Election campaign: past week in facts and figures
The beginning of the week coincided with the last day of nomination of candidates for deputies of local councils of various levels. Official figures on the number of persons who applied to the territorial and constituency election commissions for registration of their candidacies were made public. Lidzia Yarmoshyna publicly named the scanty rate of nominees from the political parties as the results of the ‘advantages’ given to the parties by the amended electoral law. Against the background of statements by the CEC head on enhancing competition among candidates for deputy seats, the representatives of pro-democratic forces began counting uncontested constituencies in the country.
During the week the authorities in different variations ‘uncovered’ the lists of members of divisional election commissions. Meanwhile, civil activists were looking for explanations as to how one could use already lost three days, during which the law allows to appeal the decisions on the formation of commissions.
Candidates for deputies nominated
In accordance with the schedule of events for preparation and holding of elections, March 15 was the last day of submission of necessary documents for registration of candidates for deputies of local Councils to the corresponding territorial or divisional election commissions. However, as explained to journalists by secretary of the Central Commission Mr. Lazavik, this does not mean that on March 16 election commissions already started to register candidates. The Central Election Commission, he said, recommends that registration of all candidates in the district is carried out simultaneously, so that they could begin campaigning on equal terms.
According to official information, across the country, 21,303 seats in 1,495 local councils of different levels will be claimed by 25,475 people, including almost a half - 44.6% - women, 6,3% - under 30 years, 2,7% - the unemployed, 0.1% - nationals of Russia.
Of the total number of applicants 60% were nominated by collecting of signatures, 35,2% - by labor collectives, 2% - by political parties, 2,8% - took the opportunity be nominated by both means. Official figures show that the ratio between the pro-governmental candidates and representatives of opposition parties constitutes about 50/50. Most candidates were nominated by the Communist Party of Belarus - 207, the Liberal Democratic Party - 61, the Republican Party of Labor and Justice - 18, the Agrarian Party of Belarus - 7, the Belarusian Social and Sports Party - 2, the Republican Party and the Belarusian Patriotic Party – 1 each. The situation in the democratic forces is as follows: the Belarusian Party of the Left “Just World’ nominated 126 candidates, the United Civic Party - 94, the BPF - 35, the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) - 32, Belarusian Party ‘Greens’ - 5, the Belarusian Social Democratic Hramada - 2.
It should be noted that the high popularity of such form of nomination as the collection of signatures has its objective reasons. It is only in this way that representatives of unregistered political parties can be nominated. E.g., the activists of the Party of the BCD, which the authorities refused to legally register, had to be nominated through the collection of signatures. According to co-chair of the organizing committee of the BCD Pavel Seviarynets, potential candidates for deputies include 173 members of the party in 226 constituencies: 48 persons in constituencies for the regional councils, 102 – in the urban constituencies, 55 - in the district constituencies, township constituencies – 3 and rural councils - 18. At the same time, more than 20 potential candidates from the BCD were forced to withdraw from the campaign because of the pressure and repression.
Commenting on the insignificant percentage of party candidates, the CEC noted that the number of nominees from the parties in the current local elections is twice larger than that in the 2003 election. ‘This means that the party appreciated the benefits that they were given by the changes in the electoral law, the simplification - and were nominated in this way’, stressed Mrs. Yarmoshyna, with a visible touch of pathos.
‘Increased competition’ and non-alternative constituencies
As compared with the three previous local councils election campaigns, this year's nominations took a more active pace, says the Central Commission, explaining that ‘the increased competition was due to the increase in applicants who are nominated for the village councils.’ Mrs. Yarmoshyna reported that 1 deputy seat would be claimed by 1,2 potential candidates, and this figure is higher than that of the elections in 1999, 2003 and 2007.
However, official statistics show that as a result of the nomination stage, the competition among candidates in Minsk and other cities is higher than that of the local elections in 2007, but has not reached the level of 2003.
On average, 5.4 candidates were nominated in each electoral constituency of the capital (2007 – 4.3 2003 – 5.5). Activity in the nomination in the remaining councils is at the 2007 level. In particular, competition in the regional councils is 1.8, in the district councils – 1.3, in the city and towns of regional subordination – 2.1, in rural – 1.1.
However, even if all the applicants who applied for registration as candidates are registered, the vast majority of constituencies in the country will still remain non-alternative. So, let us use elementary mathematical calculations: a total of 21,303 constituencies, which are claimed by 25,475 people, this means that a maximum of 4,172 districts will be competitive, and the rest of the voters will only vote for one candidate, without a choice at all.
Passing to more specific ‘regional’ figures, it is obvious that the number of uncontested constituencies in some regions is impressive.
In Vitsebsk region registration applications were filed by 3,820 candidates, with 3,530 seats in the councils. Since each deputy's seat is so far claimed by 1.09 applicants, even before the registration of candidates it can be stated that in at least 90% of the constituencies the elections will be non-alternative.
In Hrodna region observers also concluded that the names of deputies will de facto be known immediately after the registration of candidates. According to official figures, 60 seats in the Regional Council are claimed by only 107 people, i.e. about 10 constituencies will be non-alternative. Only 590 candidates will be running for district councils in 530 constituencies of the region (assuming that all of them will be registered). In practice, this means that in some 470 constituencies elections will be substituted by vote on one candidate. A similar statistics are observed in village constituencies, where 2,087 seats are claimed by only 2,103 candidates.
Elections in Minsk region will also be predominantly non-alternative. Here, in 4,558 candidates were nominated for the local councils of various levels, with 4,256 seats.
In Yelsk district of Homel region, in the 40 constituencies, formed for the elections to the District Council, the same number of applications for registration of candidates was received. In one of the constituencies only one application for the Regional Council was submitted. In 8 rural district councils of Yelsk district, in 95 constituencies for the election of village councils of deputies 96 applications for registration of candidates were submitted.
Considering the changes in the electoral laws and the abolition of the voter turnout threshold, it is clear that the elections will take place. However, they are becoming a formal vote, and the results at the absolute majority of constituencies will de facto become known immediately after the registration of candidates.
Compositions of divisional election commissions ‘declassified’
In the second half of the week, the official newspapers, finally, began to publish decisions of district and city executive committees on the formation of divisional election commissions. However, independent observers reported many variations in the efforts of local officials to save the last ‘state secret’, i.e. the information on the composition of the commissions.
In Barysau a ‘Saturday’ issue of the newspaper ‘Adzinstva’ with the decision by the district executive committee on the formation of the election commissions taken back on 10 March was published only on Tuesday 16 March. Logically, it should have been issued on the 13th. However, all except the date of the publication was consistent with ‘the features’ of the Saturday's issues - the limited edition and distribution only by subscription. The Minskablsayuzdruk newsstands did not sell the issue, unlike the issue with an advertising supplement, which is published on Wednesdays.
Futile was the search for newspapers with the decision of Svetlahorsk district executive committee in the Belsayuzdruk newsstands of the district. Again, it was not because the local state-owned newspaper was rapidly sold out. Observers note that the district commissions were formed on 10 March, and the decision was published in the Svetlahorskiya naviny on Tuesday 16 March. That is, formally - in due time. But because of low public demand for the state-controlled newspaper the issues without a television program are not published on Tuesdays.
According to observers, the editors of the Baranavichy newspaper ‘Nash Krai’ claims that the lists of divisional election commissions members were published in a special issue on 16 March. For three days (from 16 to 18 March), according to the candidate Mikalai Charnavus, he could not find the special issue from any subscribers, or newsstands, or even in the Central Library. Deputy editor and chief ideologist of the state newspaper ‘Nash Krai’ Z. Sarakavik explained that only 600 copies of the newspaper had been printed on 16 March, and on 18 March another 120. This practice, according to Sarakavik, was a custom in Baranavichy: the newspaper publishes a list of divisional election commissions members in a limited number. The representatives of the democratic community of the town were able to find a mysterious special issue only on 19 March - and only at the town’s territorial election commission (stored in a safe), as well as in the editorial office of the newspaper ‘Nash Krai’. Moreover, it turned out that although both special issue were dated March 16, they had certain differences . The version which was stored at the town election commission, mentions only the surnames, names and patronymics of the members of the election commissions, and the one found in the editorial office of ‘Nash Krai’ also names the labour collectives and organizations which nominated the committee members.
The issue of the Hrodna official newspaper ‘Hrodzenskaya prauda’ with information on the compositions of the local divisional election commissions appeared in the stands only on 18 March. Besides, observers noticed that the number of the edition came out with a supplement, which indicated ‘March 17’.
What was so carefully concealed from the public by the authorities? The published lists of divisional election commissions members confirmed the trends of the previous election campaigns.
Firstly, as already reported by the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections, there are practically no representatives of the democratic community on the election commissions.
Secondly, the personal staff of the Commission did not change much since the last elections to the House of Representatives in 2008. The trend is well illustrated by monitoring results from Polatsk district. Divisional commission number 1 in Polatsk: out of 15 members, 11 used to be on the committee during the parliamentary elections. Polling station number 2 - 8 out of 15, the same figures in station number 3. Polling station number 4 – out of 15 members 12 used to work in the commission in the previous elections. The remaining 30 Polatsk polling stations show approximately the same situation - the composition of the commissions did not change much.
Thirdly, the formation of divisional election commissions was carried out on the enterprise principle. Typically, the core of the committee consists of employees of one company, nominated by various ways – by parties, public organizations and unions, as well as by collecting of signatures. For example, the commission of polling station number 1 of Chyhunachny district of Vitsebsk has 19 people, of which 12 are nominated by various departments (shops and offices) of the republican unitary enterprise ‘Vitsebsk Machine-Tool Plant Vistan’, 1 - from the trade union organization of the plant. Other commission members were nominated by either state-owned or pro-government public associations: ‘Belaya Rus’, the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM), the Red Cross, the unions of veterans and women. The only party member in this committee is an activist of the Communist Party of Belarus. This classic principle was applied by the administrations of all the three districts of Vitsebsk. The city also has 15 divisional election commissions at closed polling stations - in hospitals (12) and military units (3). The committees are entirely composed of employees of these agencies and organizations.
Or, for example, in Babruisk, according to information provided by Leninski district authorities, it is obvious that almost every committee was formed from representatives of labor collectives. There is a committee, where for example, all the members are employees of either a maternity home, or a high school, or of a hospital emergency room. Sometimes such ‘working committees’ was diluted with members of public associations such as ‘Belaya Rus’ or BRSM. There were more ‘modest’ instances: the commission is in the school, whose staff is by half composed with its employees and the other half are mysterious people without a profession, nominated ‘by application’. There are also lists, with a secondary school indicated as the center of the commission - it is no secret that such commissions are formed of school staff, accompanied with information that half of the members had been nominated ‘by application’, the other half - from the pro-governmental NGOs or parties.
The uniformity of nominees from public associations may also look strange to people who are not familiar with the peculiarities of the Belarusian electoral system - in almost every committee there is a candidate of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union, the NGO ‘Belaya Rus’, the veterans’ union and the Red Cross. Observers note that, for example, representatives of the Red Cross can be found in more than half of all the commissions of the town of Orsha. Where did the organization, whose goals and objectives have nothing to do with the electoral process, find so many people who want to join electoral commissions? Moreover, the main activities of this very Red Cross have not been heard of for several years. And can those public figures from the ‘Red Cross’ and other humane societies be trained in the field of elections? All these questions are hanging in the air. It is especially absurd that many nominees from the opposition parties were refused to work on the commissions, sue to alleged ‘lack of professionalism’ of their members.
Last week, during the formation of divisional election commissions, an unprecedented case was recorded in the district center of Svislach, Hrodna region. The BSDH Party nominated 4 of its members for the divisional commissions - Mikalai Luksha, Mikhail Kazak, Aliaksandr Palubinski and Dzmitry Buzuk (three more local political activists were nominated by collecting of signatures and by applications). The meeting of the administration of Svislach executive committee on 9 March was attended by a representative of the BSDH Viktar Dzesiatsik. According to him, during the meeting the names of elected commission members were not voiced, but it was officially stated that all the nominees had been elected, except for two individuals who previously had been convicted. In the days that followed the nominees were phoned by the executive committee officials and reported that they had been included in the election commissions. However, the lists of the election commissions members, which was published in the ‘Svislatskaya hazeta’ on 13 March, named none of the 7 BSDH nominees as elected members of the commissions. Independent observers admit the version that this nonsense could happen as a result of the fact that the decision by Svislach administration had been influenced by the regional authorities, or any other state services. As a result, there was ‘an elegant cleansing’ of the local pro-democratic community.
Appeals to courts - futile
Since the decisions of district and city executive committees, local governments on the formation of divisional election commissions were made public later than within three days provided by law for filing complaints in court, not all the parties and citizens managed to appeal the failure to include their representatives in the electoral commissions. Meanwhile, none of those who did lodge a complaint with the court received a court decision in their favor.
Minsk Partyzanski Court ruled in favor of the non-inclusion of the BPF members in the city’s commissions. The court also rejected a proposal by the party about the possibility of extra election of the party activists members of divisional commissions due to their incomplete staffing. On 18 March Hrodna Kastrychnitski Court turned down the collective complaint by five voters of Kupalauskaya constituency #14, lodged after their nominee Aleh Kalinkou was not included on the electoral commission. The claimants also reported the lack of openness of the administration's activities, and demanded the revision of the composition of election commissions. Judge Tatsiana Klimava dismissed the complaint, citing the fact that the complaint had to be signed by all the 10 people who had nominated Aleh Kalinkou for the divisional commission. However, Hrodna human rights defenders point out that Article 34 of the Electoral Code does not require that the appeal should be signed by all the 10 persons. In the same article there is no definition of ‘by all the citizens, who nominated their representative for the commission’, but there are just ‘by the citizens...’
The Belarusian Popular Front ‘Adradzhennie’ Mahiliou office lodged a complaint against failure to include their representatives in electoral commissions and to inform on the date, time and place of the meeting of the administration’s presidium, as well as the organization’s discrimination on political grounds. The party was trying to reverse the decision ofKastrychnitski district administration on the formation of the election commissions and demanded that they were re-formed in the presence of representatives of the organizations that nominated their activists. On 18 March, after two days of hearings, the court refused to meet the claim.
‘To participate’ or ‘not to participate’ - that is the question ...
It has been nearly two months since the election campaign started, accompanied with an ongoing debate among political actors on the appropriateness of engaging in it. Most of the stages are already passed, the conclusions regarding their ‘liberalization’ are made, the registration applications are filed by the candidates, and for many it's time to decide: whether to continue to play the game of the election by the rules of the authorities. Various political actors decide the issue differently.
The BPF gave party candidates an opportunity to decide for themselves on the level of their further participation in the local elections. The decision was taken on 20 March in Minsk at the session of the Party’s Soim.
On 18 March at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Belarusian Party of the Left ‘Just World’, it was stated that in circumstances where there are no free, democratic and transparent elections, the party does not exclude the possibility of changing the format of its participation in them, including a refusal of further participation.
On the last day of the week the UCP clearly defined its position on the issue. On 21 March the Congress of the United Civic Party decided to stop further participation in the local councils elections as a political structure. The party candidates nominated by collecting of signatures will decide independently whether to continue the campaign, but in this case they will have to act as citizens of Belarus, and not as members of the party, said the UCP leaders. ‘Our decision to withdraw from the electoral process is a response to the brutal actions of the authorities against the candidates and election commission members representing opposition parties’, explained the decision of the Party Anatol Liabedzka, the UCP chair. ‘Thus, we intend to retain the right to be able to elect the deputies, rather than watch their appointment. The UCP’s withdrawal from the electoral process as a party is an appeal to other democratic forces to try to change the rules of the electoral system before the presidential election.’
Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections "