No opposition candidates allowed in Belarus dictator’s “sham” elections

Sunday’s parliamentary and local elections in Belarus were among the most flawed in the thirty-year reign of the country’s authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The ballot was completely cleansed of all opposition, with only loyalist candidates permitted to participate. The election was the first to take place in Belarus since the controversial presidential ballot of August 2020, when widespread accusations of vote-rigging sparked weeks of nationwide protests that briefly threatened to topple Lukashenka until Russian intervention rescued his regime.

With the events of 2020 still very much in mind, Lukashenka was clearly anxious to prevent any kind of renewed public mobilization. The February 25 vote took place amid a series of increased security measures including reports of Interior Ministry forces deployed near polling stations. Belarusian state media concealed the identities of election commission members and obscured the faces of some candidates during election coverage. Many polling stations reportedly lacked curtains on individual booths, while newly introduced restrictions on photography made it difficult to record evidence of protest votes “against all.”

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The election was widely dismissed as illegitimate by members of Belarus’s democratic opposition and Western officials. On the eve of the vote, activists hacked more than 2000 display screens in public spaces across Belarus and were able to broadcast an address by the country’s exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who branded the election a “senseless farce” and urged members of the public to stay home. Meanwhile, the election was widely condemned internationally, with the United States calling the vote a “sham” held in a “climate of fear.”

The Belarusian authorities initiated a crackdown on activists and their families during the election campaign, conducting home searches and detaining hundreds of people, according to human rights groups. In the month prior to the vote, legal proceedings were initiated against 20 Belarusian researchers and journalists (including this author) on charges of “conspiracy to seize power.” With Belarus’s last remaining pro-democracy political parties dissolved last year, only four parties were allowed to take part in Sunday’s vote. The pro-Lukashenka Belaya Rus party, which was registered in 2023, reportedly garnered a considerable amount of seats in the lower chamber, alongside a number of prominent pro-Russian activists and regime loyalists.

The draconian measures adopted ahead of Sunday’s vote may at first glance seem somewhat excessive, especially when considered in light of the ruthless crackdown on all opposition that had already taken place in Belarus over the past three-and-a-half years in the aftermath of the country’s 2020 pro-democracy protests. However, Lukashenka is clearly aware that many Belarusians remain discontented and fears a possible repeat uprising. By staging a loyalist election with no room for even symbolic opposition, he sought to demonstrate stability and reaffirm his grip on the country. This message was meant for domestic audiences and also for his patrons in the Kremlin.

Last weekend’s highly orchestrated vote was in stark contrast to events in 2020, when a disputed election led to prolonged protests that erupted across Belarus before being forcefully suppressed in a brutal crackdown that saw tens of thousands of people detained amid widespread claims of human rights abuses including torture. In the aftermath of the protests, civil society organizations and independent media outlets were shuttered, while thousands of activists fled the country. Many who remained ended up in prison. In mid-February 2024, opposition activist Ihar Lednik became the fifth Belarusian political prisoner to die in jail since 2020, according to human rights watchdogs.

Belarus’s recent parliamentary elections took place in a climate of heightened political tension due to the ongoing Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine. Lukashenka is widely seen as Putin’s junior partner in the invasion, having allowed Russian troops to use Belarus as a launch pad for the initial offensive into northern Ukraine in February 2022. The Belarusian dictator sought to justify the stifling atmosphere surrounding Sunday’s vote by claiming the country was under threat from “hybrid Western aggression.”

Sunday’s carefully choreographed vote was a dress rehearsal for next year’s far more significant Belarusian presidential election. As anticipated, Lukashenka confirmed on February 25 that he intends to run in 2025 for what would be his eighth consecutive presidential term. However, questions remain over whether he may yet seek to switch to a different role. In 2022, Lukashenka staged a referendum to rubber-stamp constitutional changes establishing the unelected All-Belarusian People’s Assembly as the country’s supreme authority. This potentially creates an opportunity for him to vacate the presidency while maintaining control over Belarus. Whatever he decides to do next year, meaningful change in Belarus looks to be out of the question as long as Lukashenka remains in charge of the country.

Hanna Liubakova is a journalist from Belarus and nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

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Image: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attends a concert to mark 80 years since Leningrad siege was lifted during the World War Two, at Gazprom Arena stadium in Saint Petersburg, Russia January 27, 2024. (Sputnik/Vyacheslav Prokofyev/Pool via REUTERS)