No way out. What to do on Election Day?
Even though Lukashenko is quite popular among the Belarusian population, many Belarusian citizens are not content with the political situation in their country. In democratic countries, elections can provide political change whereas in authoritarian states, the winner is mostly pre-determined. So what shall voters do on Election Day?
Walking through the capital of Belarus these days, one simply cannot overlook the various reminders to attend the presidential elections on October 11th. The event is promoted everywhere: posters decorate streets, shops, cafés, restaurants and schools. Newspapers are full of appeals to go voting. And even in the metro a soft voice informs you about the upcoming elections and the possibility to vote already before the actual election day.
Photo: Rainer Bobon
Indeed, the elections important. A high voters’ turnout will help Alexander Lukashenko to legitimize his fifth presidency. However in Minsk we met many people who are not going to vote. “Elections? In this country there are no elections”, many of them cynically comment.
“No elections in Belarus”
So what to do on election day if there is no presidential candidate you trust? The ballot papers give the voters the option to vote “against all”. Rumours say that such votes will change miraculously into pro-Lukashenko votes. Or you could just boycott the elections – but that could carry consequences.
20-year old Mikita Semianenka from Minsk openly admits that he will not go to the polls. Last year, Semianenka wanted to run in the local elections, and even collected the necessary signatures of 150 potential supporters. Still the election commission did not accept him, claiming that the 172 signatures he provided were falsified. Thus, the politically interested student planned to participate in the elections as an independent observer. Shortly after the elections, he was expelled from the Belarusian State University and had to continue his studies in Poland. On the base of his previous experience, Semianenka decided to boycott this year´s “election farce”. Interestingly, boycott means more to him than just not going to a polling station on Sunday, October 11th.
Calling for a boycott of elections is illegal in Belarus
Lydia Yarmoshyna, head of the Central Election Committee, condemned election boycott. As the news agency belta reports, she said during a press conference: “I can say right away that such appeals are illegal and irresponsible. Adult men know perfectly well that an election is a necessity in every country. They know how much money has been poured into this election campaign just like into any other one. (...) They have no right to lose their sense of reality and responsibility as to call for boycotting the election.” Indeed those who promote boycott can face punishment up to intention.
Photo: Charter 97
Hence Semianenka does not openly call for boycott, unlike some prominent opposition figures. Instead he created a Facebook-event entitled “I won’t go to the 5th 'election' of Lukashenko”. Around 350 Belarusians “take part” in this “event”. The student explains that he aims not only to motivate people to boycott the polls, but also to gather those not happy with the regime in Belarus. “You are not alone” is his primary message. He believes that a boycott sticker at the metro station, or the “joins” of the Facebook event will inspire even people hardly interested in politics to think about the meaning of the upcoming elections. He wants to convince his fellow citizens that unity and cooperation is necessary to provide change in Belarus.
The young man is aware of the fact that his active boycott will not bring Lukashenko’s regime down. Most probably he and others, who promote boycott more openly, will not be able to mobilize enough people to make the election invalid. Already previous elections saw boycott campaigns, for instance the parliamentary elections in 2012. However the campaign possessed to few resources to spread the idea of boycott among the electorate. Semianenka estimates that around 3,000 people are actively lobbying for boycott this year. He distinguishes between three groups: Firstly, the former presidential candidates like Mikolai Statkevitch and Uladzimir Niakliayeu who call for boycott in public meetings and demonstrations. Secondly, different autonomously working groups, who are distributing boycott-stickers and discuss boycott in the internet. A third group just ignores the elections and advices others to do the same.
Call for ignoring the elections. Photo: Daniel Marcus
Boycott – more than just not going to vote
Semianenka´s goal is not merely a low election turnout but a transformation of Belarusian society. According to him, culture is the best way to achieve change since political activism is dangerous in Belarus. Recently, Lukashenko’s regime allows for more cultural space. Private galleries opened in Minsk, various small cultural events take place, and even state-run media report a lot on art and literature. Semianenka wants to see more cultural initiatives with political content in Belarus, as well as the establishment of different NGOs and projects. If many people became involved in civil society they would gradually form critical mass which may be able to transform the society. This will foster democracy much more than elections which are currently not much more as a political ritual.