparency of the election process was violated completely.
- The political election campaign was marked by certain positive changes in comparison with the previous elections: release of political prisoners in the beginning of the election campaign has become a step in reducing the atmosphere of fear in the society; the majority of candidates, including the opposition ones, did not face obstacles in distribution of printed campaign materials; the authorities did not create illegal obstacles to participants of the peaceful protest action carried out by the opposition movements in the evening of September 28th.
- The procedures of formation, and the final composition of district, and especially precinct election commissions, insufficient transparency of candidates’ registration, compulsion to participation in early voting, keeping information in secret from the observers were obviously inconsistent with the standards of the Copenhagen documents of OSCE and the Belarusian legislation. Violations of the rules of vote counting and giving no opportunity to observers to really observe this process do not create grounds for trusting the election results announced by the election commissions.