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Belarus: 2024 elections will not be 'free and fair'

Emma Levashkevich
February 24, 2024

As the country gears up for its first elections since 2020, human rights activists have said the conditions for a democratic vote do not exist in Belarus. The regime is doing its utmost to keep voters under its control.

A group of people and a Belarusian flag
Independent election observers haven't been invited to take part in the voting process, though other post-Soviet states will be representedImage: Ales Petrovich/DW

On February 25, Belarusians will be electing lawmakers in parliament and local councils across the country — in the first elections in Belarus since the political crisis of 2020.

Voters will elect 110 lawmakers in the lower house of the parliament and 12,000 local council representatives. Regardless of how many people take part in these elections, they will be considered valid. In contrast to previous elections, there is no minimum participation rate.

In summer 2020, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko was simply declared the winner of the country's last presidential election despite widespread evidence the vote had been rigged. The decision led to mass anti-government protests, and the regime ended up postponing all scheduled elections over the next few years: local elections had been set for 2022, while the parliamentary ballot should have been held last year.

Political landscape has been 'cleansed'

The regime has now thoroughly "cleansed" the political landscape, observers have said. In their Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign, the Viasna Human Rights Center, based in the capital, Minsk, and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee have pointed out that the conditions for free elections are "currently practically absent in Belarus."

Alexander Lukashenko and the Belarusian flag
Alexander Lukashenko is widely believed to have rigged the 2020 presidential electionImage: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

Of the 16 political parties in existence in 2020, only four remain and all of these have expressed their full support for Lukashenko.

Authorities created an atmosphere of fear even before the 2024 elections were announced, with human rights activists saying repression and arbitrary arrests have become commonplace. "After the presidential election, the regime devastated the public and political sphere systematically. There is no more space for debate," said campaigners.

At the end of 2020, they were aware of 650 cases of political persecution. The number rose to 1,380 in 2021 and to 3,800 in 2022. By the end of 2023, they had counted 5,200 cases. 

Belarusians abroad not allowed to vote

Political analyst Artyom Shraibman, who himself was forced to flee Belarus, said the elections would be a "test of the system to see if everything still holds."

"I think that explains the nervousness," he added.

This time, authorities are hoping to exert as much control as possible on voters. Polling booths won't have privacy curtains, and voters have been prohibited from taking photos of their ballot papers.

Moreover, Belarusians residing abroad will no longer be allowed vote in embassies, a new rule set to disenfranchise more than 1.8 million people.

Names of the members of the various election commissions will be kept secret. The Belarusian Telegraph Agency, the country's state news agency, even recently blurred the faces of the candidates in a photo used to report on the elections.

No OSCE election observers

For the third election in a row, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, will not be allowed to participate. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has said the "reasons for this are clear and simple."

They include "the traditional dominance of representatives of Western countries in OSCE missions," the "unjustified and tough political and economic sanctions on the part of Western countries" and the "deterioration of logistical opportunities for Belarusians leaving and entering the country."

Belarus heads to polls for parliamentary elections

Last month, Matteo Mecacci, the director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said he feared the failure to invite OSCE observers "will prevent the country's citizens and institutions from benefiting from an impartial, transparent and comprehensive assessment.

"This is contrary to the commitments made by Belarus, and goes against both the letter and the spirit of collaboration on which the OSCE is based," he added.

Human rights activists have also decided not to monitor the elections this year, for security reasons. However, a commission of experts will gather information from open sources and thus it will be possible to report violations of the elections on an anonymous basis.

"Today, there are major risks for independent election observers," said Belarusian lawyer Svetlana Golovneva. "The authorities have revoked the licenses of human rights organizations that used to be able to legally send observers to polling stations. Some organizations have even been classified as extremists, which is why they can also be prosecuted."

Vote can't be described as an 'election': government-in-exile

According to the Central Election Commission, the elections will be observed — just not by the OSCE. They've invited representatives from election commissions in other post-Soviet CIS states and delegates from the Association of World Election Bodies.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Collective Security Treaty Organization will also send a mission. Formed in 2002, the organization is a Russia-led military alliance that comprises several other former members of the Soviet Union.

On Thursday, according to the Belarusian Telegraph Agency, the Central Election Commission announced it had also accredited 23 EU representatives for the elections. No names or organizations were given, but they reportedly include people from Germany, Lithuania, Poland and other states.

Tsikhanouskaya hopes for support for government-in-exile

Golovneva pointed out that undemocratic regimes often set up pseudo-independent observation missions to give elections a positive assessment. "Since there is no possibility of observation by civil society or international independent observers, it will be much more difficult to collect evidence that the elections were not held freely and fairly," she said.

Pro-democracy forces in Belarus and abroad have said the upcoming vote cannot be described as an "election." Valery Kovalevsky, the representative of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus, the government-in-exile, told DW there was "no real campaign for parliamentary or local elections and no elementary conditions for holding such elections."

He added that there were no independent media or alternative candidates who would properly fight for seats. "You can't talk about fair and free elections in Belarus when there are thousands of political prisoners who won't be able to participate," he said.

This article was originally written in Russian.