By Maryia Rohava, Marie Curie Fellow, University of Oslo[i]
The results of the presidential election in Belarus on 11 October did not confound anyone. Some political analysts[i] and international newspapers[ii] pronounced Lukashenka the winner already before the election day, and even prior to the start of early voting. The only aspect that required some patience was the final percentage of votes Lukashenka accumulated. The Belarusian Central Election Commission announced 83.47% of votes in favor of Lukashenka with an overwhelming turnout of 87.21%[iii]. However, the predictability of the electoral results did not reflect political shifts in the Belarusian presidential campaign this year and the fact the Belarusian leadership needed to adapt to new geopolitical conditions and the deteriorating economic situation in the country. The change of the campaign slogan from ‘Stability and Prosperity’ to ‘Independence and Peace’, the release of political prisoners and the acceptance of the opposition in the public space were signs that allowed analytical speculations on what the fifth presidential term might hold. [iv] While we can argue about the direction of anticipated reforms that have to be introduced in Belarus, we also should pay attention to the changing role of Belarusian citizens in this scenario. And, most importantly, we need to foresee how the electoral stability of the Belarusian autocratic leadership changes Belarusian voters and their political behavior.
At the outset, we have to accept that elections do matter in an authoritarian political system. Comparative authoritarian studies indicate that adopting seemingly pro-democratic institutions mitigates risks to potential political threats that could come from within the regime or from political opponents[v]. Autocratic leaders have mastered to manipulate political institutions for their own political gains and used them as an additional leverage to mobilize political elites and citizens.
For Belarus, the electoral success of Lukashenka is unavoidable because of the established system of autocratic rule. Lukashenka’s initial electoral success in 1994 was his main political capital that empowered the incumbent to change the political game in transforming Belarus.[vi] His ability to deliver high results, by whatever means, through a public vote has been the key to stabilize his autocratic rule and establish a strong grip on the elites. If Lukashenka ceased to lose his dominance in the elections, it could send a wrong signal to Lukashenka’s ruling coalition. At the same time, expectations are very high for the established ‘presidential vertical’ to deliver acceptable results or, otherwise, to face political consequences.
How does the Belarusian population fit within this institutional play? The optimal strategy for the Belarusian government is to get voters to polling stations in order to fulfill excessive turnout quotas. Therefore, the government actively mobilizes the population during the early voting period, which was reflected in the relatively high percentage of 36.05% of the participated population who had cast their vote before the election day on 11 October.[vii]
Citizens, however, face the ambiguous choice of three potential strategies of political behavior: to participate and vote in the election, to boycott or avoid participation, or to contest potentially fraudulent results by public protest. The shadow of the events in Ukraine made any form of public protest not a viable option for many. Even the Belarusian opposition abandoned any plans of staging a political protest after the elections. And Karatkevich, the only running oppositional candidate who was not fully endorsed by other oppositional groups, advocated for peaceful transformation in her campaign. A boycott of the elections would have rather unlikely brought about the desired political results. While the regime benefits from the absence of unwilling voters, the oppositional candidate loses from the absence of the opinionated electorate.[viii] Overall, on the fifth attempt, the regime has achieved its goal. The political system successfully mobilizes Lukashenka’s electorate but, at the same time, demobilizes voters with opposing views who are left with no solid strategy and no other option but to withdraw from the political sphere and to refrain from contesting the election results publicly.
Looking at Lukashenka’s electorate McAllister and White have claimed that personal approval of Lukashenka, rather than structural parameters or criteria of economic performance, is the most significant factor explaining electoral support.[ix] It means that the regime can rely on socially diverse and broad public support of the population. Since the regime showed its ability to persist, it has lowered citizens’ expectations for a regime change. Thus, citizens tend to resign from displaying their disapproval in any form and to accept the political status quo. This aspect might not significantly contribute to the authoritarian survival tactics, but it indicates that political changes coming from social protests will not be the case in Belarus in the nearest future. To mobilize the Belarusian population it is necessary to think of new viable political strategies and to develop a political agenda that would resonate with wider segments of the Belarusian population.
This post was originally published in Belarus-Analysen, October, available in German here Rohava, M. (2015). Wählen im autokratischen Belarus: Wie die Bürger das Spiel der Wahl spielen. Belarus-Analysen Nr.23, 19.10.2015, 15-17. Abrufbar unter <http://www.laender-analysen.de/belarus/pdf/BelarusAnalysen23.pdf>
[i] For example, see the analysis of Kulakevich, T 2015, ‘Belarus’s president has scheduled the next election. Has he already won his fifth term?’, Monkey Cage at Washington Post July 15, Available from <https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/07/15/belaruss-president-has-scheduled-the-next-election-has-he-already-won-his-fifth-term/>.
[ii] See Foy, H 2015, ‘Lukashenko re-election assured in Belarus but future is not’, Financial Times 9 October. Available from <http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/296c156e-6e69-11e5-8608-a0853fb4e1fe.html?siteedition=uk#axzz3ocRWwAu0>.
[iii] Preliminary results of the presidential election 2015, Central Election Commission of the Republic of Belarus. Available from < http://www.rec.gov.by/ru/dokumenty> [15 October 2015].
[iv] Jarábik B & Melyantsou D 2015, ‘Same Old, Same Old? Belarus Votes’, Carnegie Moscow Center 12 October. Available from < http://carnegie.ru/eurasiaoutlook/?fa=61593>.
[v] For more insights on the impact of the election on autocratic durability, see de Mesquita B et al 2005, The logic of political survival, MIT Press, Cambridge and Gandhi J 2008, Political institutions under dictatorship, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
[vi] Hale H 2015, Patronal politics: Eurasian regime dynamics in comparative perspective, Cambridge University Press, New York
[vii] Preliminary results of the presidential election 2015, Central Election Commission of the Republic of Belarus.
[viii] ‘Pochemu boikot ne sostoitca?’ [Why won’t the boycott happen?], IISEPS, Available from <http://www.iiseps.org/analitica/843> [15 October 2015].
[ix] McAllister I & White S 2015, ‘Lukashenka and his voters’, East European Politics and Societies and Cultures.
[i] This publication has been produced within the Initial Training Network “Post-Soviet Tensions”. The research leading to these results has received funding from the EU FP7/2007-2013 under grant agreement No. 316825. This publication reflects only the author’s view. The funding body is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.