The 2020 Presidential Election in Belarus: The Onset of the Country’s Democratic Upswing?
As Belarus is in the midst of the presidential campaign with the election scheduled for 9 August 2020, the typical for any election held in the county scenario is taking place characterized by numerous civil and political rights violations and severe reprisals against all the challengers of the regime. However, the current presidential race proves to be different from the previous ones, which have ensured 26 years in power for the incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko.
Apart from the overall environment of hostility toward opposition candidates and their supporters, the current election campaign is unfolding in the situation of an unprecedented deterioration of the socio-economic situation in the country and controversial government’s response measures to the coronavirus pandemic.
With an ever-greater public discontent, hitherto unseen levels of support for the opposition candidates, and the continuing protests sweeping across the country, this election shows to be far more competitive and seems to represent a significant challenge to the incumbent president, despite the prosecution of the several main opposition candidates.
Key Developments and the Main Players
Comparing to the previous presidential election, this year’s campaign is characterized by more intensive street movements amid the growing dissatisfaction over lagging economy, brutal human rights violations, and mishandling of the coronavirus crisis as well as the emergence of multiple opponents to the current president. With the record of 55 candidates submitting their applications to the Central Election Commission, only five candidates, including the incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko, were officially registered for the ballot, while the main opposition candidates we barred from running in the election.
Among them, Viktar Babaryka, a former head of the local unit of Russia’s Gazprombank, who was excluded from the election and jailed on the embezzlement charges, and Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador, who was disqualified from running due to the nullification of the required number of signatures collected during the pre-election campaign. Another prominent potential candidate, blogger and activist, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, who is currently detained for the alleged violence against the police and is risking a three-year prison term, has delegated his wife Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to take his place in the presidential race.
The decision of the Central Election Commission and the crackdown on the opposition leaders, especially the detainments of Tsikhanouski and Babaryka, triggered unprecedented mass protests rattling the country and revealing an ever-growing discontent with the current president’s authoritarian rule. Mass protests sparked on 14 July have resulted in hundreds of arbitrary arrests and more than 700 detainments of peaceful protesters, activists, and journalists since the beginning of the presidential election campaign in May as reported by the Belarusian rights NGO Viasna.
Shortly after the announcement of the decision of the Central Election Commission to bar the main contenders in the election, the opposition in face of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and representatives of two opposition candidates responded with a decision to unify their campaigns with those of Babaryka and Tsepkalo. In a joint statement issued on 15 July, they urged Belarusians to support the joint program comprising five points, among which a pledge to release political and economic prisoners, cooperate on combating electoral fraud and to monitor the presidential poll. They also assured to hold “an honest repeat election” after 9 August.
Lukashenko’s Political Challenges
All three opposition candidates were seen as strong challengers to the incumbent having high chances to defeat Lukashenko, who is facing a sharp decline of public support over the past years. The results of independent exit polls published earlier have shown that all three main contenders managed to draw significant backing from the population and have overtaken the current president in the polls. While an unprecedentedly low rating of approval for the incumbent president (ranging from 3% to 6 %), which significantly diverges with the results of the government-sponsored polls, has been revealed by several independent polls.
Furthermore, the emergence of credible opponents from the country’s elite who for the first time stood up against Lukashenko shows a high level of dissatisfaction inside different segments of the society. According to the opposition, Lukashenko has never been that vulnerable before. Since 1996 the majority has been clearly on his side, which excluded any plausibility of the election to reach a runoff resulting in the definitive victory of Lukashenko in the first round. The current president now seems to face a double challenge. Permitting the opposition figures to take part in the election on equal terms can significantly affect its outcome. On the other hand, banning all the credible opposition candidates will create the ever-greater challenges for the regime with the popular unrest already sweeping across the country. It will further impact the legitimacy of the regime as neither inside nor outside the country, none believes in the political supremacy of the eternal president. Needless to say that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has never recognized the elections in the country as free and fair since 1995. According to the Freedom House evaluation, Belarus is defined as an authoritarian police state with the lowest freedom score in Europe.
The earlier positive dynamic manifested through granting certain civil liberties when Minsk was seeking better relationships with the EU, has been swept away with Lukashenko’s intensified clampdown on human rights aimed at consolidating his authoritarian rule. As in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential elections, Belarus is likely to fall under the international sanctions. This in turn might result in turning again towards Russia, which would make the country’s economy even more dependent on Moscow.
For more than two decades the political status quo established by the preeminence of Alexander Lukashenko throughout his five consecutive presidential terms has not been severely contested. Apart from the appearance of several political challengers to the incumbent, the current election campaign has witnessed a hitherto unseen level of the public involvement
While the plausibility of the peaceful transition of power in the aftermath of the upcoming election is rather feasible, the ongoing campaign has revealed the increased political fragility of Lukashenko’s positon and demonstrated that even long-standing authoritarian regimes have chances for a change.
As the discontent with the current president’s political agenda has become dramatically evident throughout this presidential campaign, it will not fade away after 9 August even in case of Lukashenko’s victory. What is more important, the surge in the political engagement of the public as well as ever-more pronounced adversity toward the incumbent regime demonstrate that the society is demanding for Belarus without Lukashenko.
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