October 13, 2010 § 3 Comments
How does the system work? (the theory): The President is directly elected every five years by a universal suffrage first past the post election. The president has an extraordinary degree of executive power and also legislative power – they can pass decrees which are enacted in exactly the same ways as laws
The legislative is bicameral. The lower house, the House of Representatives, consists of 110 members elected for five year terms by first-past-the-post. As well as legislative power it can also force Presidential elections – although it has never done so.
The upper house, the Council of the Republic, has a mixed election system. 8 members are appointed by the President and the remaining 56 are elected by the local councillors for the regions: 8 per region. They are elected by multiple round first past the post: rounds been held for the appointment of each seat until they are elected with a 50% majority – the losers can then contest the next seat until all are filled. As well as being the upper legislative house, the Council of the Republic appoints a number of members of the judiciary.
Belarus is split into a number of regions, which in turn are split into a number of lesser regions (or rayons). Each has an elected council and a leader appointed by the President – power being largely condensed on the latter. Only the region of Minsk city has any real powers.
How does the system work? (the practice): Democracy in Belarus is largely felt to be a charade, with many (including the OSCE) regarding Belarus as Europe’s last dictatorship. Elections are not thought to be free or fair, President Alexander Lukashenko exercises almost unchecked power, and the media in the country is entirely devoted to propaganda.
Unlike other autocratic leaders in the post-Soviet space, Lukashenko has not tried to build a “king’s party” but has instead tried to hamper the growth of political parties entirely. Only a handful of seats in the House, and no seats in the Council, have ever gone to political parties (in the main minor parties who agree to support the government). Even fiercely pro government parties have failed to make an electoral breakthrough. Instead elected politics is dominated by independents, workers representatives, and members of civil society (which itself has been wholly and occasionally violently taken over by the supporters of Lukashenko). They agree not to challenge his power and in turn are tolerated – until they step out of line.
At the local level the former apparatus of the old communist party and the state-run civil society makes sure Lukashenko’s grip on the public remains roughly as tight as his predecessors’ were in Soviet times.
How did we get here?: The extent to which Belarus was ever an independent entity from Russia is largely moot. They were considered separate states under the Soviet Union and as such it gained independence when the Soviet-Union collapsed – although they jumped before they were pushed. Lukashenko gained power in 1994 and his rule can almost be seen as a continuation of Soviet rule.
Who’s in charge?: Lukashenko was re-elected in 2006 with 83% of the vote in elections which were widely decried as a sham. The combined opposition candidate came second with 6% of the vote. Elections are due again in December and are not expected to be competitive.
The House elected entirely loyal “independents”. The council elected 103 independents, the 7 remaining seats going to The Communist Party of Belarus (6 seats, old school Stalinist, pro-Lukashenko) and the Agrarian party (1 seat, pro-Lukashenko farmers).
Following the result, Lukashenko announced that opposition was not needed because it was in any case in the employ of western powers and talked about moving to a wholly appointed system.
There have been various attempts over the years by pro-Lukashenko factions to get together a proper king’s party. The Belarusian Socialist Sporting Party was probably the biggest but not even it won any seats. There is a suggestion that Lukashenko feels even a party which was a vehicle for him could grow to be a threat in time.
The opposition have united for added impact but so far have still failed to make an electoral breakthrough. The “People’s Coalition 5 Plus” contains a broad range of views. The larger groups contained by the coalition are the centre- right BPF, the liberal United Democratic Forces of Belarus and the eurocommunist PKB.
As Lukashenko plays his cards close to his chest it is not entirely clear who the factions within his camp are and who the next leader might be – but Lukashenko is only 56.
What does it look like?: Largely flat pasture and forest, it is home to some of the last remaining herds of European Bison. The historic capital of Minsk now has a lot of brutalist concrete in it.
What are the issues?: The complete lack of a public space makes it very difficult to tell. There is much talk of history and culture and nostalgia for the good old days, and not much talk about concrete problems: such as when Russia turned Belarus’ gas supply off entirely in the middle of winter due to non payment of bills.
The opposition have concerns over human rights abuses, the arbitrary use of the death penalty (Belarus is the only country in Europe to still use it), disappearance of journalists and brutal crackdowns on demonstrations. Almost all NGOs are banned, many opposition activists have been drafted into the army (soldiers are prohibited from taking part in politics) and despite the 2008 release of all political prisoners, many have been imprisoned since.
Meanwhile, against all the odds, the economy (still very state planned) is apparently booming – rising 10% a year. There is some scepticism about this – debt to Russia is getting out of control, with Russia giving Belarus roughly $4-6 billion a year. The opposition favour closer ties with Europe and some distance from Russia, and according to some polls up to 60% of Belarussians agree.
A good source of impartial information is: almost impossible to come by. In terms of English language news, NGOs like Freedom House are your best bet. The opposition has a newspaper in Russian which of course has a bias of its own. This song isn’t that informative but it’s quite nice:
A good book is: You should get a good balanced view if you read both the hostile The Last Soviet Republic: Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus and the more open-minded Understanding Belarus and How Western Foreign Policy Misses the Mark. Paranoia by Victor Martinovich is a novel written by a Belarussian and set in modern Belarus, talking about the effects of living under extreme authoritarianism. So far I can only find it in Russian. In the meantime we’ll have to make do with Belarus, which is allegorical sci-fi.
When are the next elections?: The presidential elections are due in December and are likely to hold few surprises. Legislative elections are due in 2013.