Election campaign week: events, figures and trends
Last week’s main activities within the election campaign related to the submission of applications for registration of initiative groups to nominate candidates to the appropriate district and territorial commissions. The week was also marked by an active discussion of the decisions of local executive committees on the definition of places where picketing for collecting signatures and campaign events in support of candidates would be prohibited.
Initiative Groups: The submission of applications and registration
In accordance with the timetable, on 14-18 February persons who wanted to be nominated by gathering signatures of citizens could submit applications for registration of their initiative groups and lists of members of the initiative groups to territorial and district electoral commissions. This process was quite active throughout the country, and according to the information voiced by the CEC secretary Mikalai Lazavik, 16 873 such applications were received in total. Among the candidates who decided to collect signatures of voters for nomination, there are many party members, among them: members of the CPB - 111 people, 71 members of the BPF, 60 - United Civic Party, Belarusian Social Democratic Party (H) - 30, 25 members of the Belarusian Agrarian Party, the same number of members of the Party of the Left ‘Just World’ (25), the Green Party and the Belarusian Social Democratic Hramada - 3, 2 members of the LDP and the Belarusian Social Sports Party, each.
Registration of initiative groups was underway for five days after the submission of applications and should be completed by February 23. Once the group receives the relevant documents, it can begin collecting signatures. Depending on the level of the Council, the number of signatures must be different: a candidate to the regional and Minsk City Council must collect 150 signatures, district, city or town (for cities of regional subordination) - 75, the Council of the baseline (village, etc.) - 20 signatures. Over the past week, many of the candidates already received the relevant documents for registration of their action teams and began work with the voters.
In the capital, the applications for registration of initiative groups were filed in all the constituencies. According to observers, all the action teams were registered in Minsk, and no problems during the registration process were recorded. As for specific figures, in Zavodski district (constituencies number 1 - 7) there are 26 registered initiative groups, in Leninski district (constituencies number 8 - 14) - 28, Kastrychnitski district (constituencies number 15 - 20) – 22, Maskouski district (constituencies number 21 - 28) - 28, Frunzenski district (constituencies number 29 - 38) - 58, Tsentralny district (constituencies number 39 - 42) - 21, Savetski district (constituencies number 43 - 47) - 27, Pershamaiski district (constituencies number 48 - 54) – 35, Partyzanski district (constituencies number 55 - 57) - 16. Thus, a total of 261 initiative groups were registered, including 32 members of political parties.
During the week, ‘Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections’ received information regarding this phase of the election campaign recorded in the regions. Information that continues to be receive at the moment, can already help outline quite a definite picture.
In Homel region more than 2 600 initiative groups applied for registration, of which the majority (more than 2 thousand) - in the rural councils. Such activity of the action teams is due to the fact that in the vast majority of the rural areas there are no large companies and organizations – for candidates to be nominated by labor collectives, and not all regions have registered party offices to nominate their members. In Svetlahorsk district, three members of the opposition parties have decided to nominate candidates to the District Council by collecting signatures. Two of them represent the Belarusian Popular Front, another candidate represents the United Civic Party. Members of the party ‘Just World’, which also functions in the region, have not filed any applications for registration of initiative groups - they are going to be nominated by the party’s central office. In Zhlobin district, 13 initiative groups of pro-democratic parties filed applications for registration: 9 applications for nomination to the District Council and 4 applications for nomination for Homel regional council. Nine action teams intend to nominate candidates representing the party ‘Just World’ (7 in the district and 2 in the regional councils), and four action teams will be collecting signatures for nomination of representatives of the UCP: two candidates in the district and regional councils each. All of them are nominated in different constituencies.
In Vitsebsk region applications for registration of initiative groups were filed by representatives of such opposition parties, as the BNF, the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), the United Civil Party, the Belarusian Party of the Left ‘Just World’, and several activists of the movement ‘For Freedom’. Vistebsk activists of the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy Party also showed significant activity. Thus, the Christian Democrats of Vitsebsk region submitted 46 applications for registration of initiative groups to village, township, district, municipal and regional electoral commissions, of which 17 are in the regional center. At the same time 8 activists are nominated for regional and district (municipal) councils of deputies.
In Salihorsk district the local electoral commission received 36 applications for registration of initiative groups by collecting of signatures. Among them, there are four independent candidates - brothers Viktar and Aliaksandr Yaumenenka, Aliaksei Varabiou and Valery Scherbich. The opposition party ‘Just World’ is going to nominate candidates from its local offices. It is expected that a significant part of the 40 constituencies in Salihorsk district will remain non-alternative.
In Baranavichy 44 candidates filed their applications for registration of initiative groups to the local territorial electoral commission. The greatest activity of the opposition parties was demonstrated by members of the unregistered BCD - they have 4 applicants. Two candidates represent the party Just World’: Viktar Tsiapin and Aliaksandr Halkevich; one candidate – the BPF - entrepreneur Viktar Meziak. Applications for registration of their initiative groups were submitted by former candidates for the House of Representatives – a UCP member, businessman and Ryhor Hryk, member of the movement ‘For Freedom’. Mr. Hryk also applied for the registration of initiative groups for the elections to Brest region Council of Deputies to the election commission in Baranavichy East constituency number 17, and Mikalai Charnavus - to Baranavichy West constituency number 21. All the action groups were registered.
All the action groups of applicants who intend to run in Mazyr District Council by filing a collection of signatures were registered. In Mazyr district the local commission received 24 applications for registration of initiative groups, among them one is the initiative group of the members of the BPF, the United Civil Party, the Movement ‘For Freedom’ each, the initiative group of Franak Viachorka was also registered in Mazyr’s Stantsyonnaya constituency number 25.
But not everywhere the registration of action teams was successful, and cases of failures were also recorded. On February 19, the election commission of Mazurauskaya constituency number 19 refused to register an initiative group of the Homel region coordinator of the Movement ‘For Freedom’ Piotr Kuzniatsou. The reason for refusal was the fact that the action team included 21 people at a time when the Electoral Code of Belarus in this case permits the number of 3 to 10 people. Mr. Kuzniatsou did not agree with the decision of the district commission and said he would appeal it at the CEC. He recalled that the CEC Chair Lidzia Yarmoshyna explained that the refusing registration of initiative group cannot be reasoned by the exceeding number of members of the initiative group, it cannot be denied registration only if the group size is less than 3 people. Kuzniatsou noted that a similar situation during the election had already occurred to a candidate to Homel City Council, when the number of his initiative group was 17 people. The group was registered, simply reducing the number of members of the initiative group.
In Kalinkavichy the initiative group for nominating coordinator of the BCD Homel region office Tamara Zaitsava was not registered. The woman was to run for the District Council in Sasnovaya constituency number 14, but the applicant made a mistake, by writing number 12 instead of number 12. On these grounds she was denied registration of her initiative group. ‘I filed an application for registration on February 16. And I several times requested the commission members to verify the accuracy of information – so that there would be no petty, but actual mistakes. They have not done that, and then placed me before an accomplished fact that my group had not been registered. Such decision will of course be appealed at Homel regional election commission’, - stated Mrs. Zaitsava. However, her initiative group for collecting signatures for her nomination for Homel regional council of deputies was registered. According to coordinator for the creation of the BCD Homel office Kanstantsin Zhukouski, 8 members of unregistered parties who are going to run for Homel regional council were granted registration of their action teams (7 people in the constituencies of Homel and one in the town of Vetka).
The pressure on candidates and members of initiative groups
According to the information received during the registration of initiative groups of future candidates, the process failed to go smoothly in the regions. Observers recorded facts of dismissals from work of people who wished to run for local councils, ‘brainwashing’ of members of initiative groups by local executive authorities. As a result, some people refused to work in the action groups of future candidates, which became a formal reason for refusals to register the groups in election commissions.
Specifically, a massive pressure on the democratic activists, participating in the election campaign, was recorded in Hrodna region. According to the activist of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) Aleh Ramashkevich of the town of Vilaikaya Berastavitsa, a member of the initiative group Yauhen Siankevich was forced to leave the group. The brainwashing of the pensioner Siankevich was performed by deputy chair of Berastavitsa executive committee, who is also chairman of the territorial election commission, Siarhei Chykunou. However, the activist was not swayed by the official’s reasoning.
Astravets regional territorial election commission refused to register the initiative group of the UCPB regional office activist Ivan Kruk, because a few people ‘refused’ to join it. As it turned out, such a decision had been made under pressure from the commission members and local executive officials Ziamnitski and Valeika TN.
In the town of Slonim, according to head of the district branch of the BPF Ivan Sheha, unknown persons had repeatedly phoned local civil activists, presenting themselves as members of the election commission, and threatened the activists with dismissals, thus forcing them to refuse to participate in the electoral campaign.
In the town of Krupki, Minsk region, the local activist Siarhei Kletny was unexpectedly visited by deputy chairs of the executive committee Uladzimir Zahorski and Mikalai Bury. After a conversation with them, Mr. Kletny informed a UCPB member Hanna Bandarenka that he would not be able to work on the initiative group for nomination of the party’s candidate for the local district council. Baranavichy member of the Belarusian Christian Democracy organizing committee Aliaksandr Kabiak was fired from his job the next day after he applied for registration of his initiative group.
A massive wave of pressure on the Christian Democrats across the country was reported by the leaders of the Belarusian Christian Democracy during a press conference on 18 February in Minsk. Some three hundred BCD representatives were expected to be nominated, but just within a few weeks, their number decreased significantly after intimidation and threats by the authorities. Quiet unseen pressure, when people are afraid of losing their jobs, has been underway across the country. The same measures of pressure were applied to students who were threatened with expulsions from schools for participating in the election campaign, e.g. when a 20-year-old party activist Anastasia Sotnikava visited Orsha town election commission to receive certificates for members of her initiative group, members of the commission tried to dissuade her from participating in elections. The girl was reproached with not being a member of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union, that she was manipulated by the adult opposition, and that she was running for the sake of money. There were threats that she would not be able to get employed, after graduation from Mechanics and Technology College, where she is currently studying in her last year.
Pickets in crowded places are prohibited
The determination of places prohibited for holding of pickets for collecting voters’ signatures for nomination of candidates for deputies of local councils is another innovation by the Electoral Code. And, as the practice of the implementation of the rule of law by local authorities showed, the candidates have been so far unable to arrange efficient work with the voters.
In different regions of the country decrees defining the list of places prohibited for picketing have different names, but in their meaning, they are almost indistinguishable. Under the ban appeared all the most populous places in every town. The list includes organizations and companies that maintain most vital municipal services (railway and bus stations, public transport, companies of water, heat and power supply, hospitals, clinics, kindergartens, libraries, educational institutions, institutions of trade and communication). As a rule, one cannot collect signatures at a distance of less than 50 meters from the buildings of representative, executive and administrative bodies, courts, prosecutors’ offices, local newspapers and TV companies.
Moreover, the lists of these restrictions are normally supplied with the phrase ‘including the adjacent territory.’ The executive committees do not specify how far these ‘adjacent territories’ stretch, which leaves room for ambiguity. A bold full stop of such lists is the point, which prohibits ‘the places where as a result of the collection of signatures there could be obstacles to traffic and pedestrians.’
As observers note, all of the most crowded places thus fell under the ban. For example, in Brest these are the central streets Lenin St., Savetskaya St., Gogol St., Mickiewicz St., Maskouskaya St. (from Kobryn railway bridge to the store Astor-West), Masherau Ave., Boulevards of Cosmonauts and Shevchenko, Liberty Square, Lenin Square, Ikonnikau Square, the territory of the memorial complex Brest Fortress-Hero. In Mahiliou these are first of all the three central squares of the city: Lenin Square, Ordzhonikidze Square, and Savetskaya Square. In Salihorsk district the authorities banned the most popular locations - the central squares of Salihorsk, Starobin and Krasnaya Slabada, ‘The Four Elements’ park in the district center. A similar situation can be observed in other major cities and towns, as well as in the capital.
According to Siarhei Alfer, specialist in electoral law and member of Minsk city election commission, the compliance of this innovation with the electoral law and common sense in general is a matter of discussion. ‘In Minsk, it will not specifically impede the collection of signatures, but as far as the regions are concerned, this approach creates some difficulties. The determination of prohibited picketing places will reduce the activity of the population, or even drive this activity to zero’, the expert believes. ‘In fcat, this is a violation of the rights of candidates to communicate with the citizens. Previously, it was possible to collect signatures of voters in virtually any location, if it did not interfere with other people. Now the candidates are severely limited in their opportunities, and this clearly illustrates the degree of ‘democratic’ sentiments by the Belarusian authorities.’
Representatives of the democratic opposition from the regions support the expert’s opinion. ‘Before, we would choose the places ourselves, and, of course, chose the crowded areas to collect signatures. Today, can one try, for example, find a place that would not be too close to administrations, enterprises or schools? It is difficult. The pro-governmental candidates will be nominated by the labor collectives, so the poor conditions of picketing will primarily affect the pro-democratic candidates’, said chairman of the UCPB Homel regional office Vasil Paliakou.
Candidates are expected to campaign in deserted places
In accordance with the timetable, the local executive and administrative authorities, in consultation with the relevant territorial and district election commissions, no later than by 16 March will have to determine the places for campaigning for candidates for deputies of local councils.
This week, in some regions there have already appeared decisions by local authorities with the enumeration of such places, which immediately provoked much criticism from both the candidates and by independent observers, who began appealing these decisions.
E.g., a Baranovichi TBM observer on the town election commission, human rights activist Siarhei Housha lodged a complaint with the prosecutor of Baranavichy Palyka. Campaigning in the town is only allowed in the 50th Komsomol anniversary old park. Siarhei Housha claims that the named location is fully covered with snow. There are no sites in the park where people could stand and campaign for their candidates, it is absolutely deserted, which is well-known to Baranavichy town council. Siarhei Housha argues that such conditions violate the civil rights of the town’s residents, both the candidates and the voters.
As we can see, the situation resembles that with the officials’ decision on the determination of locations for pickets for collecting signatures for nomination of candidates.
Constituency ‘shaping’ - in violation of the law
In some towns and villages some of the applicants for candidates are still puzzled with the question ‘Where to apply for nomination?’ The situation of uncertainty is caused by the fact that, firstly, during the formation of constituencies a lot of violations were made, and, secondly, local newspapers have been slow to report on changes in the boundaries of their constituencies and the number of voters.
In Mahiliou, there were many inaccuracies in the descriptions of constituencies printed in the newspaper ‘Mahiliouskaya Hazeta’. A potential candidate in the local council of deputies, chair of the city’s Lenin district office of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) Andrei Dzvihun had to file a complaint with the city election commission. The limits of the constituency, where he was going to run, until recently remained unknown: no information about the settlements belonging to the limits of the constituency, and those that remain outside of these boundaries.
Another common violation is linked to the non-legal requirements regarding the number of voters in the constituency. Article 15 of the Electoral Code states: ‘The deviation of the number of voters in the constituency during the elections of members of the local council of deputies, as a rule, can not exceed 10% of the average number of voters who reside within the electoral constituency.’
More than a dozen counties from 34 in Barysau district have deviations from the statutory rules. Deviation in the number of voters of more than 10% of the average number was registered in constituencies number 1, 6, 7, 9, 10, 13, 14, 22, 23, 26 and 33. And in some constituencies these deviations are very significant. For example, in constituency number 1 the number of voters is less than the average by more than 20%. And, for example, in Vitebsk only one of the twenty-one constituencies – Beshanskovichy constituency – was ‘shaped’ without violating the law.
Article 13 of the Electoral Code guarantees transparency in the preparation and conduct of elections. One way to ensure transparency is defined as ‘informing the citizens’, but in many regions, local state-owned media and official web-sites of the executive committees have been slow in this direction.
For example, in Homel region the website of the executive committee failed to post information about the elections to village councils. The official web-site of Rahachou district executive committee provides only a reference to the decree on announcing the elections and a plan for their implementation, but the page ‘News of the Campaign’, which should have contained the decisions of local authorities and the district election commission and is thus far more significant, is just empty.
The web-sites of Mahiliou region district executive committees pay more attention to local elections. Some of them provide information on the formation of regional commissions, as well as their composition (Slauharad, Bialynichy, Kirau, Kruhlaye, Mstsislau, Cherykau, Shklou and Asipovichy), others are absolutely empty (Babruisk, Kastsiukovichy), and some simply inform about the locations electoral commissions (Bykhau, Hlusk, Horki, Drybin, Klichau, Krasnapolle, Krychau, Khotsimsk, Chausy, Mahiliou and Klimavichy). And, finally, some of the of executive committees’ web-sites sometimes provide but for a few lines on the elections.
According to observers, the situation looks more optimistic in Vitsebsk region. Here the authorities have more informative official web-sites (21 district sites, 4 municipal sites and 1 regional executive committee’s site). Each site has a section or a banner with the title ‘Elections to Local Councils of Deputies.’ The site of Vitsebsk regional executive committee provides a regularly updated schedule of events on preparation and holding of the elections. The site also represents statistical information in the form of a table. However, the information has many inaccuracies and errors, although, as observers note, these deficiencies are quickly identified and corrected. They even note a slight wave of democracy, not peculiar to the local state-run media.
While evaluating the role of the past experience in covering of electoral campaigns, chair of the Central Commission Lidzia Yarmoshyna said that ‘the state media have the right to criticize the opposition candidates during the elections.’ However, she forgot to add that the same criticism can be voiced against candidates from the authorities to ensure the democratic approach and give all an equal footing. Commenting on Yarmoshyna’s remarks, the famous political analyst Viktar Charnou said, that she should not have made statements about the work of the press, because their expression can be perceived and treated as an order to act. ‘Journalist can have their points of view and express them in the press, but this does not mean that one needs to convert the press into a platform for ripping opponents. In the present political situation in Belarus the state-run media are in opposition to the opposition candidates, and this is simply ridiculous’, said Viktar Charnou. The state media should theoretically be neutral with respect to the government, and to provide equal conditions for all politicians. Nevertheless, the Belarusian state-run media are a real mouthpiece of the authorities and dictate terms on their pages, the analyst believes.
‘Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections’