NGOs, PARTIES, MPs DISCUSS ELECTION LEGISLATION
Central Election Commission refused to take part in the international conference on international standards of democratic elections and Belarusian election legislation. According to Ales Bialatski, chairperson of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", which organized the conference, it is the matter of concern that CEC demonstrates stubborn resistance to public dialogue with representatives of non-governmental organizations and political parties. Moreover, this is happening in the beginning of the election campaign.
On the other hand, in order to improve its work and the election process, CEC should be the party, interested in the feedback from NGOs and political parties. CEC needs such feedback in order not to make any mistakes. “We are alerted by the fact that CEC fear such contacts. That is why we would like to establish closer contacts. The problems, which were discussed on our conference, should have been very interested also for CEC members. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to develop cooperation of such kind”, says Ales Bialatski.
However, non-governmental organizations are not going to retreat. They plan to continue to observe the election process. The results of the observation will make it possible to evaluate the local elections and say, if they were democratic, transparent, open and fair.
“The time has passed, when one could hold an election without any public response and resonance. Our executive power and Central Election Commission shouldn’t hope that non-governmental organizations would fold their hands and keep silent if they see numerous violations. Certainly, we are going to speak out. We are really interested in having as few violations as possible”, says Ales Bialatski.
Mechyslaw Hryb, co-chairperson of the “Independent Monitoring” network, calls on all conscious citizens of Belarus to take part in observation of the local election. However, they don’t plan to organize an observation campaign, similar to the campaign, which took place in 2000 and 2001. NGOs will observe elections only in selected towns, paying special attention to the constituencies with the highest prior record of violations. Local elections to deputies’ councils have high political importance, however, there is no possibility to financially support the observation campaign. Members of non-governmental organizations will carry out observation on a voluntary basis.
Participants of the international conference on international standards of democratic elections and Belarusian election legislation addressed citizens, election commissions and representatives of executive bodies with an appeal. The document establishes the criteria for assessing openness and transparency of the local elections, basing on the current legislation. The Appeal points out, the elections will not be seen as open and transparent if the criteria are not satisfied. "Failure to meet the criteria will mean high probability of the election to have been rigged and falsified".
Co-chairperson of "Independent Monitoring" Mechyslaw Hryb participated in drafting the Resolution and the Appeal, passed at the Conference. He says, they concentrated on such issues as the procedure of forming election commissions of all levels, from Central Election Commission to election commissions at polling stations; and the work of election observers. The drafters proceeded from their experience of election observation in 2000 and 2001. "We pursue only one aim. If election commissions and representatives of the executive power take these criteria into account, the local elections will be conducted in a more open manner, as far as it is possible under current legislation. This will be the ground for the international community in its evaluation of the election", notes Mechyslaw Hryb.
Visa Problems Again
Two international experts, invited to the conference on international standards of democratic elections and Belarusian election legislation, did not manage to receive entry visas.
Andrian Moraru, a representative of the Public Policy Institute, Romania, was surprised to learn, that his name was on the black list in the Belarusian Embassy. That is how the Belarusian authorities demonstrated their gratitude to Mr. Moraru, who had been a member of ODIHR OSCE mission, which observed the presidential elections in 2001.
Belarusian authorities also denied entry visa to Robert Bach, expert from Czech Republic. He was recommended to participate in the conference by the well-known Czech organization "People in Need". Robert Bach was a member of OSCE missions in election observation to many countries. After procrastination in processing his application, the Belarusian Embassy in Prague informed Mr. Bach that they would not be able to issue visa in time.
Obviously, the Belarusian authorities continue to use their earlier tactics toward the OSCE experts in election observation: fair observers and experts face groundless obstacles to enter the territory of the country.
However, Kare Vollan, representative of Norwegian Helsinki Committee, managed to take part in the Conference. Kare Vollan was the head of OSCE mission in election observation to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Maldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia, and Ukraine. He expressed his high opinion about the conference and noted, that Belarusian human rights activists do a lot in working out the rules of the fair game.
Belarusian experts, participating in the conference, stated that the current Belarusian election legislation does not meet the international standards. Foreign discussion participants were also quite critical toward the current norms. Kare Vollan thinks, the current election legislation gives many possibilities for interpretation. Belarusian official bodies have much space to interpret the law, to favor or disfavor the subjects of the political process; manipulating the law, they can even exclude the candidates from the lists.
International norms provide that elections should be general, universal, equal, free, secret, direct and be conducted systematically. The election process should meet the fundamental human rights; there should be stability and control over elections; the election process should be predictable, changes shouldn't be made at the last moment, and procedure regulations are needed. According to Kare Vollan, Belarus has problems with the two last requirements.
"Management of the election process has two aspects: distribution of responsibilities between executive bodies and election commissions; and forming election commissions. OSCE remarked, though the law provides for broad rights of various organizations to nominate people for membership in election commissions; but in reality commission members are appointed by the President and local authorities. Belarus needs a more detailed legislation which would be able to secure the interests of all subjects. There are different ways to regulate this process, -- noted Kare Vollan in his speech, -- according to the international standards, political parties should enjoy broad representation in election commissions. There are also numerous problems in the field of candidate nomination. It is strange to read about various documents, required from the candidates for membership in election commissions. These regulations seem to be directed at only one thing – to make people make mistakes. For instance, parties, which nominate candidates at the local level, have to have a registered local party organization. This requirement can be considered only as a limitation of the rights of political parties".
Mr. Vollan focused also on other aspects, such as nomination of candidates by working collectives, mass media coverage of election campaign, campaign funding, early election, and vote tabulation. In his opinion, Belarus has unique methods of conducting an election campaign, which do not exist in the civilized world.
"Generally, Belarusian election legislation provides the authorities with great possibilities for influencing nomination of candidates for membership in election commissions, dismissing members of election commissions, there is a very broad interpretation of libel and wrong information during the election campaign; -- said Kare Vollan. -- Nomination of candidates requires a big number of application papers, there is a possibility to issue last-minute decrees. It is quite clear that election legislation will not be changed immediately. However, people need to show their good will to amend the legislation and have open and fair elections. It is necessary to reduce the legislation elements, which limit the subjects of the election process, and to secure transparency and fairness of election".
The Norwegian expert also focused on the issue of funding the election campaign. In his opinion, if additional private funding of candidates is prohibited, an election campaign just turns into a big show, organized by the state, making all candidates dependent on the authorities. In such case it is impossible to have free and fair elections.
All candidates should have equal access to state-owned mass media. It is necessary to think about the presentation of the news during the campaign. State-owned mass media, especially radio and television, should fairly distribute the coverage time. According to Mr. Vollan, election campaign covers not only speeches of candidates, but also the whole political life of the country during this period.
Istvan Koszegi, representative of the Association of Central and Eastern European Election Organizers (ACEEEO), addressed the conference participants during the plenary session. Mr. Koszegi observed the presidential election in Belarus in 2001. He underlined, that free election is a necessary element in democracy. Free elections are also a requirement for membership in the Council of Europe.
ACEEEO published its report on observation of the presidential election in 2001. ACEEEO report contained a series of recommendations, concerning presidential decrees, composition of local election commissions, creating real conditions for open, public, and transparent work of election commissions at all levels, etc. Mr. Koszegi pointed out, that OSCE experts highlighted the necessity to make elections transparent, and to stop persecution of opposition members and opposition newspapers.
" Association of Central and Eastern European Election Organizers, both independently and in cooperation with OSCE and other European and international organizations, is ready to render technical assistance to plenipotentiary bodies of the Republic of Belarus in improving the National election legislation, -- stated Istvan Koszegi in his speech. – I am sure, that people, who work in this sphere and love their country, should be the engineers of freedom and full democracy in Belarus".
Deputy chairperson of Belarusian Helsinki Committee Harry Pahaniaila pointed at the undemocratic nature of Belarusian election legislation, which is not able to raise barriers to the use of the administrative resource. He thinks, experts should prepare the amendments to the Election Code, and the members of the House of Representatives should propose them for consideration. The public should exert pressure on the parliament to make it include the issue into their agenda. It is necessary to plan actions to lobbying this process through the parliament, otherwise democratic candidates would never be able to break through the barrier, created by the authorities.
Members of the House of Representatives Ivan Pashkevich and Valery Fralow took an active part in the conference on international standards of democratic elections and Belarusian election legislation. Pashkevich and Fralow expressed their readiness to cooperate with non-governmental organizations.
Ivan Pashkevich called on political parties to participate in elections of any level, primarily for the reason that the parliament tribune is currently the only legitimate tribune in Belarus. President Alexander Lukashenka called the local elections the general rehearsal before the parliamentary ones. "Under this slogan the authorities do not mean your general rehearsal; they are talking about the bodies, controlling the elections, -- pointed out Pashkevich. – Local councils are the most decorative power branch. A deputy of this level deals with such issues as road fixing, installation of telephones, removal of garbage, etc. However, it is absolutely necessary to take part in the local elections, because they are the general rehearsal".
Ivan Pashkevich supported the common view on the election legislation and called it imperfect. According to Pashkevich, voting should be organized only on the Election Day, and the practice of early voting should be cancelled. "I am sure that during the general rehearsal voting will take place before the official date of the election", -- underlined Ivan Pashkevich. He called on non-governmental organizations to conduct independent observation of the course of the election campaign.
"The law should contain measures on preventing the government bodies from interference into the work of election commissions. It is necessary to warn the officials about the responsibility, provided by Art. 191 and 192 of the Criminal Code for illegal interference into election process. If such changes are not achieved, we can well have no elections at all, -- thinks Ivan Pashkevich. – We also need a separate provision about mass media, which should be regulated exclusively by the Constitution and the Election Code: illegal requirements about mass media are not subject for execution and should be stopped by prosecutors".
The group of the deputies of the House of Representatives expressed its readiness to render assistance to certain candidates, who run in the local elections.