“Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”: Privacy of procedures causes distrust of CEC decisions on registration of candidates
Human rights defenders say there are no major developments in the election process due to recent changes in the electoral law, as the campaign reached its halfway point. The selective approach by election officials, criticized by human rights defenders during the formation of election commissions, still prevails at the next stage, the nomination and registration of candidates.
Such conclusions were voiced coordinators of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” during a press conference in Minsk on February 24.
Stressing that the local elections are governed by the amended electoral law, deputy chairman of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” Valiantsin Stefanovich said that independent observers did not see anything new during the preparatory part of the current campaign. “The electoral process is still under the control of the executive branch and we see a selective approach to the opposition both at the stage of formation of election commissions and at the stage of registration of candidates,” said he. Head of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee Aleh Hulak remembered the promising statements of the CEC Chair Lidziya Yarmoshyna, who said election staff should be reshuffled to replace people with the imprint of Soviet elections who keep working in the old way, thus discrediting the electoral system. “But our monitoring does not indicate that there are any new approaches. Moreover, those people whom we constantly label as violators are constantly involved in the work of election commissions, organize the electoral process and in that sense nothing has changed,” said the BHC leader.
Presenting an analytical report on the results of monitoring the nomination and registration of candidates, coordinators voiced their main comments on the stage.
Valiantsin Stefanovich said that during the registration of campaign teams by submitting signature sheets the failure rate was low, but all the bans affected the campaign teams of the opposition parties or alternative candidates. “For example, 22 % of the campaign teams of UCP members’ who were going to be nominated by signature collection were eventually denied registration, the BNF – 20 %. But if we look at the non-party candidates, the figure was 0.1 %,” said Stefanovich. At the same time, the human rights activist said that a major percentage of refusals to register were caused by the nomination of candidates in several constituencies. “The electoral law in this part was changed and one you can be nominated in only one district. But we all remember that the process of making these changes was not public, there was no discussion, and no one saw the bill. The CEC, in our opinion, should have focused on these changes. But if you look at guidelines for district commissions, there is no explanation in this part – that nominees can be registered in only one district. For this reason, Minsk election officials did not register the campaign teams of such political figures as Aliaksei Yanukevich, Anatol Liabedzka, Ales Lahvinets. In Hrodna region, an interesting situation happened to Mikalai Ulasevich: a decision on registration of campaign teams in two constituencies was canceled by the Central Election Commission, he appealed to the Supreme Court, but the claim was dismissed due to lack of jurisdiction by the court,” said Stefanovich. He said that the position of the Supreme Court that decisions of the CEC cannot be appealed to court is contrary to the Constitution, which guarantees the right to appeal against any decision of the authorities.
During the collection of signatures for nomination of candidates the human rights defenders’ main claims related to the inconvenience of allowed places. The observers also reported certain obstacles. “There were registered instances when people in plain clothes filmed pickets, thus putting pressure, including on voters, who might be afraid in such a situation to put signatures for nomination of a candidate,” said Stefanovich.
Speaking of the phase of nomination of candidates, the human rights defender separately noted that, when highlighting the subjects with the right to nominate, the picture clearly shows the specificity of our political system. “Political parties nominated only 3.1 % of all nominated candidates. The largest percentage of nominations was by collecting signatures – 62.4 %, with 30 % — from labor collectives. We have this strange subject of the electoral process, a labor collective, which instead of fulfilling its immediate functions, is involved in the electoral process,” said he. “Participation of political parties in this process remains scanty – 3.1 %. Of the total number of party nominees, most were nominated by the Communist Party of Belarus – 34 %, the Fair World Party – 14 %, the United Civic Party – 13.6 %. In general, the number of candidates nominated by parties is 10 % less than it was during the previous local elections.”
Human rights defenders are still critical of signature verification procedure by the territorial and district election commissions. “Unfortunately, the situation has not changed: one hundred percent of our observers were denied the right to attend signature verification,” said Stefanovich. “That is we cannot assess whether the electoral commissions observed the rules of this procedure, which is very clearly spelled out in the Electoral Code, and whether they used an unbiased approach to the verification of signatures.”
According to the human rights defender, a total secrecy of the key procedure of verification of signatures does not allow to trust the decisions of the CEC on the registration or non-registration of candidates.
The conclusions of observation of registration of candidates were presented by Aleh Hulak, who noted that due to the low activity of potential candidates the human rights defenders based their conclusions primarily on statistics. The main actors in the process of nomination and registration of candidates are labor groups and citizens who nominated their candidates. But the human rights activists believe their role is very strange. “Strangely enough, it turns out with such an activity of citizens in all districts, if we take the national average, we have 1.2 candidates per seat. In the vast majority of districts elections will be uncontested. But there are no vacant constituencies, either, there is at least one person per district nominated by citizens in such a “grass-roots” manner. This causes a strong suspicion that we are witnessing a controlled process, since there is a very small likelihood that candidates could have been distribute in a natural way... The same thing is seen in the registration of candidates, when analyzing the type of their nomination. While the registration of party nominees is not very different, although in favor of pro-government candidates, the situation with nominations by collecting of signatures differs greatly. While the total percentage of candidates registered in this way was 98 %, at the same time, for example, nominees from the unregistered BCD – only 32%, representatives of the Movement “For Freedom” – only 43 %, despite the fact that representatives of these opposition organizations have experience in election campaigns, have experience in paperwork, etc.” said Aleh Hulak.
The BHC leader also said general conclusions by the CEC were rather stunning. “Traditionally, the greatest activity is seen in Minsk. When nominating candidates for the Minsk City Council of Deputies, the competition was 4.7 people per seat, though, for the regional councils – 1.3, and in the rural – 1.1. It is clear that the intensity of the political struggle is higher in the capital, where people are more experienced, both in political processes and in procedures. But when we compare the registration results, we see amazing figures. The percentage of failures in the registration of candidates for the Minsk City Council is 25.6 %, while for the district council – 1.9 %, for rural councils – 0.2 %. How should we understand these figures: it was a purely technical process of checking conformity of the documents submitted for registration of candidates for deputies,” said he. According to the human rights defender, the facts indicate that the most active role in the process is assigned to election commissions, while in reality they should have a purely technical function. And a selective approach in the work of election commission was not in favor of the nominees, which targeted the opposition parties and movements.
An active involvement of labor collectives in the formation of election commissions and the nomination of candidates, according to human rights activists, points to the artificiality of the electoral process, so the CEC and other government agencies should address the situation, which actually means that the election is held by public administrations and NOT by independent electoral structures.
However, Hulak said there were positive changes, recalling the recent decision of the CEC to amend the procedures for nominating observers to polling stations.