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A referendum? The case of Belarus

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Photo courtesy:  Natallia Rak (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/93940495@N06/50294640737

A referendum? The case of Belarus

25-02-2022

When people talk about referendums, it is often assumed that it is a process that serves democracy; people can have a say and decisions are made in the interests of the people. According to the Direct Democracy Navigator, a referendum is a popular vote that takes place bottom-up, i.e. initiated by the people. How does it look for the upcoming popular vote in Belarus?

By Alina Krintovski

Disclaimer: Belarus is not a democratic country. Lukashenka has ruled the country autocratically for many years. Even if he offers a plebiscite, this process does not legitimise his decisions. The plebiscite he calls a referendum is not supported by Democracy International as a democratic means, because this election is not about organising a democratically free election based on an initiative by the people. The process cannot be equated with direct democracy. In the following, we refer to Lukashenka's so-called referendum as a plebiscite, even though it is called a referendum by the official side and other media.

There will be a vote in Belarus on Sunday. However, it will not be the new elections long demanded by the people - Lukashenka's* election in August 2020 is considered a sham, election manipulations could be proven. Instead, the autocrat arranged an plebiscite to decide on constitutional changes. 

The Belarusian president's page states that citizens who are entitled to vote will be asked about the “most important issues of the state and society in national and local referendums”. It says a referendum is “the most important manifestation of democracy, which enables the population to independently make the most important decisions that affect their lives”. However, those so-called national referendums in Belarus are held on the initiative of the president and on the proposal of the Chamber of Deputies and the Council of the Republic. In the Direct Democracy Navigator typology, this is then called a plebiscite. They can also be held on the proposal of at least 450,000 citizens eligible to vote. That is an astonishingly high hurdle, even for democratic countries. For comparison: Switzerland has a similar population density, 50,000 signatures are needed for a veto referendum there. For an initiative for a new law, 100,000 signatures.

In January 2021, Lukashenka announced that he would submit a new draft constitution by the end of the year, and in January 2022 the final draft was published on the government's website. Through the government's website, anyone in Belarus can theoretically propose their own amendments or express their attitude towards the government.   

Lukashenka's plan was to relax the political situation in the country. The opposition, on the other hand, rejects the r. They accuse the president of using it as a measure to extend his term of office even further, albeit not in a direct way. In fact, the president's draft stipulates that the term of office of a president can only last five years, and the same person can only be elected twice. However, this regulation will only come into force after the next presidential election, thus setting his own term of office to zero years. So, if Lukashenka becomes president once more in 2025, he can in principle rule until 2035. But even after that, he need not fear for his influence: In the draft amendment to the constitution, Lukashenka proposes to grant the All-Belarusian People's Assembly massive decision-making power and to appoint himself as a member for lifetime.    

The All-Belarusian People's Assembly is to consist of 1200 members, including representatives of the people. The decisions of the All-Belarusian People's Assembly are to be binding and could annul legal acts and other decisions of state organs and officials that are "contrary to the interests of national security", with the exception of decisions of judicial organs. These, in turn, are to be elected and dismissed by the All-Belarusian People's Assembly, having first been proposed by the president. The draft also states that the All-Belarusian People's Assembly is to become the "supreme representative body of the people's power of the Republic of Belarus", which "determines the strategic directions of the development of society and the state, ensures the inviolability of the constitutional order, the succession of generations and civic harmony".  Here it becomes clear that the new state organ will be of greater relevance than the position of the president.   

Furthermore, Lukashenka proposes that people who are imprisoned or have been declared legally incapacitated by a court may not be elected or take part in elections. According to the FAZ, there are currently around 1,000 political prisoners, some of whom have already been held in Belarusian prisons prior to the 2020 presidential elections. It is also forbidden to finance the costs of preparing and conducting elections by foreign states and organisations, foreign citizens and in other cases established by law. People who want to run for president would have to prove that they have been permanent residents of Belarus for at least 20 years. It is to be made difficult for those who have been in opposition since 2020, contest the election results and are in political exile or prison as a result.

In another paragraph, marriage is to be defined as a union between a man and a woman. Furthermore, the state is to preserve the "historical truth and memory of the heroic deeds of the Belarusian people during the Great Patriotic War". In this way, Lukashenko wants to ensure that the country's traditional conservative values are preserved and that the politics of memory work in his favour; whoever has power over how the past is presented also has the power to justify his actions in the present through these representations. This is also a common method among Russia's neighbours: by presenting the Soviet Union as the dazzling victor over National Socialism, Stalinist atrocities can not only be swept under the carpet, but also justified.

The document is 15 pages long and was prepared by the Belarusian authorities over a period of one year. Voters in Belarus, however, have only two months to deal with the draft. The exact date was deliberately kept secret until the last moment to discourage mobilisation of the opposition." Alexander Moisseenko tells us. He is a representative of the RAZAM association, which supports the interests of Belarusians living in Germany and carries out educational work about Belarus. "The Central Election Commission will provide him with the result he wants. How the further situation will develop is very difficult to assess. The democracy movement will stick to its goals regardless of the outcome of this 'referendum'." He continues.

Moisseenko also explains that Lukashenka could not be held criminally responsible after his term in office if the constitutional amendment passes the popular vote. The fact that the plebiscite is taking place now also has to do with the fact that the ruler is using the time in which the protests against him and his electoral fraud have died down. He hopes to be able to secure his power as uncomplicatedly as possible in the long term. "However, if one takes into account what happened in Kazakhstan earlier this year," says Moisseenko, "when the privileges of the long-time former ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev were curtailed in the course of protests, one could say that Lukashenko does not gain too much from this plebiscite. It is possible that it is a demand by Putin to get more power in Belarus and to reduce the social division somewhat."

The people have been demanding new and fair elections for more than 17 months, but instead they are getting a popular vote on a constitutional change initiated by Lukashenka. This is extremely undemocratic. Not only did the Belarusian people not demand the plebiscite, the proposals in it benefit only the incumbent president and the planned All-Belarusian People's Assembly as the new, irreplaceable organ of state. Thus, what is to happen on Sunday in Belarus can at best be called a plebiscite. But seemingly democratic instruments in an undemocratic country where people cannot participate in the process of drafting constitutional amendments remain unfair. Real, democratic participation remains denied to the citizens of Belarus.

"Usually in elections in Belarus, employees of state-owned enterprises, students and other groups of people are forced to vote early because this is the easiest time to rig elections at night, without the presence of election observers". Explains Moisseenko. "It can be assumed that this will also be the case this time. The democracy movement, on the other hand, is calling for people to turn up on the official election day and cast invalid ballots, because on that day it is more difficult to falsify the results. The Central Election Commission often states a voter turnout of around 80 percent for elections. How much this corresponds to reality is difficult to verify, because no election in Belarus has been recognised as free and independent by the OSCE since 1994. In view of the factors described, however, the turnout may indeed be relatively high.

* The name with the A at the end corresponds to the spelling in Belarusian

Article photo courtesy:  Natallia Rak (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/93940495@N06/50294640737

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