That Lukashenko would win was not in doubt. Official results from the Central Election Commission (CEC) give Lukashenko a record 83.5 percent of the vote, with 87.2 percent turnout, although he performed worse in the capital Minsk, securing 65.6 percent. His closest rival, Tatiana Korotkevich, garnered 4.4 percent nationally and 7 percent in Minsk. Nationwide, 6.3 percent selected the option to vote against all candidates and this rose to 20.6 percent in Minsk. While Lukashenko may well have won this election anyway, the authorities appear to have inflated his margin of victory to close down any hope of an alternative and impress any potential opponents with his strength. This report examines how Lukashenko achieved such a resounding result and the challenges faced by his opponents.
The regime: Adapting the script
The techniques employed to ensure Lukashenko’s reelection have been well honed. The authorities exercise complete control over the political landscape between elections. This includes legislation to restrict freedom of association and assembly, limitations on access to state media for alternative points of view, and a willingness to imprison activists and opposition politicians if deemed necessary.
Belarus has five days of early voting before polling day, which offers opportunities for falsification and ballot-stuffing. This year, early voting came in at a record 36 percent of voters, a figure contested by independent domestic observers. Early voting by students, soldiers, teachers or other state employees is encouraged or enforced, allowing more time to tamper with ballots cast and manipulate the outcome.
International observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) heavily criticized the non-transparent counting process and expressed disappointment in the lack of progress since earlier elections. Ballots are often counted in silence and the process concealed from view of observers in the room. Representatives from independent NGOs or parties are rarely included amongst the election officials involved in the count. Although observers are allowed to be present in the polling station, they are rarely allowed to observe the activities in a meaningful manner.
Election campaigns in Belarus are traditionally very quiet. Nevertheless this year there was a noticeable change in the rhetoric of the regime. When in the past the authorities highlighted the country’s apparent socio-economic stability and (politically-motivated) increases in pensions and average salaries, this stopped after a full-blown economic crisis in 2011 and the need to devalue of the national currency at the end of 2014.
Instead, the authorities have increasingly emphasized Belarusian sovereignty, under the election slogan “For the Future of Independent Belarus.” Lukashenko presented himself as the most experienced candidate to balance relations with both Russia and the West during these turbulent times in the region. The prospects of Russia intervening in Belarus as it did in Ukraine are slim. Nevertheless, Lukashenko has emphasized Belarus’ closeness to, but at the same time its distinctness from, Russia. On the eve of voting, the president rejected Russian calls to establish a new air base in Belarus.
Lukashenko has always enjoyed a degree of genuine popularity. By September 2015, polling by the exiled Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) put support for Lukashenko at 46 percent and trust in him at 47 percent, well ahead of any other candidate, although far below the official result of the election. As a long-serving incumbent who claims to represent the will of the people, Lukashenko cannot afford to show signs of declining support, even if victory by a smaller margin would still be ensured without resorting to falsification. No matter how much support he actually has, his share of the vote in elections must always be seen to be around 80 percent to demonstrate his complete command of the political scene.
The opposition: Same old story
In 2015, Lukashenko faced three opponents on the ballot. Two could be classified as essentially pro-government candidates, included to ensure the appearance of choice. These were Sergei Gaidukevich of the Liberal Democratic Party, who also ran in 2001 and 2006, and Nikolai Ulakhovich from the Belarusian Patriotic Party. They secured 3.3 percent and 1.7 percent respectively.
The opposition was represented by Korotkevich, a little-known young activist from the Tell the Truth civic campaign and the first woman to stand for president of Belarus. The opposition to Lukashenko spans a wide spectrum, from ex-communists to center-right nationalists, not all of which supported Korotkevich as their representative. There is severe pressure from the regime on the opposition as noted above, but the opposition is also splintered by differences in policies, personalities, values and tactics. All that showed during this campaign. Rival opposition coalitions formed, and disagreed on election strategy.
One segment of the opposition backed Korotkevich’s candidacy, running under the slogan “For Peaceful Change.” She offered a rather vague and non-confrontational alternative for voters, appealing not only to the core opposition to Lukashenko but potentially also his less-committed supporters. IISEPS polling put her support at 18 percent in September 2015. Korotkevich’s team challenged the official results, which awarded her 4.4 percent in court, but the appeal was dismissed.
Others in the opposition argued that the very fact that Korotkevich had successfully registered as a candidate showed that the authorities did not view her as a threat and that she was being exploited to give the elections an air of legitimacy by allowing an opposition candidate to run. Other candidates who had not registered accused her of making a deal with the regime, as the opposition was split by its traditional infighting.
Some in the opposition called for a boycott of the elections altogether, in particular while there were still political prisoners in jail. The opposition was somewhat wrong-footed when on Aug. 22, the authorities suddenly released the six remaining political prisoners in Belarus, including 2010 presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich. This charismatic politician led calls for an election boycott after his release that attracted many activists in the ranks of the opposition, but his calls never really gained traction with the wider electorate.
Belarusian citizens had little appetite for mass protests, after Lukashenko’s violent crackdown on demonstrators after the 2010 elections, and the bloodshed during the protests against then-president Yanukovych in neighboring Ukraine last year. When polls closed, a few hundred activists marched with anti-Lukashenko banners from October Square to Independence Square in Minsk — but that was far fewer than the thousands who had taken the same route five years earlier. The rally broke up after two hours, with no intervention by the police who were monitoring.
Lukashenko’s fifth term
In short, this election was not significantly fairer or freer than Lukashenko’s previous “victories.” The fact that the government released political prisoners and did not use violence against the opposition during the campaign will probably be enough to allow the West to normalize relations with Belarus. Lukashenko will be seeking much-needed economic support. With the election campaign over, Moscow will be looking to ensure that Belarus toes the line when it comes to Russia’s economic and security interests, restricting Lukashenko’s room to maneuver. The start of Lukashenko’s fifth term will be dominated by this geopolitical balancing act.
Matthew Frear is assistant professor of Russian and Eurasian politics at Leiden University in the Netherlands.