President Alexander Lukashenko was first elected in 1994, shortly after the breakup of the USSR. He campaigned as an Independent, a moniker he continues to carry to this day, and won in both the first and second rounds of voting; in the final round beating his pro-Russian opponent by a margin of 60 percentage points. The 1994 Presidential election remains the only free and fair election in Belarus’ short history.
Immediately after his election, Lukashenko looked to Russia and firmly aligned himself with Moscow. It’s clear that Belarus is rare amongst the European former-SSRs, Lukashenko continues to look back upon the Byelorussian SSR with rose-tinted glasses, retaining pro-Soviet iconography and continuing the proud Soviet legacy of fixing elections. Since his initial triumph in 1994, the President has been re-elected four times, each time with a legacy of voter suppression, conveniently-timed arrests and misinformation. In 2006, the Social Democratic candidate for the presidency, Alaksandar Kazulin, was arrested and beaten whilst protesting outside the All Belarusian People’s Assembly, a misnomer as most opposed to Lukashenko are routinely blocked from entering. In 2010, no fewer than seven presidential candidates were arrested with the runner-up, Andrei Sannikov who scored an impressive 3% of the vote, placed under house arrest. Fans of consistency will be pleased to know that 2020 appears to be little different, fans of democracy however are likely to be both angry and unsurprised.
Ten candidates were banned from standing before the election campaign had even started, amongst them Viktar Babaryka, Valery Tsepkalo and Siarhei Tsikhanouski; the former and the latter have since been arrested whilst Tsepkalo has fled to Russia with his family following threats from the state prosecutor. There are still five candidates running for the presidency:
- Alexander Lukashenko (Independent)
- Siarhei Cherachen (Social Democrats)
- Hanna Kanapatskaya (Independent)
- Andrey Dmitriev (Tell the Truth)
- Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (Independent)
You may note the similarities between the surname of the last candidate on that list and one of the aforementioned arrested candidates listed above and you’d be right if you assumed that there was some relation. Sviatlana Tsikhanouski is the wife of Sierhei and only entered once her husband was detained. In recent weeks, there has been a breath of fresh air about Sviatlana’s campaign amongst the disillusioned in Belarus, her campaign rallies have broken attendance records and there have been further protests planned when Lukashenko wins his obvious victory. Might this be a watershed moment for Belarus? It’s possible but unlikely. Russia has already seen one of it’s previously stalwart allies in Ukraine turn away from Moscow and it would come as a huge surprise if it allowed Minsk to follow suit. What will be of interest is what happens after the election results are published, given that the official turnout figures have allegedly been leaked four hours before polls actually close this may be sooner rather than later. If the opposition are planning any major events, you can expect to see a heavy police presence with the KGB (another old relic of Soviet Russia) already allegedly out in the field. Regardless, you get the sense that until Lukashenko himself decides to give up power, the people of Belarus are likely to remain living in Europe’s last dictatorship.