The early bird gets to skip class
The authorities use different methods to bring students to the ballot boxes. Some are keen to enjoy a longer weekend, others are forced to vote early.
PEC members seals the ballot box at the first day of early voting. (Alexander Kevra)
The green and red posters framed by a white folk pattern are informative rather than fancy. In Russian they state: "11 September 2016 – Elections to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly for the sixth term." As one hangs in nearly every shop and public building Belarus-wide, one is also stuck to the wall of Minsk State Linguistics University.
But the posters are somewhat misleading; early voting began on Tuesday 6 September 2016 already. Since the beginning of early voting, the university has been home to polling station no. 694. As we enter, a policeman sitting near the entrance gets up suspiciously and walks away. He is soon back with an elderly man. After a short but surprisingly jovial conversation, we are invited to observe the sealing of the ballot box. Valeriy Yakovlevich, chairman of the election commission of this polling station (precinct election commission, PEC), informs everybody that foreign correspondents have the right to take pictures of anything. He will repeat it loudly and explicitly a few more times during our visit.
"Good you came", Yakovlevich proclaims, "make sure everything is in order". But not everything is in order as the PEC Chairman claims. In their final report on last year's presidential election, the OSCE recommended that "the system for early voting should be reviewed", especially because most of the almost 1,400 complaints filed "alleged coercion of voters to participate in early voting" and "the falsification of early voting protocols".
Observing for your Motherland
But the most interesting part of the day starts straight after the lunch break, when most students come to vote straight from class. Polling station no. 249 is located, not unusually, in a student dormitory.
The section reserved for election observers is full. Upon seeing our press cards, the representatives from the Women's Union and the Belarusian Red Cross become bashful. Taciturn and different from the woman in previous station, who eagerly told us she was a lecturer, it is her first time observing, she received full training, the conference of trade unions chose her, she is very happy to be involved.
Most observers are sent by institutions, but a young man with a gangster face and a deformed jaw is a lawyer. He followed the procedure of so-called civil appointment, and got registered thanks to public support: he needed to collect 10 signatures. It soon turns out, though, that his application was instigated by the commission chairman. "Why did you decide to become an observer?", we asked. "To become useful for my motherland. It is important for citizens to engage in such activities. To see it from the inside."
We are done and it's time to find a more bustling polling station. But near the exit we notice a woman who has just voted. "No need to put it off", she says openly. "And it's a good opportunity to go home to see my parents for the weekend. If you vote earlier, the university provides a day off on Saturday", she adds. Most students have classes on Saturdays in Belarus.
Welcome to the polling station. (Alexander Kevra)
"I don't think that I'm changing anything"
We also visit polling station no. 251, located in the student dormitory of Belarusian State University. A queue of around 20 students is waiting in order to contribute to the future of Belarus, as is expected of them. When questioned about his contribution to what is supposed to be a democratic act, Dmitri responds: "No comment. I don't think that I'm changing anything." This contrasts with a common reason to vote early: "We are patriots, we are Belarusians!"
Most students say that early voting is encouraged by universities, since it provides a day off on Saturday and, in some cases, even on Friday and Monday too. But the carrot can also be the stick: "I was forced to vote", one young woman tells us and turns away. We are also aware of similar cases in the dormitory of Minsk International University "MITSO", where students are obliged to vote by Thursday 8 September. In the eyes of the head of the Central Election Commission, Lidiya Yermoshina, however, this obligation "is not breaking the law". She further adds that "the administration of a higher educational establishment remains free to stimulate political activity this way".
Students wait to vote. (Alexander Kevra)
Word after word the ice is broken and the students become more open in conversation. "This guy is for more lenient marijuana legalisation", a blond woman says, pointing to a flyer. But soon it becomes clear that the overwhelming majority of them do not really care about the candidates and choose them at random. We soon become accustomed to the response: "I still have no idea who I will vote for."