The expert mission of observation of the 2022 referendum was carried out by the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the Human Rights Center “Viasna” within the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”.
Preparations for the referendum took place against the backdrop of a profound socio-political crisis triggered by the presidential election of August 2020 and the pervasive atmosphere of repression targeting those disloyal to the authorities, as well as a tense international situation caused by the Russian-Belarusian military exercises and the subsequently Russian military aggression in the neighboring Ukraine, including from the territory of Belarus.
The authorities failed to take any steps to eliminate the factors in the legal regulation of electoral procedures that led to the onset of the post-election crisis in August 2020.
The text of the draft amendments to the Constitution, which was first announced by the authorities more than two years ago, became available to the public less than a month before the referendum was called. During this period, the authorities organized discussions of the presented draft, mainly at government-owned businesses and organizations, and as part of the so-called “dialogue platforms” involving government officials and pro-government organizations. Such discussions were not transparent and constituted campaigning in support of the project proposed by the authorities.
The process of discussing changes and additions to the draft Constitution and considering the submitted proposals failed to take into account critical opinions and was another example of the bogus practice of “nationwide discussion” designed to replace a transparent and inclusive debate on proposals from various groups of society. As a result, the proposed changes to the Constitution caused fair criticism from the expert community and regular voters.
The preparation and conduct of the referendum did not meet a number of basic international standards for conducting democratic and fair elections, as they were marred by numerous violations of both these principles and national legislation. This was primarily due to the atmosphere of fear on the eve of and during the referendum caused by the repression against citizens, civil society organizations and independent media, the absence of impartial commissions, unequal access to state media for supporters and opponents of changes to the Constitution, the use of administrative resources in order to support the text of amendments to the Constitution submitted for the referendum, the arbitrary deprivation of the right to vote of citizens staying outside the Republic of Belarus, numerous facts of coercion of voters to participate in early voting, and the lack of transparency of electoral procedures for observers.
The ongoing repression of civil society, the preparation and conduct of the referendum in an atmosphere of total fear, as well as the introduction by the CEC of restrictions on the number of observers at polling stations, led to the absence of independent monitoring of all types of voting (early voting, voting on voting day and home voting), as well as the counting of votes. These important stages of the referendum were completely non-transparent. The presence of pro-government observers at the polling stations and in the commissions was unable to change this assessment.
Significant violations of national legislation and the fundamental principles of holding fair and democratic elections during the referendum, including depriving observers of the opportunity to witness the vote count, does not give grounds to trust the election results announced by the CEC or consider them as reflecting the true will of the citizens of the Republic of Belarus.
When forming commissions, the authorities used a discriminatory approach to representatives of opposition parties: none of the 20 candidates from the opposition parties was elected member of the territorial election commissions and none of the 42 nominees was elected member of the precinct election commissions. For the first time in the history of sovereign Belarus, the opposition was not represented in the election commissions.
Most members of the commissions were representatives of the five largest pro-government organizations, Belaya Rus, Youth Union, Women’s Union, Association of Veterans, and Fund of Peace, together with various branches of the government-controlled trade unions. For the first time, in violation of the electoral legislation, the composition of precinct election commissions was not published.
The absence of legal guarantees for the representation in the election commissions of all political actors participating in the elections, as before, led to an arbitrary and discriminatory approach towards opposition parties and independent nominees.
In fact, campaigning in support of the draft amendments to the Constitution submitted for the referendum was not limited to the official timing, as it began long before the referendum was called. At the same time, the authorities used all available resources of the government-controlled media, pro-government Telegram channels, ideology officials, pro-government experts and other officials to support the draft amendments to the Constitution.
During the preparation and conduct of the referendum, the authorities widely used administrative resources to campaign in support of the draft amendments. At the same time, equal conditions for campaigning were not provided for opponents of the amendments. Moreover, opponents of the referendum and the draft amendments were persecuted by the authorities and faced the forms of repression typical of the past 18 months: arrests, administrative imprisonment, video confessions of arrested opponents of the referendum in pro-government Telegram channels, smear campaigns in the government-owned media, etc.
Legislative restrictions on campaigning events, as well as the traditional problems with the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly, made it practically impossible to widely use meetings for campaigning purposes during the referendum.
According to the CEC, 42.93% of eligible voters took part in early voting, making it the largest number for the entire period of election campaigns in Belarus. In fact, early voting in Belarus has become the norm, running counter to the requirements of the Electoral Code, which proceeds from the fact that such voting is provided for voters who are unable to be at their place of residence on the day of the referendum.
During the early voting, “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” documented numerous facts of organized forced voting of certain categories of voters: students, employees of state-owned enterprises, teachers, military personnel, civil servants, etc.
The practice of holding early voting continues to be one of the systemic problems of the electoral process, creating wide opportunities for the abuse of administrative resources and other manipulations.
Voting at polling stations and counting of votes
The lists of voters at polling stations are still closed to observers. A single register of voters has not been created, which creates conditions for manipulations with voter turnout.
The legislation does not prescribe the method of counting ballots by precinct commissions. For the counting of votes, there is no clear procedure in which the mark on each ballot is announced aloud and the ballot is demonstrated to all PEC members and observers present.
Due to the fact that on the eve of the referendum the authorities of Belarus created conditions excluding the possibility of free and safe observation of the elections, many organizations that had previously sent their observers to polling stations, including “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”, as well as observers of other civil initiatives and opposition political parties, were effectively deprived of the opportunity to observe the vote count. Therefore, it can be argued that the process of tabulation was completely non-transparent. The absence of a real opportunity to carry out observation is a violation of one of the fundamental principles of any electoral process, the transparency of its conduct.
Copies of the final protocols with the results of the vote count were not published at a significant number of polling stations, which, coupled with the lack of transparency in the vote count, indicates the desire of the authorities to conceal the falsification of the voting results and the actual numbers. This gives every reason to doubt the validity of the voting results established by precinct commissions.
Appeals against electoral violations
During the preparations for the referendum, there were significantly fewer appeals and complaints about violations of the Electoral Code as compared to previous elections, which can be explained by the low level of trust in the electoral authorities and courts, especially after the 2020 presidential election. In addition, practice shows that appeals do not resolve problems during the conduct of electoral procedures and, thus, are not an effective means of protecting the violated rights of voters and participants in the electoral process.
No appeals were filed in the courts to challenge the formation of election commissions. On March 30, CEC Chairperson Ihar Karpenka said that no complaints had been filed to contest the results of the referendum. However, one complaint is known to have been filed in the Supreme Court, in response to which the Court refused to initiate a case due to lack of jurisdiction, and two more filed in the district courts, which were turned down due to missing the deadline.
In total, according to official data from the CEC, 860 complaints were submitted, including 716 to the CEC, 98 to election commissions of all tiers, and 46 more to local executive and administrative bodies. Information about the content of these complaints and the results of their consideration has not been published.
The Electoral Code, as before, contains a limited list of decisions and actions subject to judicial review. Among other things, the decision of the CEC to establish the results of the referendum is not subject to judicial appeal.