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Myths and reality of Belarusian multi-party system

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for September in Belarus. As compared to the previous election campaign, these elections are of some interest. The bicameral parliament of Belarus comprises pro-governmental politicians and is practically a body performing formal actions. Belarusian people are well aware that Alexander Lukashenko has concentrated all power levers in his hands. This has become a usual thing. People almost do not know their parliamentarians. Neither their names nor faces are recognizable for the ordinary people. No debates are held in the parliament, decisions are passed unanimously in the Soviet-style and always in favor of the president. However, this time, the Belarusian authorities seek to gain back the goodwill of the EU and USA. It is no mere chance that the relations with them are in recovery. On August 14, Vice President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Kent Harstedt said elections are of great importance for the OSCE countries and will be even more important for the image of Belarus than the presidential election. Elections to the House of Representatives are scheduled for September 11. The candidates will be competing for 110 seats in the lower chamber. The upper chamber – the Council of the Republic – will be formed later in September, but without nation-wide and direct voting.

The election campaign is quite intensive for Belarus, as 522 people will be running for the parliament as against 363 candidates during the previous elections. Generally speaking, the number of the registered candidates has never affected loyalty of the National Assembly (parliament) to the President’s Administration. Even when the parliament voted to cancel privileges to veterans in 2007 the “representatives of the veteran organizations” unanimously voted for it or abstained.

Now, the country’s leadership has faced a very difficult task i.e. it has to demonstrate to the West not only fair, transparent elections meeting democratic standards, but also a real political life not depending on the government in Belarus. Therefore, at the upcoming elections, the Belarusian officials have remembered even the forgotten political parties the names of which are not known to the ordinary citizens.

The multi-party system in Belarus blossomed yet in early 1990s basing on the book-learned ideas about European parties or the vanished examples of political pluralism of the Russian Empire of early 20th century. Political parties have been emerging and disappearing rapidly in Belarus since 1990. By 1999, there were 43 officially registered political parties in Belarus, with national unions having the leading role there like in other post-Soviet republics.

At present, there are 15 registered political parties about which only officials and university teachers of social-political subjects remember. Nevertheless, even the formal existence of such number of parties “in sleep mode” gives an opportunity to the authorities to bring them to light when necessary and demonstrate elements of democracy to foreign observers. This difficult task of imitating democratic elections was settled last year when an opposition candidate was allegedly nominated for president along with Alexander Lukashenko. Formally, western observers were satisfied, as this time they were interested in positive assessment of the presidential election and improvement of the relations with Belarus.

On August 7, Chairwoman of the Central Election Commission Lidia Yermoshina reminded that the party system is still alive and real, as the number of the parties has increased and even the ones considered being armchair parties tried to nominate at least some candidates. Yet, the CEC’s statement involuntary unveiled the existence of serious problems with freedom and pluralism in Belarus where the political system is considered democratic by the Constitution, but actually there are “armchair parties” that are fortunately still “alive.” Considering the situation of the last 20 years inside that post-Soviet republic, it is really surprising that the parties have not died away. The formation and development of political parties in Belarus was an inherently artificial process that lacked any real traditions of political pluralism and multi-party system. In addition, political parties in the world fell to historic low at the end of the 20th century, with changing social structure and growing number of apolitical individuals-consumers. Therefore, the historically belated attempt of party building in Belarus was inherently doomed to failure facing unfavorable conditions inside the country and new trends of the era of globalization.  

It should be noted that in early 1990s, political life was in full swing in Belarus like in other post-Soviet republics. However, it was a result of Soviet political heritage with people with Soviet education leading the way. This inherently spontaneous and naive outbreak of people’s democracy died out in early 2000s bringing nothing viable. The parties loyal to the government were preserved, while the nationalist opposition survived only with the financial support of the West. No true national parties have emerged, though emergence of such parties seemed inevitable. The major reason was the government pressure, a tough authoritarian regime and no opportunity for political competition. In addition, the Belarusian public appeared to be unready for political pluralism and self-organization.

The number of the parties shows that the number of their members is often close to the required minimum of 1,000 people by the Belarusian laws. All the Belarusian parties existing today are divided into pro-governmental and oppositional ones by their attitude to the government rather than by their ideology. Naturally, some of the parties seek to present themselves as a “third power.” However, without an ideology, a party has no image. Looking through the programs of the Belarusian parties one can get an impression that there is a king of post-modern schizophrenia that has made all classical ideologies senseless.

For instance, the oldest communist party that has formally inherited the traditions of communist party of the Belarusian SSR uses antiquated words of the last century (Great October, crisis of capitalism, class warfare, Lenin’s norms etc.), execrates “pseudo-reformers, turncoats, and capitulators” that came into power during the last years of the Soviet Union and declares “socialism building” as the strategic goal. The Belarusian economic model that the government has recently called as “state capitalism” arouses no criticism like the evident destruction of the “democracy” so dear to the communists in Belarus. The program’s minimum requirement - “to prevent capitalization of the country and bourgeoisie’s coming to power” – arouses a sarcastic smile, since “wild” capitalism is raging in Belarus and the bourgeoisies are overwhelmingly the businessmen loyal to the government. The ideology of the program is a heavy-handed effort to mask the pro-governmental stance. At the current elections, the party that had had 6 seats in the parliament during the last 15 years has nominated 52 candidates for parliament, and 44 were registered by the CEC.

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Since 1996, there have been two communist parties in Belarus with different attitudes to Lukashenko’s policy.  After an instigated split in the party, the oppositionist Party of Communists of Belarus (PCB, the successor of the communist party of the Belarusian SSR that was banned in 1991 and restored under a new name) gave birth to the Communist Party of Belarus (CPB). Later in 2009, CPB was renamed into a Just World Belarusian Left Party shifting to a certain obscure and abstract “leftist” position. The leaders of the party proved brave enough to admit that they have lost the communist ideology and renamed the party. The Party of Communists of Belarus proved unable to abandon the communist ideals and loyalty to the President’s Administration in exchange for various forms of “support,” including financial one. However, this did not save the core group of the CPB, and there was almost no one to replace the old generation. Besides, part of the former members of the PCB and the people with communist ideology formed the Communist Party of the Workers of Belarus, which the Justice Ministry refuses to register. The Party operates as moderate opposition and recruits idea-driven communists. This kind of underground activity stiffens the competition on the left flank.

A Just World Belarusian Left Party believes that it adheres to “socialist” ideologies and pursues establishment of “democratic society, social justice, equality, solidarity and freedom.” In fact, it has senseless slogans instead of specific goals. If communists are not going to establish dictatorship of the proletariat and build communism, it is not surprising that the Belarusian socialists use mainly liberal principles, where social “equality” looks rather uncertain. A party that has had no seats in the parliament since 2000, has nominated 46 candidates, of which 38 were registered.

Other Belarusian parties also mix the elements of the left and right ideologies in their programs. The leading “right” Party of the Belarusian People’s Front (BPF) calls itself a “conservative-liberal” party. It has such distinctive features as Russophobia and aspiration to ban the Russian language, which unveils its ultra-national orientation. That party did its utmost to turn the opposition into a marginal and unpopular phenomenon by strengthening Alexander Lukashenko’s power. Being the arch enemy of the incumbent authorities, the Belarusian People’s Front has been ideologically supporting the official policy of “Belarusization,” distancing itself from Russia and ousting the Russian language from the public life. That is why this party seeks to return to big politics. It has had no seats in the parliament during the last 20 years, but has nominated 60 candidates for the parliament, of which 49 were registered.

Besides the BPF that is represented by two parties (there is also a U.S.-based sect of Zianon Pazniak Conservative-Christian Party of BPF), there is another right wing party - the recently established Right Centrist Coalition. This coalition comprises the United Civil Party and the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party that is under process of registration, and Movement for Freedom NGO. One can learn from the program of the United Civil Party that the market economy is “consecrated by the God.” The party has a wide program of liberal reform resembling utopist projects of the 19th century. As for Belarusian Christian Democracy, along with outdated liberal slogans bearing no relation to reality, it advocates for integration with the EU, isolation from Russia and ousting of the Russian language from Belarus. Like the Belarusian People’s Front, the Right Centrists advocate for Russophobia and rapprochement with the West. These parties that have had no seats in the parliament since 2000 have nominated 81 candidates, of which 67 were registered.

The largest Liberal Democratic Party (45,970 members) has the most uncertain ideology that is being corrected depending on the official policy of the authorities. One can learn from the party’s website that the Belarusian statehoods is “at least 10 centuries-old” and originates from the Great Duchy of Lithuania and Rzeczpospolita. This ideological update meets the new policy of the Belarusian authorities denying the historical ties of Belarus and Russia. Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party Sergei Gaidukevic run for president in 2001, 2006, and 2015 to help the government imitate political pluralism in the country and to help Alexander Lukashenko settle some commercial and image-making issues abroad. This largest party of Belarus has had a symbolical seat in the parliament during the recent years, but now it has nominated 110 candidates, of which 77 were registered.

It is not surprising that the Belarusian multi-party system is so obscure for the ordinary citizens that they can differentiate the parties by their support or opposition to the incumbent authorities.  

What is special about the current election processes is the high activity of candidates, since event the avid oppositionists understand that they have a chance to make a name for themselves in the situation of the Belarus’ rapprochement with the West. The government’s policy of “Belarusization” and the pro-Western foreign policy open new opportunities for the nationalist forces that have been in disgrace for long years. In the future, the country’s movement along the Ukrainian path may encourage the local national opposition. The pro-governmental parties have some nationalist reorientation too.

At present, the authorities have a task to imitate free and fair elections, on the one hand, and not to let too many real oppositionists to the parliament, on the other hand. It is obvious that both the tasks will be settled without any problems, as this time the West is ready to recognize the voting outcome. Unlike U.S. and EU, Moscow has always recognized the results of any elections in Belarus. Unlike them, Russia has not created a pro-Russian “Fronde” in Belarus. This time too, the CIS Mission will make no surprises - Moscow has already decided upon its stance on the elections in Belarus. For the formal participants and observers, the staff of the National Assembly chambers is not as important as the decisions Alexander Lukashenko will be passing through it.

By Arthur Grigoryev

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