The many faces of election observation
Independent election observation has the potential to shed light on the manipulations used by the Belarusian regime to strengthen its power. But the struggles facing domestic observers in particular could turn their lives upside down.
Election observation in a polling station located in the Belarusian National Technical University. (Photo: Daniel Marcus)
Since President Alexander Lukashenko's inauguration 22 years ago, independent observer missions have regularly reported irregularities and evident manipulations in his regime. In 2015 the International Election Observation Mission, a common endeavour involving the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), detected "significant problems, particularly during the counting and tabulation" which "undermined the integrity of the election". Previous reports also showed that principles of democratic, free and fair elections have been violated. However, independent observers from both Belarus and abroad are able to make any irregularities public.
As during the presidential elections in 2015, this year the Belarusian government has invited delegations of international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), with 448 and 330 observers respectively. Previous OSCE election reports for Belarus have tried to show a neutral perspective, noting both improvements and violations, whereas the CIS mission publishes reports that almost never criticise Belarusian authorities.
A wide range of domestic observers
At the domestic level election observers comprise party members, citizens, and organisation-based observers. Just over 10% of the 25,000 plus domestic observers registered this year are party members, most of them affiliated to pro-governmental parties such as the Communist Party of Belarus (over 1,000 observers), the Republican Labor and Justice Party (582) or the Belarusian Agrarian Party (306). Despite their representation, party member observers are usually only interested in supporting their own candidates.
Citizen observers, on the other hand, declare themselves to be non-partisan and mostly interested in the fulfillment of election procedures. The third and final group of national observers are from pro-governmental and a few independent organisations. In total, public associations have accredited 19,217 observers from, amongst others, the Belarusian State Youth Union (BRSM; 5,346 observers), the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (3,938) and Belaya Rus' 'White Russia' (3,503). Human rights defenders say that this type of observer has nothing to do with real observation, rather that they are only needed to prevent other (independent) observers from observing, to help the election commission resolve conflicts and to legitimise the election results.
The local election commissions (PEC) of Belarus organise the electoral processes in polling stations and are responsible for compliance with electoral principles and the communication of results to the authorities. Often these commissions are filled with state employees such as teachers and professors, who are dependent on governmental institutions for election work due to short-term job contracts. Opposition parties are extremely underrepresented in the commission; only 53 of the 514 candidates nominated for PECs in 2016 come from the opposition. This structural discrimination has led to excessive struggles for independent election observers at polling stations.
Elections officials do not care about complaints
Observers have reported on local election commissions that don't guarantee transparency for all parts of the election procedure. Missing regulations and the presence of pro-governmental observers exacerbate the difficulties faced by independent observers. PECs are not obliged to deliver statistics about intermediary turnout results,to allow ballot paper observation during the counting process, or to provide access to voter lists; moreover pro-governmental observers mostly take the side of the PEC.
"Observers are not aware of any case where a complaint against gross violations at the stage of voting and counting was met by election officials", reported the Human Rights Defender For Free Elections. The PECs considered only one eighth of the complaints, while prosecuting authorities and courts avoided further complaints. Furthermore, independent observers face social pressure from peers and family when engaging in election observation, not to mention state repression, as demonstrated in the stories of Yury Bachyshcha in 2006 and Galina Goncharik in 2015. We may possibly have to add new cases soon.