By Joanna Sowińska
On the 9th of August 2020, the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected for his 6th mandate as the president of Belarus. Belarus applies a two-round system for its elections, meaning that if no candidate obtains more than 50% of votes, a second round is held in which the two best are competing. Nevertheless, no second round ever took place in the country, as Lukashenko has always been claimed president with overwhelming majorities. This time again, the government announced he gathered 80.10% of votes which incomparably defeats any of his concurrents’ scores: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the second-best candidate, has only obtained 10.12% of the votes according to the latest reports. Of course, these election results immediately triggered international attention and the questioning of their authenticity. In addition, for the first time since Lukashenko was first elected, a huge wave of anger can be observed among Belarusians which clearly hoped for democratic elections and a drastic change in the government. This article evaluates the election’s circumstances, provides a hint on the population’s political hopes, and estimates the likelihood of a revolution.
According to the Democracy Index, Belarus is currently classified as the 150 most severe regime out of 167 states. It is also often described as the last dictatorship in Europe. Of course, the highly authoritarian aspect of the country has implications on the freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, and elections. Every election, the outcome is set even before the elections even start, and most opposition candidates are either being imprisoned, or have no choice but go on exile. With authoritarianism also comes political corruption which can be vividly seen in these presidential election results. A surprising fact for most people who live in democracies could be that Lukashenko always assists to vote counting, surrounded by a great security apparatus, and, of course, the government-owned media. During the election night, voting time had been ‘exceptionally’ expanded, which resulted in ballot stuffing. As if by pure coincidence, all sorts of internet services went down during the extension of the voting time. A majority of Belarusians complained from not being able to conveniently accede to information. Shortly after, the opposition announced that elections results are most likely not valid.
Right after the official announcement of the election’s results, Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate, declared herself the legitimate winner and called upon a peaceful protest in the streets. The 9th of August 2020 can be considered as a turning point for Belarus as it is the first time that, despite the global pandemic, thousands of people went down the streets protesting against their state’s regime. Here are some anonymous comments that have been retrieved by journalists from enraged crowds :
“I don’t know who voted for him, how could he get 80%?”
“We want changes and not just in a political sense. We want human lifes to be valued in our country!”
“I made a choice and my vote was thrown in the bin, so i’ll keep coming out until our president leaves!”
And the most symptomatic :
“If Lukashenko won with 80%, why are there so many angry people protesting?”
Moreover, the protests held since the electoral night appear to be far less peaceful than most people imagined: a furious crowd in barricades deploying handmade petrol bombs, police using rubber bullets, tear gas, water canons, and grenades. From what is known to foreign media, so far, several protesters have been killed and more than 6700 have been arrested. During the elections, 2000 people have been detained according to the human rights center Viasna, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s husband who got jailed and banned from running for the president position. Due to increasing pressure in her country and serious concerns about her safety, Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania on the 10th of August.
Considering all these factors, one can raise the question: ‘Is a revolution plausible?’ What can be asserted is that those protests are such an unexpected step towards democracy and thus, an enormous challenge for Lukashenko’s regime. Although the outcome of these protests is difficult to predict, several reasons seem to indicate that a big change is about to come.
Firstly, the protests themselves. These are greater and more violent than ever. According to unofficially collected statistics, the gathered opposition ranges between 100.000 and 220.000 people in Minsk alone, since the election night. On the other hand, the Belarussian government officially claims that 65.000 people were present at the presidential rally, however, some other unofficial statistics indicate that in reality, only 10.000 people attended this event. Moreover, the unofficial report points out that most of them were industrial workers who allegedly were forced to participate at Lukashenko’s rally. These numbers give a sense of the discontentment of the public about their country’s regime and president. A possible explanation of this sudden rebellion against the president can be found. That is, his public denial of Covid-19 presence in Belarus. In addition, many Belarussians believe that their state’s politics represent a hurdle to its economy. This is because authoritarian states tend to engage less in international trade and, democratic demonstrate weaker trust towards them.
Secondly, the recognition of the Belarussian president is further endangered after the 17th of August strike of the national broadcaster (BT), which approximately involved 1500 employees. According to an independent Belarussian news portal (Tut.by), the strike’s goal is to protest against media censorship forced upon BT by Lukashenko’s government and to fight for the ability of public television to declare the results of elections as invalid. One can imagine the issue this could pose to the continuity of the dictatorship since media support is an important propaganda tool in authoritarian states.
Finally, although Lukashenko has always prospered with Russia’s support, a negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be observed on the Russian-Belarussian relationship. The border between these two countries was closed for the very first time in 30 years and both presidents keep blaming each other for not being able to handle the virus, resulting in economic repercussions. The lack of support of its closest authoritarian ally could represent an immense threat to the survival of Lukashenko’s office.
Although one has expected that 2020 elections results in Belarus might be controversial, no one really expected the widespread, unprecedented wave of dissatisfaction that flooded the streets of Belarus. One thing is certain. We are witnessing a beginning of a historical change in the country – far more important than the protests themselves is the shift of civic consciousness – “We are important”. “Our voice can possibly matter”. And, as a witness of these circumstances – I hope for the best.
Edited by Zuzanna Mietlińska
Artwork by Mira Kurtovic