Human Rights center “Viasna” and Belarusian Helsinki Committee are both, as is Norwegian Helsinki Committee, members of the European Platform for Democratic Elections, EPDE.
This year’s parliamentary elections were called against the backdrop of a complicated geopolitical situation in the world and Europe, in particular, which is primarily due to the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. Despite the fact that the vote was accompanied by unfavorable trends in social and economic spheres, the campaign took place against a more favorable internal political background as compared to earlier elections.
It should be noted that the Belarusian authorities have not abandoned the repressive practices against their political opponents: peaceful protesters are still subjected to administrative liability, other civil and political rights are restricted, the country has new political prisoners. The Belarusian authorities have not made any measures aimed at systemic and qualitative changes in the field of human rights, especially at the legislative level.
The elections were marked by a number of positive trends: absence of significant constraints on the part of the authorities in the collection of signatures for nominating candidates and conducting campaign activities, a small percentage of refusals to register nominations groups and candidates.
However, the Belarusian authorities did not take into account the recommendations of the OSCE ODIHR and the campaign Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections, which were developed on the basis of observation of earlier campaigns, while the few, but widely announced changes were obviously unable to contribute to a qualitative change in the nature of the elections towards greater democracy and transparency.
The elections did not meet a number of key international standards for democratic and free elections, as well as the country’s electoral legislation. First of all, the findings are due to the lack of equal access to state media for all candidates, lack of impartiality of election commissions, facts of abuse of administrative resources in favor of the pro-government candidates, numerous facts of forcing voters to participate in early voting, non-transparency of some election procedures for observers.
Traditionally, greatest criticism is caused by the opaque vote count procedures, which gives rise to serious doubts about the conformity of the results of this calculation to the actual will of the voters.
– formation of the TECs and the DECs took place against the backdrop of widely announced new approaches to selection procedures: the possibility of observers (including international ones) to attend the meetings of bodies in charge of forming election commissions, discussing business and political qualities of the nominated candidates, and a separate vote for each nominee;
– these approaches were often applied in the formation of the TECs and the DECs, however, most PECs were formed as a result of approving lists of candidates, without presenting and discussing the nominees;
– the absence of legislatively fixed criteria for selecting candidates to election commissions still results in a highly partial approach to the personal composition of these commissions; the CEC’s Decree No. 18 has failed to contribute to greater political pluralism: as in the earlier elections, the formation of the PECs was based on a bias in favor of representatives of the pro-government political parties and public associations;
– the proportion of representatives of political parties on the TECs, DECs and PECs remains extremely low (24.2%, 13.6% and 5.2%, respectively), as compared to the representation of public associations (51%, 54.3% and 44.1%, respectively);
– as before, the main administrators of the elections are representatives of the five largest pro-government associations — Belaya Rus, Belarusian Republican Youth Union, the Belarusian Women’s Union, the Belarusian Public Association of Veterans, and the Belarusian Federation of Trade Unions. The total percentage of their representatives in the composition of the TECs and DECs is 40% and 42.3%, respectively;
– the formation of the election commissions was still based on a discriminatory approach towards the representatives of the opposition parties: the percentage of their admission to the commissions is traditionally low: 31.2% of the total number of candidates nominated to the TEC, 19.4% — to the DECs and 10.3% — to the PECs; the overall percentage of their representation in the composition of the TECs, DECs and PECs is insignificant (5.4%, 1.8% and 0.08%, respectively); during the parliamentary elections of 2012, the proportion of representatives of opposition parties in the composition of the DECs was 3%, in the elections of 2008 — 2.2%; the PECs had even less members of the opposition parties: 0.01% in the elections of 2012 and 0.07% in the elections of 2008;
– a small number of representatives of political parties in the composition of the commissions reflects the specifics of the Belarusian political model, in which the main political actors in the election campaigns are the representatives of the pro-governmental public organizations and labor collectives.
Nomination and registration of candidates
– the nomination and registration of candidates were not marked by any major differences from the previous parliamentary election campaigns, the collection of signatures was held in a calm atmosphere and without significant obstacles to the nomination groups;
– there were some facts of abusing administrative resources in favor of the pro-government candidates, pressure on members of the opposition candidates’ nomination groups;
– in a number of DECs (27%), verification of signatures submitted for the nomination of candidates was sufficiently transparent, the observers were able to monitor the process, including the procedure of selecting signatures for verification; the observers regard this as a positive practice. A negative factor of this year’s elections is that in the majority of the DECs (73%), as before, the observers of the campaign Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections were denied the right to observe the signature verification procedure;
– the current election campaign was marked by a larger number of nominations as compared to previous campaigns (365 in 2008, 464 in 2012, 630 in 2016) and fewer refusals to register the candidates (23% in 2008, 24.7% in 2012, 14.8% in 2016).
– the election campaign did not become a significant social and political phenomenon in the Belarusian society and failed to attract much public attention;
– in most regions, decisions of local authorities regarding the places for authorized campaigning activities and campaign advertising were improved as compared to the elections of 2012 and 2015; some regions preserved the negative practices of earlier campaigns;
– the candidates were not provided with equal rights; pro-government candidates enjoyed better conditions for campaigning: they made extensive use of the administrative resources, including electronic and print media; there were cases of pro-government candidates’ meetings with voters during working hours, reporting inaccurate or false information about the schedule of meetings on the websites of local governments;
– there were instances of censorship of candidates’ speeches and platforms, as well as obstacles in the publication of campaign materials (unauthorized editing etc.), although the current legislation does not provide for approving electoral texts by printing companies and does not impose such duties on the candidates themselves; there were facts of discrediting the opposition and independent candidates.
– 31.29% of voters took part in early voting, which exceeds voter turnout of the previous parliamentary elections in 2012 (25.9%); in fact, early voting has become commonplace, despite the fact that it does not comply with the Electoral Code;
– the observers reported numerous cases of coercion of citizens to participate in early voting. The illegal measures were practiced by the administrations of government-owned enterprises and universities (at up to 18% of the polling stations). The trend repeated the negative practices of previous election campaigns;
– the official data on voter turnout significantly exceeded the calculations of the campaign’s observers. These violations were documented throughout the five days of early voting; the total percentage of discrepancies in the data during the five days of early voting was 14%. During the 2012 parliamentary elections, the total percentage of overstated turnout was 10.4%;
– early voting remains one of the systemic problems of the country’s electoral process and creates opportunities for the use of administrative resources and other manipulations. In this regard, the OSCE ODIHR recommendations regarding changes to early voting procedures remain relevant.
Existing procedures for mobile voting provide space for manipulation. Observers cannot check whether the voters really applied for mobile voting, which in practice allows to organize such a vote without any applications (86.4%).
In some polling stations, the observers reported an abnormally high number of voters who voted by a mobile ballot box.
Voting at the polling stations and vote count
The Electoral Code does not provide a description of the ballots counting process. The election authorities failed to take into account the recommendations and proposals of the OSCE ODIHR and the campaign Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections, which were expected to settle the procedure through a decision of the CEC.
As during previous election campaigns, the PECs counted the ballots jointly and simultaneously, without announcing the voter’s choice and displaying each ballot. Such a procedure of vote counting is not transparent and does not allow to refer the results of observation of the counting of votes to the data reflected in the protocols on voting results. 95.31% of the observers noted that the vote-counting procedure wore extremely non-transparent. During the observation of the parliamentary elections in 2012, this figure was 92.3%.
During the observation of the counting procedures, the campaign’s observers reported other violations of the counting procedures: 32% of the observed PECs failed to announce the results of separate counting of the votes, 42% of the observed PECs failed to secure a separate ballot counting for each candidate, in 61% of the PECs, the observers were forced to monitor the vote-counting procedure from a distance that prevented them to actually see the counting.