Eternal Lukashenko and his spotless record
On 11 October Alexander Lukashenko will run for his fifth presidency. “Europe’s last dictator” can compete again thanks to exploitation of his voters and tinkering with the constitution though referenda.
Back in June 1994, the western public and politicians as well as elites in his own country did not expect the 39-year-old Member of Parliament to win. In the final ballot, however, Lukashenko won against Vyacheslav Kebich, the most promising candidate and the then Prime Minister of Belarus. Lukashenko’s rise to power began.
1993: Humble beginnings
In the 1990s Lukashenko was relatively well-known to the Belarusian public as a chairman of parliament's anti-corruption committee, an office which he had held from 1993 on. His popularity rose when he raised concerns about the dissolution of the Soviet Union. During the early 1990s, soviet nostalgia was widely spread among Belarusians and many wished the USSR back.
Lukashenko himself benefited from the Soviet system: born in a village near the town of Orsha, he was able to attend the university. First, he gained a degree in agricultural studies, later he earned his second degree in history. In the 1980s, he was a member of the Communist Party and became a sovkhoz manager.
1995-1996: Citizens’ support and referenda
Since Lukashenko’s presidential inauguration in 1994, the welfare system has hardly changed: unlike other post-Soviet states, Belarus did not introduce harsh economic reforms, and the social benefits remained relatively high. The unemployment rate stayed low. Citizens’ were content with their president.
In 1995, Lukashenko called a referendum on changes to the constitution. Condemned by Western organisations as neither free nor fair, it was nevertheless a success for the head o state as the majority voted for his proposal.
As a result, Russian was introduced as the second official language, new national symbols – which resemble those from the times of Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic – were adopted and an economic integration with Russia was rather welcome by the general public. The main point concerning the institutional balance of power was the question on the president’s right to dissolve the parliament, in case of a violation of the constitution by the parliament. Citizens gave Lukashenko the right to do so.
One year later, in November 1996, Lukashenko was able to add further changes to the constitution when he was calling for another referendum. The parliament in the amended constitution was left with no real power, and so was the constitutional court.
Lukashenko was then enabled to appoint many key positions in the government as well as the state administration. Furthermore, the changed constitution allowed him to serve a longer first term because the adoption of the amended constitution counted as the start of his first term. That is why the next presidential election took place in 2001. On the parliament’s website there is a justification for the constitutional changes. It states that according to the constitution of 1994, the parliament dominated over the other branches of government. In fact, this was not the case. Western politicians and political scientists were very worried about the events in Belarus. In her analyses, Astrid Sahm, a German political scientist and expert on Belarus, describes Lukashenko’s actions as a “creeping coup d’etat”.
In the second half of the 1990s Lukashenko strengthened his power and managed to get control over his opponents. He closed down independent media and imposed harsh repressions on the political opposition while some political activists mysteriously disappeared. President Lukashenko was re-elected in 2001. Even though the OSCE assessed the election process as not fair, not free and not democratic, a majority voted for him. After his victory, Lukashenko however had a problem: the constitution only allowed for two terms to be served by the same person.
To remove this obstacle, Lukashenko once again called a referendum. In October 2004, at the same date as the parliamentary elections took place, the electorate was asked if they allowed Lukashenko to run for president again. The second question included a removal of the two term restriction. 88.9 percent of Belarusians voted for Lukashenko's proposal. The referendum was again criticised by the Western election observers.
These changes helped him secure his authoritarian regime and they enabled him to a third and fourth presidency when he was re-elected in 2006 and 2010. According to a recent opinion poll by the independent research institution IISEPS, nearly 39 percent of the respondents would have voted for Lukashenko in June 2015. The most popular oppositional candidate reached only 6.5 percent. But Mikola Statkevich will not even participate in the upcoming election. Thus, Lukashenko will most likely runs for his fifth term in a row.