Lukashenko won the previous election in 2010 with 79.67 percent of the votes. Mass protests broke out on the streets of Minsk, the capital, as people objected that the votes had not been accurately counted. Roughly 700 opposition activists, including seven of the nine presidential candidates, were arrested.
Opposition forces have been too weak to formally contest the election results or to continue developing social movements strong enough to pose a challenge for the regime since it came to power.
Mass protests: When do they happen in Belarus?
Presidential elections is the time when citizens in Belarus do mobilize. The graph below shows the growth in the number of people gathering to protest the regime’s abuses of power on the presidential election days in 2001, 2006 and 2010. Such growth can be explained by the outrage resulting from “stolen” elections. Because elections come with a limited time frame, they eliminate the free rider problem. Individuals realize that if enough protesters do not appear in a very short period, then the opportunity to confront the regime will be lost, and it will be more difficult to remove officials after they have been sworn into office and gained the legal authority to rule.
The forces opposing the regime have been far from homogeneous. At the end of the 1990s, the сoalition of democratic forces managed to unite the majority of opposition forces for the 2001 elections. During the 2006 presidential elections, the United Democratic Forces of Belarus chose Alexander Milinkevich, and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party Democratic Centrist Coalition (Hramada) supported its leader Alexander Kazulin to challenge Lukashenko’s rule.
But by the 2010 presidential elections, the opposition had dissolved into numerous camps. They did not even pretend to offer a united opposition front or an agreed single alternative candidate to stand against Lukashenko. Apparently, the opposition will not be unified this time, either. To date, seven persons have confirmed their intentions to run for president. History shows that having several or many presidential candidates does not help the opposition’s chances for success.
Most opposition party leaders have held their positions for at least a decade, and often much longer. Their opinions differ on many important areas, such as the meaning of the country’s history, the market economy, language, and geopolitics. So it’s not surprising that public support for the opposition has been weak.
The Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) reports on its website that Lukashenko’s approval has been going down since September 2014. Even so, he has much higher popular support than other political leaders.
A “good” dictator … or a useful one?
Finally, the international community has been looking more sympathetically at the incumbent president. The possibility of easing strained relations between the West and the so-called “Last Dictatorship of Eastern Europe” opened up when Belarus became the center of peace negotiations for the war in Ukraine.
Since then, the United States removed sanctions against a state-owned Belarusian energy company Belarusneft. The European Union, in turn, withdrew and limited restrictive measures against several persons and entities subjected to an E.U.-wide travel ban and asset freeze.
Despite that thaw in relations with the West, however, Belarus continues to be repressive, blocking the free flow of information, banning independent media outlets with no warning, and with laws enabling martial law. It appears likely that mass repression of the opposition will return after this next election as well.
There’s little hope for the Belarus opposition. So why not boycott the election?
All this suggests strongly that there’s little chance that the Belarusian opposition will change who’s in power. And so a debate has been underway: Should they boycott the upcoming election?
Many contend that boycotting the election will signal to human rights groups and other observers that the citizenry is frustrated with the facade of democracy. If citizens don’t go to the polls, the argument goes, the government will no longer be able to point to the presence of political competition as evidence that it is not authoritarian.
But reality is more complicated. A boycott might remove the appearance of the democratic legitimacy of the ruling regime, but it would probably not change the situation on the ground. The Brookings Institution’s Mathew Frankel demonstrated that historically, with the exception of very high-profile cases, boycotting parties receive little support from the international community–and that electoral boycotts are rarely the correct strategy, unless the opposition has widespread public support and enough persistence to remove the ruling regime.
Ruling parties respond to election boycotts or boycott threats in one of three ways: ignore or belittle them, crack down on them, or negotiate a settlement. Minsk officials’ most likely response would be to downplay the electoral boycott by citing high turnout numbers — possibly falsified — and claiming that the opposition parties had only boycotted because they were going to lose anyway.
Although the presidential election is three months away, domestic and international factors suggest that the Belarusian opposition is not likely to acquire either international or domestic support. Lukashenko, in turn, has every opportunity to remain the first and only president of Belarus for another term.
Tatsiana Kulakevich is a doctoral candidate in political science at Rutgers University.