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Analysis: Lukashenka Announces Referendum To Extend His Rule

President Lukashenka (file photo) Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka addressed the nation on all national television and radio channels on 7 September and said that he has signed a decree on holding a referendum on 17 October, simultaneously with legislative elections scheduled for that day. Lukashenka said he proposes only one question for the plebiscite:

"Do you allow the first president of the Republic of Belarus, Alyaksandr Ryhoravich Lukashenka, to participate as a candidate in presidential elections, and do you approve of the first part of Article 81 of the Constitution of Belarus to be worded in the following way: 'The president shall be elected for five years directly by the people of the Republic of Belarus on the basis of a universal, free, equal, and direct election law by secret ballot?'"

The current wording of the first part of Article 81 includes the above-cited phrase plus one more: "The same person may be the president no more than two terms." Thus, Lukashenka proposed to remove the constitutional limitation on presidential terms altogether.

Lukashenka was first elected president in 1994, when he received 80 percent of the vote in a runoff with the then Belarusian prime minister. Lukashenka restarted his presidency in 1996 with a fraudulent constitutional referendum, which gave him extensive powers and marginalized the legislature. He won reelection with 75 percent of the vote in 2001, in a ballot that international observers said was neither free nor fair. If Belarusian voters say "yes" to Lukashenka's question on 17 October, he will be able to run for president for a third time in 2006.
A June poll found that 50.9 percent of Belarusians would be against Lukashenka's prolonging his stay in office.

Can Belarusian voters say "no" to Lukashenka on 17 October? In theory, yes. The Minsk-based Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) found in a poll conducted in June that 50.9 percent of Belarusians would be against Lukashenka's hypothetical move to prolong his presidential powers for a third term, while 35.2 percent would back such an attempt; 13.9 percent of respondents remained undecided on this issue or provided no answer.

However, in Belarus, as the saying goes, what matters is who counts the votes, not how people vote. Beginning form the controversial 1996 referendum, the executive authorities have taken full control of the election process and made it extremely "unfriendly" for the opposition. Opposition candidates face immense difficulties during the registration process, while opposition representatives are routinely refused seats on election commissions of all levels. In addition, Lukashenka introduced a highly controversial practice of weeklong early voting, during which the election process is out of any public control and which, according to many observers, is the best opportunity for the authorities to manipulate the vote.

This year's parliamentary election campaign is no different from the previous ones organized by Lukashenka. Opposition political parties said they were allocated some 2 percent of the 1,430 seats on the 110 district election commissions. They fared even worse with regard to polling-station election commissions, on which they got only some 0.2 percent of a total of 70,000 seats. Thus, it is practically impossible for the opposition to monitor the voting process and vote count on 17 October.

In his 7 September address to the nation, Lukashenka recalled two major achievements of his 10-year rule: putting the country on the path of "progressive development" after the political and social turmoil that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, and ensuring security for Belarusians. "In the past 10 years, not a single Belarusian has fallen victim to a terrorist act or an armed conflict," Lukashenka said. "We have prevented our country from participating in international adventures that could put your life and safety even under a minimal threat."

Lukashenka's words came less than a week after the shocking hostage crisis in Beslan in Russia, thus accentuating his concern for the Belarusians' peaceful way of life. "In the referendum you will vote for the security of the country, for the life and health of your children and grandchildren," he stressed.

Some observers noted that the Beslan tragedy, apart from providing Lukashenka with a good propaganda argument in support of the prolongation of his rule, will also make things easier for him in Moscow if the Kremlin chooses to oppose Lukashenka's intention to stay in power beyond 2006. According to this line of reasoning, Russian President Putin is now much too occupied with the Beslan crisis and its aftermath and will have neither the time nor the will to interfere with the announced plebiscite in Belarus. And if the 17 October plebiscite, as should be expected, provides a "yes" to Lukashenka's question, it will be much more difficult to persuade him later not to run for president in 2006.

The Belarusian opposition is too weak, fragmented, and marginalized to prevent Lukashenka from winning the 17 October referendum. Paradoxically, however, the announcement of the presidential referendum makes the opposition somewhat stronger by giving it a clear-cut goal and direction in the 17 October election campaign -- to mobilize the electorate against Lukashenka's third term. "People should simply vote for a candidate who is against Lukashenka's third term," Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of the opposition Belarusian Party of Communists, commented immediately after the announcement of the referendum. And opposition United Civic Party head Anatol Lyabedzka added: "In this situation, our main rivals are not candidates for people's deputies supported by the authorities, but the referendum itself."

It seems reasonable that the Belarusian opposition should now launch an immediate campaign against Lukashenka's intention to extend his rule. Because winning a referendum by rigging or manipulating the vote is one thing, while winning it in peoples' minds is quite another.

In the evening of 7 September, when Lukashenka was about to announce his decision on the 17 October plebiscite, the authorities herded several hundred people into a central square in Minsk under the pretext of staging a meeting to express support and sympathy for those who suffered from the Beslan hostage tragedy. But it turned out that these people were needed there to show "spontaneous" support and enthusiasm for Lukashenka's intention to extend his rule. The crowd reportedly reacted to Lukashenka's referendum speech, which was shown on a specially established television screen, with silent shock. As long as Belarusians are capable of such reactions, the Belarusian opposition's case is not completely lost.

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