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Othmara Glas and Olimpia Argasińska | 09.09.2016

The singer takes it all

To attract voters and to stand out in the generally low-profile election campaigns, Belarusian parliamentary candidates have to put on a show. A successful singing career or an extraordinary idea helps, no matter what your affiliation.

The BPF Party campaign stand in front of October Square metro station. (Photo: Othmara Glas)

"If this were a democratic election, we would be in the parliament for 100 percent. But everybody already knows the result", says Aliaksandr Talstyka. The middle-aged man with the friendly face is driving through the streets of Minsk. From the rear-view mirror hang two lucky flags: one bearing the blue and yellow of Ukraine and the other the colours of independent Belarus: red and white.

Talstyka is on the way to his seventh and last event during this year's election campaign. He is one of 488 candidates who are running for a seat in the House of Representatives, the lower house of the Belarusian parliament. During the ride he explains what today's event is about: "It is going to be about the military. We are pretty concerned about Russian military training taking place in Belarus." Therefore his plan is to throw Russian airplanes in the trash and to bring US, UK and independent Belarus flags to the National Museum.

For a free Belarus

The 43-year-old is the BPF party candidate in the 95th electoral district in Minsk, in opposition to long-time president Aleksandr Lukashenko. BPF used to be an acronym for Belarusian Popular Front. "The revival of our [Belarusian] language and culture, the restoration of democratic governance and the transition to a new economic model for freedom" are the main aims according to the party's programme.

The next stop is located in a typical residential district to pick up Uladzimir Padhol, another candidate for the BPF party. He brings old suitcases that people don't want any more, and a silver "school uniform". "This is a Belarusian pupil who will suffer from Russia's actions", says the tall guy in a leather jacket who looks like a bodyguard. In the boot of Talstyka's car they finish their preparations by sticking pictures of airplanes and radiation symbols on the suitcases.

There are still several days to go until official election day on 11 September 2016, but early voting has already begun. It is a sunny Tuesday afternoon and Talstyka and his team have chosen a place next to the Kupalovskaya metro station on Minsk's main street, Independence Boulevard, to set up. Many people look on curiously while passing the campaign stand, but hardly anyone stops and asks for more information.

A singer going into politics

Election campaigning is strictly regulated in Belarus. Local authorities need to be notified about a public event at least two days beforehand. Locations where campaign material may be distributed are also designated by the authorities. The OSCE/ODIHR states that the "campaign remains largely invisible and campaign events […] have a very low turnout."

Irina Dorofeeva does not have to think about a lack of attention. The 39-year old woman with carefully styled dark hair is a popular singer in Belarus. This year she is competing for a seat in the parliament. When she announces an election campaign event, hundreds of people come.

On 8 September her meeting with voters takes place in the assembly hall of school no. 180 in Minsk, electoral district no. 105. The location is fitting as her main topics are youth, culture and education. She has already held 30 such meetings in schools and factories as well as a couple of spontaneous ones. The people who come to her campaign events are not eager to hear something about politics, though. They want to hear her sing.

Election campaign manager Jurij Bonder answers questions on behalf of Irina Dorofeeva. (Photo: Othmara Glas)

Offline and online campaigning

Dorofeeva is not going into politics because she wants to change something. She wants Belarus to stay as it is. Officially she supports the president and his politics. During the event she does not tire of repeating that she believes in the future of the country. Dorofeeva is also officially accompanied by the deputy head of the local election committee and her campaign manager, Jurij Bonder, who tirelessly emphasises how great she is.

Although politically interested people would not get much out of such events, these "face to face" meetings are still the most important way to get in touch with possible voters, explains Aleksandr Sarna, Professor of Social Communication at Belarusian State University. Social media are also becoming increasingly important for informing voters about what is going on. However, compared to traditional media, especially radio or TV, "they cannot have a significant impact on the election results", Sarna says.

Dorofeeva wants to use social media to maintain contact with voters after being elected. "I will have my pages where everyone can write me a message about their concerns. Also older people who are not familiar with computers can ask their grandchildren to do it for them. I'll do my best to help every family with their problems."

The BPF chooses carefully what they post on the internet. "We have a big problem with haters", Secretary General, Zmicier Saloshkin, tells us. Candidate Talstyka also relies on the power of the internet. Before each event he posts explanations and comments about his ideological background. By standing in the street he wants to be a live reference to what he has written online.

Fighting for attention

Preparing his election campaign in a car boot. (Photo: Olimpia Argasińska)

After setting up their stand, Talstyka, Padhol and a volunteer take the suitcases emblazoned with planes and throw them away. This action takes place in a backyard with no witnesses other than a handful of journalists. "We count on journalists publishing this in the media, and distribution through social media. This is how people will learn about our actions", Talstyka explains.

The next action - bringing the flags to the museum - fails, as the museum is closed that day. Even long discussions with museum staff do not help gain entry. Without achieving anything at the museum Talstyka and his supporters go back to their stand. Nevertheless, he is satisfied: "We had an event at the place where we wanted to go. We were not arrested by the police; they did not even disturb us. I am attracting people's attention. I am doing this to show that I am here. I want them to ask me why I have planes and flags here."

The Belarusian popstar does not need such actions. She just goes on stage and sings her "Song under the peaceful sky". Her campaign manager answers inconvenient question on her behalf, for example how she finances her campaign. Asked whether they will be sharing one seat in parliament Bonder replies: "There she won't need my support".

Irina Dorofeeva performs after her election meeting. (Photo: Othmara Glas)

Money, money, money

In his responses, Bonder struggles with numbers. He does not seem to be sure what the legal limit on campaign spending is - 21,000 new Belarusian Ruble, around 9,600 Euro. Anyway, Dorofeeva mainly spends her own money and receives some donations. For the canvassing she has around 100 volunteers.

Talstyka also relies on volunteers. The young people standing around his stand are not simply along for the ride. They are members of the BPF youth movement, the biggest youth movement in Belarus. But Talstyka's campaign is neither financed by the party nor donations. Currently unemployed, he receives support from his son.

Unequal opportunities

According to the OSCE/ODIHR, several candidates state that they have limited financial means since public campaign funding was abolished in 2013. However, District Election Commissions are required to print and distribute uniform campaign materials for all candidates, and state media are obliged to provide free advertising and airtime.

Nonetheless, coverage is quite biased, with oppositional candidates effectively non-existent. Communication expert Sarna does not consider the electoral system in Belarus to be fair "due to the absence of equal opportunities for candidates".

Talstyka cannot afford to conduct more than these seven campaign events. Convinced that he will not get into parliament, the obvious question is: why is he still campaigning? "If only pro-governmental candidates campaign, only pro-governmental voters will go to the elections. I want to show that there are other options."

Dorofeeva admits that she has no experience in politics, but is ready to learn and work hard. During the meeting with her voters she smiles radiantly and from time to time starts giggling like a little girl. It seems that she is playing her role by being happy and giving happiness to Belarus. One aim of her candidature is already clear: "I will make parliament more beautiful."


Othmara Glas is a student of EU-Russia studies in Tartu, Estonia, and works as a freelance journalist.
Olimpia Argasińska studies Applied Linguistics at the University of Warsaw and is starting her career as a translator.