Human rights organizations and outside observers have routinely accused Lukashenko’s regime of violating human rights and not holding free and fair elections. Lukashenko’s government jailed his challengers in the lead-up to the election, and the incumbent’s main challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — a candidate for president and spouse of another jailed candidate — was forced to flee the country after the election.
What’s happening in Belarus is not all that unusual. Analysts of election protests have shown claims of fraud and economic pain make post-election protest more likely. Our research findings also suggest human-rights violations, especially political imprisonment, increase the probability of post-election protests. Here’s what you need to know.
What prompts post-election protests?
Many of the reasons are familiar — and we see these catalysts in Belarus this year. Election fraud, for instance, often plays an important role in motivating post-election mobilization.
Typically, international observers would help determine whether a country’s elections are free and fair. However, this was the first election in Belarus since 2001 without election observers from OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. OSCE has raised concerns about the accuracy of the election results, while the European Union and the United States have issued statements of concern that the elections were “not free and fair.”
Another key indicator is poor economic health — research shows that pro-democracy protests are more likely when the economy is not performing well. Belarus experienced a recession in 2015-2016 and further declines in GDP growth last year, and the outlook worsened during the pandemic. Before the election, polls showed declining support for the president, with some polls claiming approval ratings as low as 3 percent.
A third factor is the potential spread of post-election protests from country to country. A number of post-Soviet republics have experienced post-election protests in the past decade, including Ukraine, Belarus’s southern neighbor. Ukraine was home to two major protest events: the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the 2014 Maidan pro-democracy protests, which ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.
Political crackdowns can mobilize protesters
An election provides a focal point around which individuals can mobilize in response to broader grievances. Our work shows post-election protests are more likely when governments engage in repression during the year leading up to the election. In particular, we find post-election protest becomes more probable when a government engages in repressive acts that are both easily connected to explicit government decision-makers, and that the public perceives as having an impact on election outcomes. Imprisoning citizens for political purposes checks both of these boxes and may galvanize protesters.
Our statistical analysis looks at data on all national elections in the world between 1982 and 2012. We examine whether political imprisonment — for speech, opposing the government, or along religious, race, and ethnic lines — increases the probability of post-election protests, while accounting for the effects of opposition strength, economic conditions, fraud and other factors that explain election protests.
We find when an incumbent party wins an election, and there is no recent history of political imprisonment, the probability of protest is just 8 percent. However, when there is widespread political imprisonment before the election, the probability of protest more than doubles to 20 percent.
In Belarus, Lukashenko arbitrarily imprisoned many political activists and opposition party leaders in the lead-up to the election. In May, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a well-known Belarusian vlogger and activist, announced his intention to run in the presidential election. Lukashenko had him arrested two days later. On June 18, another presidential hopeful, Viktar Babaryka, was imprisoned. The European Union protested, demanding Babaryka be released. After these arrests, Belarus election authorities ruled both opposition figures ineligible to run in the election.
Human Rights Watch reported Belarus authorities arrested at least 1,100 people in May and June for gathering peacefully to protest or supporting opposition candidates. In a June 29 news release, Amnesty International denounced the government’s actions, demanding Belarus release all of the president’s opponents who have been arbitrarily detained in the run up to the election.
Since the post-election protests erupted, Lukashenko has continued to threaten to escalate government repression. On Aug. 20, state prosecutors opened an investigation into opposition activity, and on Aug. 24 police arrested political activists leading the Coordination Council. Supporters of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s main opponent on the election ballot, are leading this group and calling for a new election. Consistent with findings in scholarly research, this increased repression has not quelled the protests, and may in fact be inflaming the situation.
Was this the ‘perfect storm’ for post-election protest?
With an economy heavily dependent on Russia — and facing rising unemployment and uncertainty due to the pandemic — Belarus is experiencing economic pressures. It’s in a region that has seen other election-related protests in recent years. In addition, the election process is facing charges of fraud, and the government engaged in widespread human rights violations in the lead-up to the election, targeting both opposition leaders and grass roots activists.
The ongoing events in Belarus illustrate how both the election process itself, along with general economic and human rights conditions within a country before an election, can catalyze collective action against governments.
Sam R. Bell is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. His research focuses on political violence and human rights.
Svitlana Chernykh is a senior lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University. Her research focuses on democratization, comparative political institutions and executive-legislative relations.