Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

"The Election Game:" Authoritarian Consolidation Processes in Belarus

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

"The Election Game:" Authoritarian Consolidation Processes in Belarus

Article excerpt

On September 11, 2016, Belarus held parliamentary elections for the sixth time since 1991. The results announced the next day came as no surprise to anybody. Not even the fact that two women, both seen as more autonomous than the traditional regime-friendly "independents," won seats in the parliament for the first time in 12 years raised many eyebrows among the Belarusians, who are often described as struck by "political apathy." Although the names of the victors were not all certain in advance, it was widely expected that some "opposition-minded" candidates would be (s)elected, a move that is generally understood to have been orchestrated by the authorities as a gesture of goodwill toward the European Union. (1) This perception of control over elections is not particularly problematic in Belarus, since parliament is almost universally considered powerless.

As such, Belarus can be considered an example of what is termed in the literature an "electoral autocracy." Such regimes--where the outcome of the election is known in advance and there is a prevailing "democratic illusion"--may be the most common type of non-democratic regime in the world today. (2) Electoral authoritarian states hold elections that appear democratic, but through systematic and extensive violations of fundamental liberal democratic rights and freedoms, they manage to strip the vote of all credibility. (3) Nevertheless, much of the research in this field is cautiously optimistic, indicating that the momentum of insecurity brought by regular elections and the inherent unpredictability of voters could potentially disrupt the authoritarian flow. (4) Yet recent events in Belarus, consistently ranked among the "non-free" countries in Freedom House's democracy index and classified as a "consolidated authoritarian regime," demonstrate the opposite trend.

In the Belarusian case, holding elections is neither a concession to democratic development nor a necessary exercise. Instead, it serves to reinforce authoritarianism and the stability of the state system. Hence, electoral authoritarianism has not only not brought openness, but is in fact key to understanding the persistence of the country's non-democratic regime. This article analyzes the Belarusian authorities' "menu of manipulation" (5) targeting electoral rules, actors and issues, which has the effect of shaping both the discourse and "practice" of Belarusian "politics" in favor of the status quo. The overarching purpose of this study is to highlight how electoral authoritarianism is contributing to the consolidation of the non-democratic regime in Belarus. Relying on around 30 semi-structured interviews with "opposition" actors in Belarus in 2015 and 2016, as well as a focus group discussion with five participants - all working in what can be referred to as the "cultural and creative sector" (6)--in Minsk in October 2016, the article aims to shed light on processes that generate predictability and contribute to the growing irrelevance of Belarusian elections. (7) Although this sample is not representative of the entire populace, it provides insight into the reasoning of independent actors who understand the situation in their country well. Importantly, it includes the voices of those who are in some way (not necessarily in the political arena) actively working to change the political status quo, as well as those who choose not to.

In such contexts, to equate "opposition" rigidly with parties seems counter-productive. Although parties exist, in reality they cannot act as such. Instead, their work becomes similar to that of non-party actors fighting for democracy. In light of this, interviews were conducted not only with major opposition party leaders, but also with other actors, including journalists critical of the regime, civil society activists and human rights advocates. The interviews largely focused on what interviewees perceived as the major problems with Belarus' current system, their views on change, and the concrete work they were undertaking to improve the situation in the country. …

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