The Belarusian opposition’s initiative is in its pivotal point: the current conflict of participants in the unofficial primaries casts a shadow on the opposition’s ability to pit a strong rival against Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the upcoming election. Both the pandemic and the Belarusian authorities’ efforts are challenging the initiative’s credibility.
Since 1994, Alyaksandr Lukashenka has consistently been president of Belarus. It is the first time since 2006 that the Belarusian opposition has managed to unite in selecting a single candidate for the 2020 presidential election.
This initiative immediately faced sharp criticism by some civil society representatives. Thus, according to the campaign Fresh Wind, the nomination of a single candidate is pointless as the authorities are in full control of the elections and they will be definitely playing into Lukashenka’s hands again. In such conditions, participating in elections cannot but legitimise the existing political regime, the Fresh Wind activists believe. Moreover, such a candidate is unlikely to become the only opponent of the incumbent leader. The nomination of their own candidates has already been announced by the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus, and the movement Tell the Truth. Although the latter that claims to be oppositional, they decided against taling part in the primaries. Moreover, opposition politician and former political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich even suggests several dozen candidates be nominated in case he is denied registration.
However, some parties and movements did agree to launch the primaries in order to elect a would-be single opponent of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The wannabe list included Pavel Sevyarynets (Belarusian Christian Democracy), Alyaksei Yanukevich (Belarusian People’s Front), Volha Kavalkova (Belarusian Christian Democracy), Yury Hubarevich (Movement for Freedom) and Mikalai Kazlou (United Civic Party). Online voting available for the Belarusian citizens (here) and the voting at the Belarusian National Congress in May are supposed to determine the winner who is to compete with Lukashenka in August, 2020.
At first, the organisers of the primaries were very optimistic. The campaign began amid the deterioration of Belarus-Russia relations and Moscow’s shifting away from Lukashenka. Residents of many Belarusian towns quite actively attended the meetings with the candidates, though the organisers hoped for more attention from locals. At the beginning, the race was captured by Pavel Sevyarynets, but as soon as Yury Hubarevich won several towns in the Brest region, the honeymoon was over.
Pavel Sevyarynets stepped down from the primaries on March 16, accusing Hubarevich of gaining support from local authorities and government officials.
According to Sevyaryanets, Hubarevich is not shying away from mobilising the regime’s resources while the authorities are trying to distort the primaries procedure and undermine the credibility of this initiative.
The start of the primaries coincided with the onset of the spread of the novel coronavirus in Belarus. The pandemic barely worries the Belarusian president who has recently stated that the tractor and the field shall cure Belarusians. Nevertheless, amid the rising threat, some opposition representatives suspend their regional trips. When quitting the competition for the single candidate, Pavel Sevyarynets urged his recent associates to cancel all the meetings in the regions.
“I am leaving the primaries procedure. First, we are facing the coronavirus situation: I insisted that the Council (of the primaries – Belsat) freeze trips and meetings starting from today, but other candidates did not support it. The second issue concerned the participation of representatives of the district executive committees, but colleagues decided that it was reasonable for the officials to attend the primaries and vote. In this regard, I consider my further participation in the primaries impossible,” he said.
A day later, Alyaksei Yanukevich announced his quitting the race and gave similar reasons. He also stated that he would return to the primaries only if Seviarynets did. Consequently, only three oppositional candidates fighting for the role of the single candidate remain.
Belarusian columnist Alyaksandr Fyaduta believes that some of the competing oppositional politicians were hardly ready to realise that the Belarusian electorate is broader than a group of opposition supporters.
“The point is not that the situation has changed, and everything has gone wrong against the scenario. The fact is that the new scenario does not appear to have been discussed at all by the organisers of the primaries. They simply accepted the axiom that only the residents of the opposition ghetto and a few public activists would vote in the election,” the expert stressed.
The primaries procedure is on a break now due to the pandemic of COVID-10. To make up for the temporary lack of regional meetings, online voting was launched.
„If the pandemic ends before the election, the government will undoubtedly take an advantage of this fact to represent itself the winner, attributing the merits in the fight against the coronavirus. And if the pandemic continues during the election, it will complicate the situation because the authorities will have to decide how to ensure voter turnout,” said Andrey Yahorau, the director of the Centre of European Transformation.
On the back of the pandemic, chances of the opposition to arouse the voters’ majority from indifference are very limited. Besides, the participants in the primaries have not yet announced the strategy of how they are going to do so. If the single candidate initiative does not fail in the near future, Yury Hubarevich’s Movement for Freedom seems to be a hopeful of the primaries, political analyst Zmitser Kukhley said in a comment for Nashe Mnenie magazine.
Journalist Vadzim Kaznacheyeu, who came up with the idea of staging primaries as far back as 2003, the initiative should aim at electing a leader of the nation, not just Lukashenka’s opponent.
Even if he gets registered as a presidential candidate, Hubarevich’s position in confronting Lukashenka will be fragile. Unlike Alyaksandr Milinkevich (a former leader of the movement), Hubarevich lacks popularity. The opposition politicians’ level of recognition and credibility remains very low in Belarus. In addition, even the opposition supporters’ votes will be split between several opposition candidates, which will only strengthen Lukashenka’s position.
In these settings, not a single opposition candidate or any other political opponent will become a strong rival to Alyaksandr Lukashenka. But the pandemic can disrupt not only the opposition’s plans, but also ruin Lukashenka’s reputation. Minsk’s policy of no-quarantine may result in rising mortality in the country and unpredictable consequences for the economy.