For the first time, the main opponent of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus for the last 26 years, is a woman. At the beginning of the election campaign, the Belarusian president confidently stated that “the country’s constitution is not for women” and that “a man will become president.” Having got rid of the most serious male opponents, Lukashenka could barely believe that the protest against his regime will have a female face.
Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya unexpectedly entered the race
Fifteen people took part in this year’s election campaign. Among them there are four women. For Belarus, this figure itself came as a surprise, as the first female candidate in Belarus appeared only in the presidential election of 2015.
Ex-banker Viktar Babaryka, former Belarusian Ambassador to the United States and founder of high-tech park Valery Tsapkala, vlogger Syarhei Tsikhanouski were leading unofficial independent polls. Signature collection for their nomination as presidential candidates unexpectedly gathered huge lines of people in different cities of the country.
Against the background of a weak economy, tensions with Russia, and public dissatisfaction with an official response to COVID-19, such popularity of opponents could not help but disturb the regime. As a result, Babaryka and Tsapkala, who submitted the most signatures for their presidential nomination, were denied registration by the Central Election Commission. Most of the signatures collected by Tsapkala were declared invalid. Babaryka was accused of improperly filing tax declarations and the involvement of foreign finances. Babaryka and his son were detained and are still in pre-trial detention, and vlogger Tsikhanouski remains jailed since May for allegedly “organizing illegal street rallies.”
The wife of Syarhei Tsikhanouski, Svyatlana, applied for registration as a presidential candidate instead of her imprisoned spouse. The woman had no political experience, no particular program, and appeared to the public as worried and sometimes confused. After receiving threats against her family and children, she was one step away from withdrawing her candidacy, but still applied for registration and received a candidate’s ID.
Among Lukashenka’s opponents appeared Andrey Dzmitryeu, Syarhei Cherachan, and former member of parliament, Hanna Kanapatskaya. Even against their background, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya looked like the least experienced player. The CEC registered her despite issues with the tax declaration as she could likely ensure bigger turnout at the election day and legitimize another elegant victory for Lukashenka.
Female triumvirate against Lukashenka
And then the surprises began. Tsikhanouskaya’s team unexpectedly merged with the campaigners of the unregistered Babaryka and Tsapkala.
Tsikhanouskaya, a former interpreter and housewife, highlights that she is running “for love” replacing her husband. Maryia Kalesnikava, a musician and cultural activist, stepped up after the detention of wannabe candidate Viktar Babaryka. Veranika Tsapkala, who supported her husband during the collection of signatures, represents her husband’s campaign in the united team.
Holding their first press-conference, three politicians shared that it took only 15 minutes to decide on unification. This move was seen by many as an achievement after unsuccessful attempts of traditional opposition male politicians unable to unite in many years.
A photo of Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Maryia Kalesnikava (Babaryka’s chief of staff) and Veranika Tsapkala (chief of staff and Valery Tsapkala’s wife) became viral on Belarusian Internet. It gave a new impetus to the protest movement in Belarus.
Maryia Kalesnikava, Veranika Tsapkala, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Photo: novychas.by
Such a development was unexpected for the Belarusian regime, which planned to secure Lukashenka’s victory over weak and little-known opposition opponents. The expectation that the activists of Babaryka and Tsapkala’s teams will disperse and all other political forces fall out on the eve of the election did not come true.
Many celebrities, including Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, publicly spoke in support of Tsikhanouskaya and her new allies. Tsikhanouskaya, Tsapkala, and Kalesnikava also called for support of famous Belarusian athletes Darya Domrachava, Viktoryia Azaranka, and Maxim Mirny. Interviews and public speeches of the triumvirate are the most popular Belarus-related topic on non-state and foreign media.
In such a situation, the authorities are feverishly deciding how to neutralize the “women’s triumvirate” that has suddenly become so popular.
On July 22, Andrey Mukavozchyk, a pro-government propagandist, wrote an article about the Women’s Revolution, or Women’s Rebellion. In the piece, he described how the “color revolution” was being prepared in Belarus.
“Under the guise of democracy, revolt, riots, attacks, and the seizure of power are being prepared, “ Mukavozchyk writes. The cure against the new opposition, according to propagandists, is to “cut, burn, isolate and thoughtfully treat”.
Tsikhanouskaya&Co present a plan
After the unification, the three teams have presented the principles of their future campaign. They encourage voters to participate in the election on election day, avoid early voting, defending their votes by available means, release political and economic prisoners, and announce a new free and fair election after winning the current race. Tsikhanouskaya&Co have not yet presented a clear program but repeatedly highlight this electoral campaign goals.
Despite criticism over the lack of political experience and concrete political agenda, the three female politicians managed to generate massive support from Belarusians. More than 7,000 people visited the first campaign meeting of Tsikhanouskaya in Minsk, tens of thousands have expressed their public support in social media or engaged in initiatives proposed by the candidates.
The predictable result of the election will unlikely stop the wave of politicization and activation of Belarusian civil society. The only challenge for the united female-opposition is to find a way to convert this activism into sensible political actions after the election.
Alesia Rudnik for belsat.eu