In the early years of independence, Belarus was a parliamentary republic. A multiparty system quickly took shape, with the following key participants:
|National Democrats||Includes the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) and the Social-Democratic Union|
|Communists||Sought the restoration of the Soviet Union|
|Agrarian||Left-wing party that supported Belarusian independence|
|United Civic Party||Supported democracy and economic reform, but opposed Belarusian nationalism and favored close integration with Russia|
In March 1994, the parliament adopted a new constitution, creating a presidency that would be the head of government rather than the prime minister. But Belarus’ first presidential elections, held in the summer of 1994, led to the surprise defeat of incumbent Prime Minister Vyachaslaw Kyebich. The winner, with 82% of the vote, was former collective farm chairman Alexander Lukashenko, who ran as an independent and had only recently started to gain popularity as an anti-corruption campaigner.
Lukashenko moved quickly to consolidate his position. He filled the government with loyalists, brought the media under his control, and reintroduced press censorship.
Lukashenko proposed that the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 1995 be accompanied by a referendum. The referendum was to grant Russian equal status with Belarusian as a state language, return the Soviet-era flag minus soviet symbols, approve economic integration with Russia, and give the president the right to dissolve parliament in a crisis. Parliamentary opposition to the referendum (especially the president’s right to dissolve parliament) was quickly broken by Lukashenko. Hunger-striking deputies were forcibly evicted from parliament during the search for an alleged bomb, and they were prevented from telling their story to the public because state television and radio were blocked off due to the search for another alleged bomb. Parliament soon approved Lukashenko’s referendum questions.
The electorate endorsed the referendum propositions, but the elections were undermined by severe restrictions on campaigning and a media blackout. Still, despite two rounds of voting, not enough candidates were elected for a quorum in parliament. International monitors judged the elections “neither free nor fair,” leading to the suspension of Belarus’ application to join the Council of Europe.
New elections were again held late in 1995, with evidence that the results were falsified. In January 1996, the new parliament convened and elected Agrarian Party leader Semyon Sharetsky as its chairman. In 1996 jailing of opposition activists began, and some BPF leaders sought political asylum in the United States.
The extension of presidential powers culminated in November 1996, when yet another constitution was approved by referendum. Presidential powers were now virtually unlimited.
OSCE, Council of Europe, and European Parliament concerned
While electoral institutions have not been formally eliminated, political conditions in Belarus today are close to those of a dictatorship. The OSCE, the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament have expressed concern at the poor human rights situation in Belarus. These have included revelations of a government-sponsored death squad that had assassinated about thirty opposition figures from 1997 to 2001. The most notable disappearances were Yuri Zakharenko, the former Minister of the Interior (disappeared on 7 May 1999), Victor Gonchar, former Vice-President of the Parliament of Belarus (disappeared on 16 September 1999), Anatoly Krasovski, businessman (disappeared with Mr Gonchar) and Dmitri Zavadski, cameraman for the Russian TV channel ORT (disappeared on 7 July 2000).
2001 Presidential election
Presidential elections were held in September 2001. The main opposition candidate was head of the Trade Union Federation Vladimir Goncharik. According to the official results, Lukashenko was re-elected with 76% of the vote. According to an independent count, Lukashenko had obtained only 46%. OSCE monitors found that the election failed to meet international standards.
An election official places ballot papers on the table as other officials prepare to count the votes at a polling station in Tolochin during parliamentary elections in Belarus, 17 October 2004.
2004 Parliamentary elections and referendum
Parliamentary elections held in October 2004 were said by the OSCE to have fallen significantly short of OSCE commitments. The OSCE said the rights of association and expression were seriously challenged by the authorities, while the right to seek political office without discrimination, for candidates to present views, and voters to learn about and discuss them, were largely ignored.
A referendum held at the same time proposing the removal of the two-term limit on holding the presidency was reportedly approved by 77% of the voters, allowing Lukashenko to continue to run and hold office. The referendum was scheduled to coincide with the parliamentary elections at the last minute, so the OSCE, although it was invited to observe it, was only able to take note of its impact on the elections. Nonetheless, the OSCE noted the government’s unrestrained bias in favor of the referendum campaign, and its unregulated intrusion into the polling stations, which contributed to a highly distorted campaign environment.
After the 2004 election, on October 19, riot police carried out violent attacks on Belarusian opposition leaders after a political demonstration in Minsk. An independent journalist was stabbed to death in her apartment days later.
In December 2004, authorities sentenced opposition figure Mikhail Marynich, a former government minister and diplomat, to jail for 3 1/2 years on spurious charges (the sentence was later reduced by one year). At least five other opposition politicians were jailed or arrested. Local student activists, together with Russian, Ukrainian, and Georgian activists, were also detained.
Nearly 800 delegates from opposition parties and NGOs held a “Congress of Democratic Forces” to agree on a single candidate to oppose Lukashenko in the 2006 presidential elections. Civil society representative and former regional civil servant Alexander Milinkevich was selected over opposition party leader Anatoly Lebedko by 399 to 391 ballots.
2006 presidential election
Lukashenko won 82.6% of the votes and reelection in the March 2006 presidential election, according to Belarus election officials. The OSCE reported that the election did not meet required international standards for free and fair elections, noting that arbitrary use of state power and widespread detentions showed a disregard for basic rights and raised doubts regarding the authorities’ willingness to tolerate political competition. In contrast, a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) observer mission stated that despite some technical violations, the election had taken place within the requirements of Belarusian law.
In July 2006 opposition leader Alyaksandr Kazulin was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for “hooliganism” and “incitement to mass disorder.” Other activists were sentenced to shorter terms.
Andrei Kim, another opposition activist considered a political prisoner in the West, was sentenced to 18 months in jail in April 2008 for allegedly attacking a policeman at a protest by small businessmen.
Milinkevich worked with other opposition parties to highlight the goal of holding free and democratic elections in Belarus. His own party also focused on countering government statements of economic success under Lukashenko.
Demonstrations against Lukashenko
An estimated 10,000 protestors participated in one of the largest demonstrations against Lukashenko in the Belarus capital of Minsk on March 25, 2007. Milinkevich addressed the crowd.
A demonstration by 3,000 commemorating the 90th anniversary of the formation of the Belarusian National Republic in Minsk in March 2008 was violently broken up by police. Belarusian KGB raids on the homes of regime opponents and journalists followed.
The For Freedom Movement led by Milinkevich organized a “Chernobyl Way” March in Minsk on August 28, mirroring earlier mass protest marches.
2008 parliamentary elections
The September 2008 election for the House of Representatives was a landslide for the parties and non-partisan candidates loyal to Lukashenko. The opposition parties failed to gain any of the 110 available seats.
The OSCE/International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) reported that the election fell short of OSCE commitments for democratic elections. Its report stated that promises made by the authorities to ensure the transparency of the vote count were not properly implemented. The election environment was also strictly controlled, with a barely visible campaign. Further substantial efforts would be required were Belarus to conduct genuine democratic elections, according to the IEOM.
In contrast, the CIS Election Monitoring organization again asserted that the elections conformed to international standards.
2010 presidential election
According to the Central Electoral Commission, there was a 90% voter turnout, with 79.67% of voters re-electing Lukashenko. The OSCE called the election "flawed," saying it fell well short of democratic standards.
Opposition candidate Andrei Sannikau, who had the second highest percentage of the popular votes was charged with inciting a riot and setenced to five years imprisonment, but was eventually pardoned by Lukashenko, following international criticism, and released in April 2012. Sannikau's wife, noted journalist Iryna Khalip, was put under house arrest. Authorities threatened to remove their 3-year old son, who was staying with his grandparents, and place him in a state orphanage. Opposition lawyers acted to prevent the government action. Khalip later stood trial, charged with inciting mass unrest, and sentenced to two years imprisonment.A large opposition demonstration was held following announcement of the election results to protest the outcome. The demonstration was not sanctioned and resulted in the mass arrest of over 1000 people, the majority of whom were sentenced to fifteen days detention. Opposition candidates were also arrested along with human rights activists and journalists.
Opposition candidate, Uladzimir Nyaklyayew was seriously beaten on election day by unidentified men when he was on his way to the opposition protest rally in Minsk. He sustained a head injury during this beating and was later taken from intensive care by the Belarusian authorities. On January 28, 2011, Nyaklyayew was transferred from prison to house arrest. Later that same year in May, a district judge in Minsk sentenced Nyaklyayew to a suspended two-year prison term with two years` probation, finding him guilty of instigating disturbances in connection with the post-election protest.
2012 parliamentary elections
The opposition United Civic and BPS parties boycotted the election, and Lukashenko supporters took all110 seats in the House of Representatives, the lower house of the National Assembly of Belarus. Almost all the winners won an absolute majority with the necessary turnout, with only one constituency failing to elect a candidate in the first round. The Central Election Commission declared nationwide voter turnout at least 65.9%, validating the results. Independent monitors suggested a turnout of 30%.
The two main opposition parties called for voters to go fishing or pick mushrooms, and avoid voting so as not to give the election and new parliament legitimacy. Opposition activists accused the government of forcing higher education students to vote under threat of losing subsidies. In the week prior to the election, state security police broke up gatherings and arrested activists who had urged voters to cook borshch, a traditional soup instead of going to vote. Journalists were also arrested, but later released.
Alexander Milinkevich, who ran in the 2006 presidential election tried to register as a candidate for the elections but was disqualified for technical reasons. Other known opposition leaders who ran in the 2010 Presidential Election did not participate in the election.
Next presidential election
The next presidential election is scheduled for November 2015.