"The current election system isn't fair"
This year's election campaigns are surprisingly calm and may even appear boring. What are the reasons for this and what does it mean for the candidates? We spoke with Aleksandr Sarna to learn more about the workings of electoral campaigns in Belarus.
Aleksandr Sarna is a philosopher, journalist and specialist in public communication and politics. He works at the Faculty of Philosophy and Social Science at Belarusian State University and for TUT.BY.
While walking around Minsk we mostly see posters with candidates' faces and names. There are no slogans or party as we know from Germany or Poland. Is this typical for election campaigns in Belarus?
Yes, you can consider this to be a defining characteristic of electoral campaigns, especially with respect to informative materials [posters, leaflets or calendars; editor's note], where it is more important to identify the candidate than the party. It is a paradox that politicians in Belarus hesitate to identify themselves as members of a party as long as their own deals and merits are more important. This situation is inherent in existing governmental structures, beginning with the president himself, who does not identify with any party or organisation. The reason for this is the electorate: people do not believe representatives with any political connection. In the public consciousness the concept of politics as a dirty business has strongly established itself. It is popularly believed that a candidate from any party will prioritise his own interests and won't care about voters' problems.
Is this year's election campaign different from the campaign in 2012?
The domination of pro-governmental or candidates who are just loyal towards the current government is the same. However the current campaign, in contrast to 2012, is focused more on the possibility for the elections to become more democratic. Therefore party leaders are hoping for a more or less oppositional attitude towards the regime. Expecting reforms and hoping for a "thaw" at some point is a consequence of the pro-European, or at least less pro-Russian, course of internal affairs being implemented by Lukashenko. In this regard the situation is reminiscent of the pre-election period of 2010, which was related to the thaw in relations between Belarus and the West.
What is the main way for candidates to communicate with possible voters?
Just as before, the main means of communication are traditional face-to-face meetings with the voters that take place in officially designated locations. These meetings are planned in advance and can be supplemented with campaign stands and other one-off events, such as the Day of Minsk celebration on the weekend before election day.
How have the internet and social media changed how politicians and people communicate?
They allow candidates to interact more actively with their audience. For example they can provide voters with election programme regulations or inform them about the time and place of meetings or campaign stands. However even in "technologically advanced" information campaigns, such as Tatsiana Karatkievich's Govori pravdu 'Tell the truth' campaign, Twitter is not used for direct contact with voters but rather just to notify them, as with traditional media. As such the proportion of politically active social media users is small even in comparison to the general number of internet users, not to mention the number of people watching TV and listening to the radio. This is why they [internet and social media] can not have a virtual impact on the results.
Does the current legislation on campaigning, i.e. the rule that candidates can spend only BYN 21,000, hamper real competition?
In 2010 and 2013 the electoral code of Belarus was changed. Now article 48 of the Election Code of Belarus has consolidated a law according to which "political parties, other public associations, and citizens of Republic of Belarus are not allowed to render any material help regarding the preparation and carrying out the elections except for submitting financial resources to the extra-budgetary fund of the candidate". Since the amount of money from those funds is not limited, competition is possible.
Do you consider the current system of election campaigning in Belarus to be fair for every candidate?
This is a discussable question and I will refer to the lawyer Pavel Sapelko, who points out that Belarus "still has not solved the question of financing the actions of candidate in the period between their nomination and registration". Expenses for actions organised by canvassers collecting signatures remain unclear. Accordingly illegal ways of financing candidates and their campaigns exist because there are "no rules that regulate the media. They can announce and inform about one candidate's campaign and programme without being obliged to do the same for other candidates". Thus, in my opinion, in the absence of equal opportunities for all candidates, the current election system in Belarus can't be considered fair.