Al Jazeera talked to Belarussians ahead of the vote expected to give President Lukashenko another five-year term.
Minsk, Belarus – A radiant morning sun streams through lace curtains and into the kitchen of a Soviet-era housing block on the outskirts of Minsk. Three opposition politicians are gathered around a table in the centre of the room from where they are coordinating a campaign to observe upcoming elections.
For the past three months, this sparsely furnished top-floor apartment has served as the office – and occasionally the living quarters – of a coalition of Belarusian opposition parties, Right to Choose, who will deploy more than a thousand observers and a phone application as part of a campaign to document irregularities on the day of the ballot.
The group’s initial report on this year’s elections was unequivocal. In July, Right to Choose estimated that, “the political and legal environment in Belarus remains unchanged and doesn’t enable the conduct of free, fair and competitive elections that offers equal opportunities for all competing candidates”.
“For our campaign to have confidence in the vote, local and international observers should have complete access to polling stations to oversee the count itself and voter turnout rates,” Dzianis Sadouski, the campaign’s national coordinator and general secretary of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party, told Al Jazeera.
On September 11, Belarus will hold parliamentary elections, the results of which, opposition groups say, are already predetermined by the Belarusian government.
President Alexander Lukashenko’s 22-year tenure as the premiere of Belarus has been marred, not only by perennial accusations of abuses from rights groups at home and abroad, but also of allegations of election fraud.
Following the iron-fisted ruler’s re-election to a fifth term last October, observers for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported that the electoral process, “once again indicated that Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments for democratic elections.”
Measures taken by the country’s Central Elections Committee to liberalise this year’s campaigning and electoral process, which include giving candidates five minutes to appear on state-run television and allowing observers marginally better access at polling stations on election day, have been dismissed by the opposition and analysts alike as cosmetic.
As well as limited access to the vote count itself, opposition groups cite a system of early voting, in which about 30 percent of the population is believed to participate, as among the methods of falsifying the ballots.
Yauheni Preiherman, policy director at the Liberal Club in Minsk, told Al Jazeera that western nations will closely scrutinising September’s elections – the last in Belarus until 2020 when presidential and parliamentary elections will be held together – as a gauge for future relations with Lukashenko.
“The fact that the Central Elections Committee (CEC) has implemented three out of 30 recommendations made by the OSCE following presidential elections last year and claimed there wasn’t time to legally implement others is at least a demonstration of progress and a willingness to maintain a dialogue with the West,” Preiherman told Al Jazeera.
The chairwoman of the CEC Lidia Yermoshina, who in 2006 was banned by western officials from entering the United States or the European Union over allegations of election fraud, responded to accusations on state-run television in August.
“Let us not forget that the opposition, as usual, are preparing for defeat,” she said. “To prepare for this loss, the opposition needs to spoil – to defame – the reputation of those who conduct the election.” Yermoshina added that it was not the electoral system that threatened free and fair elections, but the opposition’s attempts to, “provoke acts of disobedience.”
Despite that Belarusians increasingly blame the government for their struggling economy and that Lukashenko’s approval ratings are historically low, the opposition has largely failed to inspire the public to become active participants in politics.
“Opposition parties are in their weakest state in years,” Preiherman said. “This is a product of Lukashenko and his regime’s strategy, which has been to make sure the opposition is marginalised. And the opposition has so far failed to offer Belarusian society something new that would attract significant public interest and support.”
Following President Lukashenko’s re-election to a fifth term in October last year, opposition groups, which have so far been publicly divided on whether to participate in elections they believe to be unfair, made stunned efforts to unite.
One such effort to unite is the Belarus National Congress, an alliance of eight parties and trade unions fronted by formerly imprisoned 2010 presidential candidate Mikhail Statkevich, an old guard of the opposition.
Although Belarusian appetite for popular protest has been minimal since 2011 when widespread protests were violently repressed, Statkevich has already called for street protests on September 12, after the results are announced.
“There can be no free elections while Lukashenko is in power,” he told Al Jazeera while sitting in his garden recently, “and although taking to the streets is not the most ideal form of protest, it’s the only peaceful option available to us.”
Belarusian political analyst Siarhei Bohdan described the parties in the Congress as politically unsophisticated who have little to offer besides repeating what the electorate already know – that elections and unfair and non-transparent.
“Even though the government doesn’t like to give opposition parties a large stake in national politics, opposition parties have an obligation to find an opportunity to participate. Unless parties can develop a mandate that attract popular support, a coalition isn’t going to gain traction – zero plus zero still equals zero,” he said.
For Tatyana Korotkevich, the young independent parliamentary candidate who ran a high-profile, grassroots campaign in last year’s presidential elections, participating this year is an opportunity to build trust among the electorate.
“Even though our campaign didn’t agree with the official result of last year’s presidential elections, and the central elections committee hasn’t implemented meaningful changes to the electoral system since, it’s improve dialogue in society and promote peaceful change,” she told Al Jazeera in her offices in central Minsk.
“Ours is a long-term strategy for change, a kind of political marathon, which will continue after elections in 2020.”
“If there were a fair vote count, some opposition candidates would likely be elected,” a representative of an international organisation that follows Belarusian politics told Al Jazeera, “particularly in those districts where candidates have been running grassroots civic actions and working with voters between elections.”
For Dzianis Sadouski, who has been arrested by authorities during three previous election periods, political change in Belarus is a long-term prospect.
“If I didn’t believe it were possible to bring democratic change to Belarus, I would leave with my wife and three children to a democratic country in Europe. But I am here, and I believe it is my obligation to help bring that change. The Soviet Union was a powerful country too. It fell in one day.”
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