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Belarus: Court Invalidates Referendum On Powers

Prague, 5 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A political row between Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the parliament deepened yesterday when the Constitutional Court effectively affirmed the deputies' right to stop the president from extending his powers.

The court ruled on the constitutionality of a referendum which both sides intended to use as the means to change the system of government.

Proposing the referendum three months ago, Lukashenka saw it as a way to expand his power. He intended to ask voters to give him the right to disband the parliament, appoint judges and legislators and to extend his term of office without election.

The parliament reacted by adding their own questions asking the voters to eliminate the presidency and approve a parliamentary system of government.

The vote was to be set for November 24 to coincide with a series of parliamentary by-elections, after an earlier date had failed to gain approval of the legislature.

But the court said in a 8 to 3 majority decision that none of the proposed versions of the referendum would be legally binding. Speaking for the court, Chairman Valery Tikhinya said that both versions were too radical, amounting to a complete change in the 1994 constitution. Tikhinya said that only amendments to the constitution, alterations that do not affect its essential rules, could be put to binding referendum. Major constitutional changes could only be decided by the parliament.

Tikhinya went on to say that the referendum could proceed, but its results can be only of "advisory character," without compulsory legal effects. Were the referendum binding, the court said, "the parliament would in fact be excluded from the constitutional process."

Lukashenka seemed determined to ignore the ruling.

"The Constitutional Court unceremoniously exceeded its powers," said a statement from the president's office.

The statement warned that "if the president decided the ruling contradicts the constitution, he has the right to implement the referendum' in a binding way."

Lukashenka has repeatedly clashed with the court since his election three years ago. The president has a habit of ignoring the legislative bodies, imposing decisions by decrees. The court has consistently ruled these decrees to be in violation of the law. But the president has persevered.

There is reason to assume that Lukashenka may go ahead with the proposed referendum. There is also reason to believe that he will attempt to prevent the parliament from putting its questions to the voters. And it is likely that the president will make an effort to stop the parliamentary by-elections; he has been openly critical of such electoral exercises.

And Lukashenka may win the vote. After all, the president and his government are in full control of both the media, making it exceedingly difficult for his critics to communicate with the public at large, and the funds for all political activities.

But would he be able effectively to implement the constitutional change giving him quasi-dictatorial powers? The answer to this question is likely to determine the country's political future and its relations with the rest of the world.

Three days ago, thousands of ordinary people marched through the streets of the capital city Minsk to commemorate Soviet-era political victims. The march also featured protests against Lukashenka's methods of government. The march was peaceful, in contrast to violent street clashes that some six months ago pitted Lukashenka's opponents against government agents. It is clear that protests may take place in the future as well, further endangering the country's political stability.