With three days to go before the start of regular voting in Belarus’ presidential election, Belarusian police have detained independent election observers amidst reports of unusually high official turnout for early voting, while supporters of lead opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya are now encountering obstacles for holding rallies.
Although it has warned repeatedly about alleged attempts to undermine the elections, the government does not appear yet to have addressed all the complaints related to these occurrences.
According to the Central Election Commission’s data, turnout within the first two days of voting amounted to 12.5 percent of Belarus’ 6,836,350 registered voters – far higher than during early voting periods for previous presidential elections. On the first day alone, 4.98 percent of these voters cast their ballots.
Independent election monitors already are challenging the veracity of those figures; particularly since ballot boxes are left unattended overnight.
The human-rights center Vyasna’s vote-monitoring project has documented instances when the day-end protocol for polling stations showed a higher turnout than that documented by independent observers.
Election commission members throughout Belarus, however, are often refusing to let independent observers into polling stations, sometimes summoning police who may detain and fine the observers, the project has found.
Over the past two days, 19 such cases have been registered. At least two observers have received jail terms of up to 10 days for allegedly, for not obeying law enforcement, according to Vyasna. In one case in Vitebsk, two observers were charged with “petty hooliganism.”
In response, Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidiya Yermoshina stressed that most of these cases occur because more observers come to a polling station than the three allowed during early voting. Polling stations have been advised to post a schedule to clarify who can be in the building at what time, she told the independent news outlet TUT.by.
The CEC has attributed the restriction to anti-coronavirus precautions – preventive measures which critics charge the Belarusian government has otherwise largely failed to take. Five observers will be allowed in each of the country’s 5,767 polling stations on election day itself, August 9.
The presence of fewer observers prompted Tsikhanouskaya to call on her supporters not to vote during the early voting period.
She has promoted use of an alternative-vote-count site run by the election-monitoring group Chestnye Lyudi (Honest People). Fourteen accredited Chestnye Lyudi observers have been detained since August 4.
President Lukashenka on August 6 requested the Prosecutor-General’s Office and “judges” to evaluate the legality of “an alternative vote-count on election day.”
He expressed pleasure with the election’s conduct to date, stating that “people” are “not bothering anyone.”
The Tsikhanouskaya campaign strongly disagrees.
On August 6, the candidate, whose rallies in Minsk have attracted thousands, canceled plans for another large-scale rally, authorized by city officials for the Peoples’ Friendship park. An official event honoring the country’s railway troops had subsequently been scheduled for the same venue and time.
Police did not allow Tsikhanouskaya’s staff to prepare a stage for the rally in the park, which traffic police had closed in the morning as soldiers there prepared for their own event, the campaign alleged.
“These are absolutely illegal actions by the authorities,” Tsikhanouskaya campaign spokeswoman Hanna Krasulina commented to TUT.by. The campaign will file complaints with the Central Election Commission, the Prosecutor-General’s Office, and the city government, she said.
Permission to relocate the rally to another site in the Belarusian capital was reportedly denied. Instead, Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters plan to hold a flashmob on August 6 at a city-run education event designated for Kyiv Square, another Minsk location that had been intended for campaign events. (Current Time coverage of Belarus' August 6 election events begins at 5:30 p.m., Prague time.)
Police earlier brought in Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign manager, Maryya Moroz, for what the campaign termed “an explanatory discussion.” She was later released, but was warned about holding “unauthorized events.”
Similar situations occurred on August 4 in the central towns of Salihorsk and Slutsk, where municipal workers began work that prevented access to venues for authorized Tsikhanouskaya rallies.
When the Tsikhanouskaya campaign announced that the Slutsk rally, designated for a town square, had been canceled because of unexpected repair work, riot police, known as OMON, swarmed in to scatter the rally participants who had already gathered. One middle-aged man in shorts yelled “What for, what for?” as the OMON bundled him into a mini-bus.
What in Belarusian is called “khapun” – riot police grabbing random people out of a crowd for detention – also occurred. In Salihorsk, where excavators suddenly began work at the designated rally venue, Belarusian journalist Uladzimir Ufimtsev from local news portal Lider Press was hauled off to a police station. He was not charged and eventually released.
In an interview with Current Time, Tsikhanouskaya campaign representative Mayya Kalesnikava emphasized that the campaign, going up against a president who has been in power for 26 years, does not intend to let such obstacles discourage it.
“The more they forbid people from doing something, the more they want to do it; the more they understand how unjust the authorities are and how unjust is everything that is now going on,” she said.