The Popular Coalition Five Plus seems to be the strongest opposition force in the country now, if the word "strong" may be applied to the Belarusian opposition under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's autocratic rule. After the controversial constitutional referendum in November 1996, the opposition has been driven out by Lukashenka from "systemic politics" -- that is, primarily from the country's legislature and elective self-government bodies -- and marginalized in the domestic political arena. Major opposition parties boycotted the 1999 local polls and the 2000 parliamentary ballot, in protest against the country's antidemocratic election legislation. The return of the opposition into "systemic politics" took place in the 2001 presidential election and the 2003 local polls, but in both cases with frustratingly poor results (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 14 July 2004).
As in several previous election campaigns, there is no unity in the ranks of the Belarusian opposition. Apart from the Popular Coalition Five Plus, two other opposition groups have declared their intention to take part in the election: the European Coalition Free Belarus based on the Charter-97 human rights organization and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Popular Assembly); and the Young Belarus bloc based on the opposition Youth Front (a youth arm of the Belarusian Popular Front). It is still possible that other groups claiming opposition to the government will emerge closer to the election date and field their candidates.
Meanwhile, the Conservative Christian Party (KKhP), led by exiled Zyanon Paznyak from Poland, is calling on Belarusians to boycott the 17 October elections. "Only a boycott gives the people a chance for victory, a possibility to renounce the election farce," Paznyak said in a message to a KKhP conference in Minsk earlier this month. "There are no elections whatsoever, [election] protocols record only those results that are conveyed from the top," KKhP acting Chairman Yuras Belenki told RFE/RL last week. "In such a situation there is only one way of counteraction for society -- to show its attitude to the farce by refusing to go to the polls."
However, boycotting may be an unfeasible option on 17 October. According to a recent survey by the Minsk-based Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI), some 63 percent of voters said they will take part in the October elections. The boycott proposed by the KKHP was supported by only 10 percent of respondents. Commenting on the survey last week, NISEPI Director Aleh Manayeu said that "pro-democracy forces" stand a "realistic chance" of winning seats in the Chamber of Representatives on 17 October. According to him, the survey established that the Belarusians are increasingly looking forward to changes. However, he added, opposition forces may count on success in the election only if they manage to establish a single pro-democracy alliance and advertise their nominees as independent candidates.
Belarusian TV viewers are regularly offered prime-time antiopposition propaganda features and documentaries with such telling titles as "The Road to Nowhere" or "Political Pedophilia."
Belarus's Election Code has long been criticized by both the domestic opposition and European experts for undemocratic provisions regarding the formation of election commissions (political parties may not be represented on them), powers of election observers during the voting and vote count, and early voting (which is effectively outside any control). Three deputies of the Chamber of Representatives -- Valery Fralou, Uladzimir Parfyanovich, and Syarhey Skrabets -- staged an 18-day hunger strike last month demanding liberalizing changes to the Election Code, but their relevant bill was overwhelmingly voted down on 22 June. Thus, the current election campaign will be conducted under the old rules.
Candidates for the 17 October election may be proposed from 8 August to 6 September, while their registration with district election commissions will take place from 6-16 September. After the registration, candidates will be able to begin their campaigns, which must be financed exclusively from the state budget and a special election fund created by the Central Election Commission for voluntary donors. Each registered candidate may obtain up to 950,000 Belarusian rubles ($440) from the state budget for covering his/her campaigning expenses. If a candidate exceeds the sum allocated to him/her from the state budget and the special election fund, his/her registration may be canceled.
Regretfully, it should be expected that, as in the legislative election campaign in 2000, opposition and/or independent candidates will face many difficulties during the registration process. In 2000, some 2,000 prospective independent candidates were refused registration on technicalities. Last week the Justice Ministry signaled a new problem for the opposition. Justice Minister Viktar Halavanau's threatened that he will use "penalties" against the Popular Coalition Five Plus if its leaders fail to register by mid-August. Halavanau said the coalition must be registered just like any other public association, otherwise the alliance will be illegal. To support this view, Belarusian Justice Ministry officials even quoted a Russian-language dictionary, which reportedly says that "coalition" means the same as "association."
In theory, all registered candidates will be allotted the same amount of air time for campaigning on state-run television and radio. But in practice, Belarusian Television has already been conducting an intense preelection campaign of vilifying the Belarusian opposition parties and activists for several months. Belarusian viewers are regularly offered prime-time antiopposition propaganda features and documentaries with such telling titles as "The Road to Nowhere" or "Political Pedophilia." It will be extremely hard to offset such propaganda for candidates disfavored by the government with their official campaign resources, which may not exceed $440 per person.
In other words, as many times in the past 10 years of his rule, it is President Alyaksandr Lukashenka who shuffles and deals cards in the election game. His opponents will be lucky if they manage to join this game. Winning it seems to be beyond their current capabilities.