Belarus will elect a new lower chamber of parliament on September 11 after a campaign largely devoid of opposition activity and with authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko vowing to ensure a smooth transition.
While the republic is weathering a period of high inflation and falling incomes, political forces loyal to the long-term leader sure to dominate the vote as around 520 candidates run for 110 seats at the House of Representatives.
According to local and international observers, campaigning was unremarkable, with traditionally weak opposition and tough government control. “Some contestants expressed very low levels of confidence in the electoral process,” the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) said in an interim report published on August 31.
Participation of political parties remains weak, and despite several attempts to file applications, no new party has been registered since 2000, the ODIHR underlined. The last parliamentary polls in 2012 saw the participation of only five candidates from different parties.
Meanwhile, 2010 presidential candidate and former political prisoner Nikolai Statkevich together with former presidential candidate Vladimir Nekliaev unveiled plans to stage a post-elections rally in Minsk on September 12. The politicians said they will use the event to demand “real elections instead of the election farces staged by the ruling regime”.
However, Lukashenko, who was re-elected in October 2015 for a fifth term, stood his ground about the legitimacy of the process.
“I’m interested in real professionals being elected to the parliament, no matter who they are by their political views,” the president said in late August. Warning against destabilisation of the country, he pledged to “do everything to organise the elections in such a way so that our country remains the same open, friendly, honest and safe place”.
According to the head of the Central Election Commission (CEC), Lidia Yermoshina, some 800 international observers already hold accreditation with the Central Election Commission, with another 1,000 international observers expected to attend, mainly from CIS states. “All this attests that the elections are open and transparent,” Yermoshina said on September 6.
The five-day early voting process started started in Belarus on September 6. Opposition activists and local observers are sceptical about its transparancy, accusing the authorities in Minsk in using early voting for abuse and to engineer victories for pro-government candidates. According to official information, 26% voted early in the 2012 parliamentary election, and 36% in the 2015 presidential election.
On September 8, the CEC reported that almost 10% of voters turned out for the first two days of early voting ahead of the main elections day.
At the same time, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) said on September 7 that it had adopted a new four-year cooperative strategy for Belarus as the republic becomes more open about its politics and civil and human rights record.
Belarus “has engaged in greater international openness and become more willing to discuss domestic political developments, including the human rights situation in the country”, said a statement by the EBRD, which since 1992 has invested around €1.8bn in the republic.
The lender revised its approach to Belarus in April 2011 after the disputed 2010 presidential election and amid continuing rights violations. The policy meant the EBRD focused on developing the private sector and did not give financial or technical support to the central authorities.
Recent positive developments “created a new political context for the bank’s operations in the country and provide an opportunity for enhanced engagement with the Belarusian authorities”, the EBRD said.
The change in stance follows the lifting of most EU sanctions against Belarus in February, which in turn was a response to the government's release of political prisoners before last year's presidential election.