Point of no return? 20 years on referendum that marked end of democracy in Belarus

The Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus (LDPB) will seek to hold a referendum on amendments to the Constitution, including changing the presidential term from 5 to 7 years.

“A package of three issues is to be considered, there is no use in isolation from one another. The first and most important one is a transition to the proportional-majoritarian electoral system, i.e. electing deputies from party lists,” says Aleh Haydukevich, deputy chairman of pro-Lukashenka LDPB.

Another issue is extending the term of office of deputies from 4 to 5 years, It is needed ‘because of the cost reasons’, the politician stresses.

Right time, right place

Mr Haydukevich announced his party’s initiative in the run-up of the 20th anniversary of the 1996 referendum which led to the accumulation of all power in the hands of president Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Sidestepping the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Council, the Belarusian leader made the referendum results binding, not advisory. He also removed Viktar Hanchar from the position of Chairman of the Central Election Commission; Lukashenka’s loyal supporter Lidziya Yarmoshyna stepped into Hanchar’s shoes.

After the voting in 1996, Lukashenka disbanded the Supreme Soviet – the then Belarusian parliament – and established the rubber-stamping National Assembly, received the authority to hold referendums and appoint top officials. His decrees and orders became stronger than laws. In 2004, with the help of another referendum, the head of state made possible his running for the third and even following presidential terms. Interestingly, he has recently mentioned the need for a new voting so that Belarus could ‘keep up with the times’.

But Lukashenka failed to go into detail. This may be a case of power transmission mechanisms, e.g. reducing age limit for presidency, introducing life-time presidency or justa simpler procedure of appointing president.

Protest actions as last resort

Many politicians and experts are sceptical about the prospect of a referendum in 2018. Why should it happen? Lukashenka does have unlimited power now, they say.

“20 years ago, all the democratic mechanisms in Belarus were rooted out. No opportunities to influence on the authorities are left, because we have no elections, no real parliament, no independent judiciary. The only mechanism that remains is public actions,” says former political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich.

Opposition politicians Mikalai Statkevich and Uladzimir Nyaklyayueu are calling on Belarusians to exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly today at 18:00 in Freedom Square in Minsk: they are set to organize a rally on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the 1996 anti-constitutional developments. 

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