Who dares to vote for Lukashenko?
A mix of a simple kolkhoz peasant and a ruthless president, the Father of the Nation – “Bat’ka”, full of love and kindness and dreaming about the Soviet Union restoration, close to people, harvesting potatoes and haymaking. Why do people still vote for the head of state with 20 year experience in leading an authoritarian country? Who are they exactly?
The independent agency NISEPI in its survey published on 1 July pointed to the 37.4% of citizens ready to vote for the incumbent president, while the level of confidence in the head of state reaches 49%. Although OSCE has consider last four consecutive presidential elections fraudulent, Lukashenko undoubtedly enjoys a significant support from the Belarusian society.
The group significantly endorsing Lukashenko includes elderly people, especially pensioners not prepared to deal with the post-Soviet reality. For those who nostalgically think about the past, “Bat’ka” is a substitute of the old system and the epitome of better times when the whole world paid respect to their homeland. They vote deeply convinced that pensions – low but paid on time and additionally raised before every election – free public transport and low electricity and water charges would not be possible without Lukashenko. They may not be aware of the growing national debt and the fact that social benefits will be repaid by their grandchildren in the future. Yet the generation of retirees remembering the fall of the Soviet Union and supporting Lukashenka for last 20 years is slowly replaced by a next generation of elderly people who also consider allowances as more important than democratic values.
This approach is shared by workers in state-owned factories and kolkhozes. They are not interested in the postulates of freedom and state transparency. The winning issue is to have a job and salary on time. Struggling in the name of democracy is considered expendability that does not directly concern them. With experiencing the undemocratic rule all their lives, they do not understand what rule of law means. They have never felt really connected to the Belarusian language and culture. Pushkin writing in Russian is more important than Belarusian Kupala, and they feel not particularly affected by language restrictions or national symbols introduced by Lukashenko in the 1990s.
Belarusians who compare their quality of life to their neigbours’ from other former USSR countries, conclude that they do not have to envy anyone. Perhaps surprisingly international rankings analyzing living standards indeed present Belarus as a wealthy country among former Soviet Union (excluding Baltic States), with better conditions than the poorest EU countries.*
Belarusian intelligentsia – even the part living and working in the West – is not immune to the charm of the incumbent president. Perhaps Lukashenko is perceived as a simple worker who wants to rule a country using a Kolkhoz set of skills, but he guarantees peace and stability.
Although young intellectual elites are aware of the heavy dependence on Russian loans, lack of market economy, abuse of the opposition and human rights, they still appreciate a relative balance comparing to a close neighbor in the state of war. They also perfectly well know how pro-democratic coups ended in Libya or Egypt. Lukashenko is considered the lesser evil – as a saying goes: a change of a theater director does not mean a troupe would play better. The symbol of this attitude may be the world famous tennis player – Victoria Azarenka, who receives national decorations, appreciates the president and willingly accompanies him for photos.
Belarusians understand that every scuffle or riot can be used by Moscow against Belarus. In the shadow of a war in the neighbourhood and engulfed in an economic crisis, people pragmatically want to maintain a relative country stability, so far guaranteed by Lukashenko. For many there are just no alternatives. The problem of the political system in Belarus is the permanent weakness of the opposition: it is bickering, divided and not able to choose one joint candidate for elections. Even potential supporters are just fed up with the attitude of other candidates and decide to vote for “Bat’ka”.
In 2015 people who were born after the fall of the Soviet Union are old enough to vote for the first time. Many young Belarusians who do not remember other authority and have spent their lives in the “Lukashenko’s country” can hardly imagine their state with a different president than “Bat’ka”. The majority of them have never been to the West – their main sources of news and entertainment are Russian media presenting Moscow’s point of view.
Alexander Lukashenko consecutively won the presidential race five times. In October he will probably beat his record. Despite his questionable actions, many Belarusians will again show him a green light this autumn. Paradoxically, Lukashenko is probably able to win without any forgery but in the end he would aim at a high result and not risk a run off.
Perhaps the October scenario will remind us of an anecdote from 2006: in Lukashenko’s opinion his election result was a bit too high and therefore “not enough European’” so he decided to give some votes back – to smooth the victory celebration and become a true democratically chosen European leader.
* According to the HDI published by UN for 2014, Belarus was classified as a 53 state (195 countries). Belarus outrun all countries of Eurasian Economic Union (Russia57, Kazakhstan70, Ukraine83, Armenia87, Kyrgyzstan125, Tajikistan133);and the least developed EU countries: (Romania54, Bulgaria58) (https://data.undp.org/dataset/HDI-Indicators-By-Country-2014/5tuc-d2a9).