Observation of the elections to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus is carried out by the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the Human Rights Center “Viasna” in the framework of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”.
The elections to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the seventh convocation were announced by Presidential Decree No. 294 of August 5, 2019 and took place on November 17, 2019.
In accordance with the current legislation, the parliamentary elections and the presidential elections were to be held in 2020, with the former no later than September 2020, and the latter no later than August 2020.
As early as two years before the announcement of the elections, CEC Chairperson Lidziya Yarmoshyna said to reporters that she did not rule out rescheduling one of the two elections to an earlier date. According to Yarmoshyna, the decision was expected to be taken by the country’s highest-level leaders.
In April 2019, Aliaksandr Lukashenka said in his annual address to the Belarusian people and the National Assembly that the elections to the House of Representatives and the Council of the Republic would take place in 2019. Thus, the parliamentary elections were scheduled almost a year before the expiration of powers of the House of Representatives of the previous convocation.
As there were no valid grounds for the early termination of the powers of Parliament under Art. 94 of the Constitution, and the four-year term of its office has not expired, the Decree violated the constitutional provision on the term of office of Parliament, and constituted an interference in the activities of the legislature. A significant reduction in the tenure of the House of Representatives reduced the number of legislative sessions to seven (the Parliament of the fourth convocation held 11 sessions, and the fifth convocation — 10 sessions).
The elections were held against the backdrop of complex political circumstances in the world and Europe, which had changed substantially, including in connection with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. A thaw trend in relations between Belarus and the West, which had been observed since before the previous elections to the House of Representatives, led to some positive changes in domestic policies. The authorities expanded their cooperation with the UN and other international organizations in the field of human rights.
However, the situation with observance of human rights in Belarus remains stably poor and no systemic positive changes have occurred in this area. The few progressive changes in the legislation governing the exercise of the rights and fundamental freedoms, most notably the decriminalization of participation in the activities of unregistered organizations and the introduction of elements of the notification-based principle of organizing assemblies, have been accompanied by the introduction of administrative responsibility for the same actions and the establishment of heavy charges for policing peaceful gatherings.
There was a significant reduction in the number of politically motivated administrative convictions and criminal cases. However, the government failed to completely abandon the practice of repression against citizens exercising their constitutional rights to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and religion, including by prosecuting independent journalists. Nor did it take any measures aimed at the full restoration of political and electoral rights of former political prisoners.
The OSCE/ODIHR recommendations made following the observation of the previous parliamentary elections in 2016 have not been implemented in national electoral legislation. The work of the interdepartmental working group created in 2016 to prepare proposals for changes to the electoral law ended in deadlock.
Thus, the parliamentary elections were held according to the electoral rules and legal practices repeatedly criticized by both national and international observers. The key aspects of the electoral process, including the formation of election commission, early voting, and vote count, remained intact. This fact greatly influenced the character of the parliamentary elections.
In general, the elections of the members of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus of the seventh convocation failed to meet a number of key international standards for democratic and free elections, and the electoral legislation of the Republic of Belarus. These findings are primarily due to the lack of equal access to state media for all candidates, lack of impartiality of election commissions, facts of using administrative resources in favor of pro-government candidates, numerous instances of voter coercion to participate in early voting, absence of transparency of some election procedures for the observers.
Traditionally, it is the opaque vote-counting procedures that are subjected to greatest criticism, giving rise to serious doubts about the conformity of the results of this procedure to the actual will of the voters.
Most of the observers were able to freely attend meetings of bodies that formed the TECs, DECs, and PECs.
The meetings of the bodies that formed the TECs and DECs, in most cases, discussed the professional and personal qualities of persons nominated to election commissions and each nominee was put to a separate vote. However, during the formation of the PECs, in most cases (77.5%), nominated applicants were not considered and those present voted for a pre-arranged list (52.5% of cases). This applies mainly to the PECs where seats were not contested and all the nominated persons, as a result, were elected to the commissions. At the same time, in some cases, observers reported that the applicants were preselected by specially established “working groups”.
In most cases, the observers reported the employment-based principle of the formation of election commissions, when members of the commission are co-workers and their direct superior is the chairperson of the election commission. The composition of the PECs, according to the campaign’s observers, did not reveal any significant changes since the previous elections.
Absence of legal guarantees for the representation of all political actors on the election commissions, as in the past, resulted in arbitrary and discriminatory treatment in respect of the opposition parties and movements.
Representatives of the five largest pro-government associations (Belaya Rus, Belarusian Republican Youth Union, Belarusian Union of Women, Belarusian Public Association of Veterans) and unions affiliated to the FPB, recently joined by the Belarusian Peace Foundation, are still the main organizers of the elections; the success rate of their representatives is 92.8% for the TECs, 93.6% for the DECs and 95.9% for the PECs.
The selection ratios of representatives of the three opposition associations (BPF “Adradzhenne”, Movement “Za Svabodu” and “Tell the Truth”) are 0% for the TECs and 2.8% for the DECs.
The formation of election commissions preserved the discriminative approaches against the opposition parties: the success rate of the representatives of opposition parties is traditionally low: only 18.75% of their nominees were elected to the TECs, 21.2% to the DECs, and 4.2% to the PECs; the overall percentage of their representation in the composition of the TECs, DECs and PECs is insignificant (2.5% in the TECs and DECs, and 0.033% in the PECs).
Nomination and registration of candidates
The nomination and registration of candidates were not marked by any significant differences as compared to the previous parliamentary elections; almost all the nomination groups were registered.
The list of places prohibited for signature collecting did not change compared to the previous elections, while in some districts the lists were reduced. The collection of signatures was held in a calm atmosphere, and the activities of the nomination groups were not subject to major interference from the authorities.
As during the previous elections, there were cases of using administrative resources in favor of pro-government candidates in their signature-collecting events. This was facilitated by the absence of a ban on collecting signatures on the territories of enterprises and institutions (in particular, education and healthcare facilities).
703 applicants for the deputy mandate had been nominated, which exceeds the amount of nominations during the last elections (365 — in 2008, 464 — in 2012, and 630 — in 2016). The number of refusals to register candidates increased compared to the elections in 2016 (18.9% — in 2019, and 15.1% — in 2016).
Against the background of the current opaque signature verification procedure, of particular concern is the large number of refusals to register opposition candidates nominated through collecting signatures. An analysis of some refusals indicates a possible abuse on the part of the election commissions during the document verification procedures, which could be aimed at preventing the well-known opposition leaders from continuing to run in the elections.
In most regions, local authorities created favorable conditions for election campaigning. The number of places for holding public events increased in comparison with the elections of 2016.
Administrative resources were widely used to promote the pro-government candidates, while a number of non-affiliated and opposition candidates reported obstacles in their campaigning efforts.
There were documented cases of bans on broadcasting the campaign speeches of opposition candidates; the DECs and the managers of government-controlled media made an extensive use of restrictions provided by Article 47 of the Electoral Code, which, in most cases, constituted unacceptable censorship and restrictions on freedom of expression; in some cases, the DECs ordered to cancel the registration of candidates, citing violations of Article 47 of the Code.
Despite the large number of registered candidates, their activity in election campaigning was low key: only 47.7% of the total number of registered candidates participated in televised debates, 58.9% — had their electoral platforms published; 73.9% — appeared on television, and 68.4% — on the radio; compared to the previous elections, the candidates announced fewer public events.
The official turnout for early voting is reported at 35.77%, which is the record high for the parliamentary elections since 2008.
As before, participation in early voting was encouraged and controlled by the authorities. Administrations of government-owned enterprises and institutions, as well as universities strongly recommended voters to participate in early voting, maintained records of early voters and reported on the progress of early voting to local executive authorities.
In some cases, the organization of participation of voters in early voting was characterized by coercion, under threats of reprisals for failing to vote early. 30% of the observers reported facts of coercion in forcing the voters to come to the polls (as compared to 18% in 2016).
The 32 PECs covered by the continuous monitoring of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” revealed excessive official turnouts as compared to the observers’ calculations. For some PECs, the early voting turnout figures were two, three, five, and even eleven times greater than those reported by the observers.
The practice of early voting remains one of the systemic problems of the electoral process and creates opportunities for the use of administrative resources and other manipulations. In this connection, the OSCE/ODIHR recommendations regarding changes to early voting procedures remain relevant.
Existing procedures for mobile voting (home voting) create opportunities for manipulation. The observers cannot check whether the voters actually requested mobile voting. In practice, this allows organizing such a vote without requests. 60% of the observers reported cases of voters being entered in the lists for mobile voting although they had not requested this type of voting.
Some polling stations were marked by an abnormally high number of voters who cast their ballots in the mobile boxes.
Voting at the polling stations and vote count
The Electoral Code does not describe the ballot-counting process. The OSCE/ODIHR recommendations and proposals of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” on regulating the procedure through a CEC decision in the preparation for this year’s elections were not taken into account.
As during previous elections, the PECs carried out a joint and simultaneous counting of the ballots, without announcing or displaying the ballot to all present. Such a procedure of counting the ballots is not transparent and does not allow to correlate the results of observation with the data reflected in the protocol on the voting results. 98.7% of the observers noted that the counting procedures were not transparent. During the observation of the parliamentary elections in 2016, this figure was 95.31%.
During the observation of the counting procedures, the campaign observers reported other violations of vote count: 35% of the PECs covered by the observation failed to announce separate voting results; in 47% of the PECs, the ballots were not counted separately for each candidate; in 63.7% of the PECs, the observers could not observe the vote count due to the inconvenient conditions of observation.