Election-2020: Unexpected candidates spark Belarusian civil society

Civil society initiatives that appeared as a response to the spread of coronavirus speak well to the solidarity of Belarusians. Combatting against the pandemic coincided with the start of the election campaign. And similarly, Belarusians express their strong consolidation by gathering in different towns and queuing to sign up to support the registration of alternative candidates to the presidential post. Whether or not somebody but Lukashenka becomes a president, the upcoming election will definitely bring about changes to Belarusian civil society.

When Belarusians rise up?

The country’s civil society which inherited fear of protest from the Soviet Union is still facing harsh sanctions for the willingness to oppose the system. After Lukashenka’s five opponents disappeared in the 2000s, Belarusian opposition organisations and individuals have been facing suppression which can take different forms. For instance, let’s recall the crackdown on post-election rallies of 2006 and 2010, peaceful clapping protests in 2011, anti-parasite decree demonstrations in 2015, etc. As the regime keeps feeding Belarusians’ fears, protests usually involve 2,000-3,000 people – a number that is rather small for changing the regime.

Belarusian civil society steps forward as strongman defies coronavirus threat

Protest sentiment

In May, the Central Election Commission registered 15 potential candidates for the presidential election that started collecting their 100,000 signatures. Surprisingly, this list included not only predictable names from the Belarusian opposition, but also those of a popular blogger, a banker, and the founder of Belarus’ High Technology Park. Arduous discussions emerged around them: some are suspected of being funded by Russia or coordinated by Lukashenka himself, others are labelled as ‘populists’. But in one way or another, the candidates seem to be gaining support from citizens. As an example, one of the candidates Viktar Babaryka had 50,000 signatures collected just within three days.

Belarusians showed support to the blogger Syarhei Tsikhanouski whose wife Svyatlana is replacing him as a candidate as he was jailed during the registration period. Thousands of people gather at the streets of the Belarusian cities to be present at their pickets. It is an absolutely unprecedented electoral behaviour in Belarus. On May 29, as a result of a set-up, Tsikhanouski was detained in Hrodna; a criminal case has been initiated against him

Hundreds line up all over country to sign for candidates

The Belarusian authorities’ lack of response to the outbreak of COVID-19 has shaken civil society. An impressive number of publications in social networks and independent media allowed for a better understanding of the current developments.

Do Belarusians turn into active civil society?

Most likely, alternative candidates will be dropped from the electoral race on either registration or votes’ count stages. Not many doubt that Lukashenka is not ready to give up his post in 2020. However, regardless of the result of the campaign, Belarusian civil society will face three important changes.

Electoral experience. Irrespective of the election result, many Belarusian voters will for the first time face such practices as voluntarily signing for their candidate without pressure from employers or educational institutions. As well as visible election campaign of alternative candidates will look unprecedented for many Belarusians. As the regime has lesser control over the Internet that is the main source of information about the alternative candidates, millions of people will get a chance to familiarise themselves with electoral procedures and practices.

People spend hours in line to sign for alternative candidates. Minsk, 31 May 2020. Photo: Belsat

With ordinary citizens supporting some candidates, awareness of detentions and electoral rights violations will increase despite denial on the state-owned TV channels.

Both electoral experience and awareness on their rights’ violation among ordinary Belarusians who have never been involved in politics, will have an impact on the protest sentiment. It is unlikely that millions will participate in street protests after the announcement of the election result. However, considering mobilisation potential presidential candidates, it is possible to expect a wave of street rallies in August, 2020.

Alesia Rudnik, for belsat.eu