Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections

Праваабарончы цэнтр «Вясна» беларускі хельсінкскі камітэт

Reliability and control: ‘Labor collectives’ as election trend

Year after year, state-owned enterprises and institutions have helped provided human resources to form the election commissions, ‘cooperative’ observers and loyal candidates. The tradition rests upon the country’s legislation, which defines a company’s staff (‘labor collective’) as a key actor of the electoral process, a fact opposed by many independent experts as an anachronism of the Soviet past.

The labor collective’s role in the administration of elections is enshrined both in the Belarusian Constitution and in the Electoral Code. According to the legislation, labor groups can nominate representatives to election commissions of different levels; they can also send their observers and put forward candidates. Thus, the ‘corporate principle’, according to independent observers, has become pervasive and is used to ensure the reliability and control of the key moments of the campaign.

Same people in election commissions — same election results

Election observers have repeatedly said that the formation of precinct election commissions, electoral bodies in charge of the vote count, is based on the ‘corporate principle’. As evidenced by the comparative analysis of the composition of the PECs during the elections of different levels, they are usually formed according to the following pattern: the commission is composed of the employees of the same company, while the chairperson is their boss. All this is carefully concealed. Firstly, employees of one enterprise are nominated in different ways — from the labor collective, from political parties and other public associations, as well as by submitting citizens’ petitions. Secondly, local authorities, which form the election commissions, tend to publish incomplete lists — without specifying the place of work and positions of their members. As a result, media announcements, which contain the names and the type of nomination of PEC members, suggest that the commissions are composed of people representing many different organizations. However, observers know that this is just a hoax, criticizing the approach through independent media, while the Central Election Commission keeps receiving hundreds of complaints, which are often totally ignored.

A striking example is the work of Siarhei Housha, an observer of the campaign "Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections" in Baranavičy. He analyzed the composition of six precinct commissions and found that over the past three election campaigns — presidential elections of 2010 and 2015, as well as this year’s parliamentary elections — they consist of representatives of the same organizations. Precinct election commission No. 19 (electoral district No. 5) employed representatives of local school No. 16 headed by schoolmaster Viachaslau Dziauho (in 2010, the commission was chaired by the then schoolmaster of the school). Commission No. 6 brings together employees of Lyceum No. 1 headed by its schoolmaster Aliaksei Bychkouski. Commission No. 20 is composed of the staff of a local auto aggregate plant headed by the director Vital Yurkevich. Teachers of school No. 20 team headed by the schoolmaster Mikhail Mishyn formed precinct commission No. 14 (electoral district No. 6), representatives of the zonal center for hygiene and epidemiology, headed by director Siarhei Pleskatsevich, are members of commission No. 28, and  employees of school No. 17 team headed by the schoolmistress Aliona Marozava are on commission No. 12.

The observer notes that during the current elections at least 80% of the PECs’ members are the persons who worked as electoral officials in earlier campaigns. Those who retired have been replaced by new members, who, however, work in the same institutions and enterprises.

“In these polling stations (just like in the others), the chairmen of precinct election commissions are the head teachers of schools, top managers of enterprises and institutions, while ordinary members of the commission are their subordinates. Of course, a complete contract dependence on the boss (who is also chairman of the commission) will not allow commissioners to oppose the figures in the final protocol after the counting of votes. This is what happens in the elections at all levels in the last fifteen years. That is why the election commissions very seldom include outsiders, members of democratic parties and non-governmental public organizations,” says Siarhei Housha in his complaint to the CEC, asking to publish lists with full information on the members of election commissions.

“Analyzing all this helps you realize that election commissions were formed long before the elections were called. They are comprised of people approved by the power vertical, and the meetings that formed these commissions were purely technical, they were used a safeguard against unwanted persons getting on the commissions,” says the human rights defender. “The same people on the district and precinct election commissions secure the same voting results. Can we then call these elections fair?”

It's no secret that the "esprit de corps" of election commissions is strengthened by using loyal observers, who are registered with the same commissions and are often nominated by the same labor collectives. Earlier election campaigns were marked by many adverse approaches of local authorities, including labelling the observers as ‘cooperative’ and ‘opposition’ ones, instructions for pro-government observers and so on.

Corporate principle as administrative resource in nominating candidates

Article 69 of the Constitution gives the labor collectives of Belarus the right to nominate candidates. The right is also enshrined in Article 63 of the Electoral Code. However, the laws do not defined whether the candidates should be employees of these companies.

“I’ve consulted the Electoral Code, and it does not say anything on this issue, only describing the nomination procedure and so on. Then I looked through the CEC’s Guidelines for the district election commissions, which says that the nominee is not obliged to be an employee of the enterprise that has put him forward,” says Valiantsin Stefanovich of “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”.

This fact, according to him, cannot but cause surprise.

“Of course, on the one hand, if the Electoral Code does not prohibit something, it can be used freely. But, if we are guided by the logic, according to which political parties nominate their members, then labor groups should also nominate their employees. And what we can see now is that they nominate totally strange people.”

“This is not to mention the fact that in itself the labor collective as the electoral actor now looks a complete Soviet anachronism. Probably, when the Constitution was developed, they did not yet depart from the Soviet ideas, and now we have it in the electoral legislation,” adds Stefanovich.

But it is unlikely that the provision is a mere mistake. This is a very convenient pattern of using administrative resources during the nomination of candidates, the expert believes.

“I'm sure that no opposition candidate can come to a labor collective completely out nowhere and say: “Could you please nominate me as your candidate?” “It is clear that the decision is aimed at nominating the candidate that the authorities want to see in the parliament,” he says.

Another curious thing, according to Valiantsin Stefanovich, is an interesting logic of the Central Election Commission in similar situations.

“If the Electoral Code does not provide for a ban on nominating people who are not employed at the enterprise, then it is possible. And the CEC allows it. And if, for example, it comes to Article 13 of the Electoral Code regarding the rights of an observer, why isn’t the CEC no longer guided by the principle “everything which is not forbidden is allowed.” For example, the CEC said that the observer cannot take photos or shoot video during his work, because it is not provided by the said Article. But this is not specified among prohibitions — that it is not prohibited by the Electoral Code and, accordingly, may be permitted.”

This selective approach is unlikely to contribute to ensuring the principle of openness and transparency, the principle of equality during this year’s parliamentary elections.