12th November 2010,
Electoral coercion means pressuring people to vote for your prefered candidate. Electoral fraud is the falsification of results. Both techniques have been used extensively in Belarus, and both are facilitated by a deliberately opaque legal context.
As is generally the case, the election administration in Belarus follows a pyramid structure.
At the top is the Central Election Commision (CEC). This is based in Minsk, and is responsible for overall control of the election process.
The next layer is composed of the 155 Territorial Electoral Commsions (TECs) . The TECs work at the regional level, and are responsible for organizing the work of the Precinct Election Commissions (PECs) and for the preparation of the voter lists.
Lastly, there are the 6346 Precinct Electoral Commisions (PECs). These are essentially the committees which run the polling stations. The PEC staff will be directly in charge of organizing the vote and vote count on election day.
Elections in Belarus at the regional (TEC) and polling station (PEC) levels tend to be run by the same cadre of people in successive elections. Some Belarusian NGO’s have claimed that, for these forthcoming elections, up to 80% of the members of the current TECs have served in previous elections.
Officially, TEC staff are drawn from different political parties and from “civil society”. Ultimately however, local administrations decide upon the nominations, usually appointing regime loyalists from among their own ranks (and from other state bodies, including state enterprises) in a process which is both informal and unaccountable.
As such, only 14 of the 200o TEC members for the forthcoming Presidential elections have been selected from representatives of opposition parties (0.7%). This means that the opposition is only represented on 14 of a total of 155 TECs, leaving the other 141 regional bodies with no representation from the opposition at all.
At the PEC level (i.e. in the polling stations) a total of 183 candidates from opposition parties have been permitted to serve. This means that opposition members will be represented in less than 3% of all PECs.
The large majority of domestic Belarusian election observers are also essentially appointees from the ranks of the nomenklatura, and genuinely independent observers are fairly rare.
So opposition or independent presence within the election administration is almost negligible. And whilst the appointment process for these elections was conducted in line with national legislation (which is deliberately vague), the resulting TECs and PECs are not impartial or unbiased, and the interrelationship between the local administrative structures and the Territorial Electoral Commisions especially, is at the core of how electoral coercion is managed in Belarus.
How is this achieved in practice?
Firstly, the regime can abuse its huge influence and monopoly of power within local administrations to both ensure a good turnout, and encourage or coerce individuals to vote for the incumbent.
The local administration does this by abusing its control over resources such as jobs, equipment and education.
In this regard, employees of state enterprises (who make up about5o% of the workforce in Belarus), may be brought into a meetings with their managers, and told that their jobs might be on the line if the President is not re-elected. The many people who work for local authorities (hospitals, clinics, water, roads, sanitation) will receive similar talks from the mayor or another senior figure. Collective farm workers will be told that, if they vote “the wrong way,” the collective farm will not provide them with agricultural vehicles for the harvest, or will not provide feeding stuff for animals. Soldiers will be told that they will not be granted leave, or they will face other sanctions. University staff and students will be threatened with expulsion.
It is to be noted that those voting will typically be afraid that the authorities have the ability to find out who they voted for by checking the ballots cast against counterfoils (regardless of whether this actually happens).
As an example of this kind of coercion, the Belarusian “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” NGO recently noted
the use of these so called “administrative resources” in order to ensure mass early voting:
During a meeting at the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics, Rector Mikhail Batura is quoted as having stated;
“We have a great upcoming political event, the presidential election. I cannot ignore the issue. I urge you all to take part in this election. Moreover, I even advise you on the candidate for whom to vote. This is the incumbent head of the state, because everything good that was done in this country was achieved in the years of his presidency. Therefore, I urge you all to take part in the election….We have always encouraged our students to go to early voting…Therefore, early voting will be held from December 13, and I urge you to take part in it.”
So those are all ways of using local authority influence as a means of electoral coercion.
Secondly, the fact that Belarus allows for “early voting” for a five-day period between 14th-18th December (during which typically 30% of the total number of votes will be cast), and that this takes place before most international observers have arrived in area, has in the past facilitated ballot-box stuffing, because the ballot boxes remain under the protection of polling station staff outside voting hours during the early voting period, and this has made it easy for senior PEC staff to cast additional votes for the incumbent after the polling has closed, as well as falsify signatures on the voter register to legitimize these votes.
It is to be noted that the CEC has recently changed the law to make this practice harder (for example, ballot boxes are to be sealed at the end of each day) but the extent to which the change in the rules will be followed on the ground, and the possibility of working around these changes remains to be seen. For example, one way to work around such changes would be to stuff mobile ballot boxes, which officially exist to provide the old and infirm with the opportunity to vote. These individuals are unlikely to complain that their vote has been stolen because they are vulnerable fear retribution. If they do complain, this will not be covered in the official media.
Additionally, in the past, international observers have not been permitted to watch the counting of votes too closely, and are forced to sit at a distance that makes it hard for them to see the marks on the ballots (again the CEC has apparently passed a resolution to allow then to observe more closely this time).
In a more obvious form of fraud during the count, especially when international or other independent observers are not present, in some cases the “wrong” ballot papers can simply be torn and thrown away, and the “right” ones filled in and added, since PECs possess spare ballots which can be used for this purpose.
Furthermore, in 2006 the OSCE reported that, in a number of instances, the completed election results forms were filled in using pencil (which can of course be changed later).
In conclusion, the Belarusian electoral administration is designed to facilitate voter coercion and fraud in order to return the incumbent. Over the last weeks this system appears to be working towards fulfilling that goal as per normal. It is therefore likely that, even though Lukashenko apparently now has less than 50% support according to independent polls, he will be returned to the Presidency with more than 75% of votes in the first round. Future political developments will depend on how the population choses to react to this in the days following the announcement of the official results.