Presidential election campaign is under way in Belarus

22.09.2015608
Belarus is heading to the polls. Credits: AP

Belarus is heading to the polls. Credits: AP

The main intrigue for the presidential elections in Belarus is the foreign reaction. The attention of nearly everyone both in Belarus and outside is transfixed on how the most powerful Western countries will respond to its outcome.

This is not, however, apparent from the candidates’ programmes. All of them advocate preserving cultural and national distinctiveness, a multidirectional approach to foreign policy and internal political reforms. Naturally, each has its own nuances.

Four candidates are moving into the election campaign’s final stretch. The main heavyweight-politician in these and all previous elections is Alexander Lukashenko. His rival is Sergei Gaidukevich who ran for the top post three times before. The two other contenders – Nikolai Ulakhovich and Tatyana Korotkevich – are new to the scene. And Tatyana Korotkevich is the first female to run in the history of the country.

Alexander Lukashenko: For the Future of Independent Belarus

Alexander Lukashenko’s programme was published by the Belta news agency on 16 September. Its main idea is “appreciate what you already have”, something that sounds very good against the backdrop of events in Ukraine, a comparison to which the programme directly appeals. “When war came to our doorstep, we recognised that there is nothing more precious than peace… We in Belarus are safeguarding the peace. We do not hear gunfire or shell explosions,” says Alexander Lukashenko.

He presents two paths in contraposition: one forward “to the preservation of stability and order, freedom and independence”; the other backwards “to the turmoil and chaos of the nineties, to bandit capitalism and property redistribution.”

Announced in the programme are three interrelated strategic objectives: employment, exports and investment. Problems in the economy as a whole are not accentuated. Instead, areas are highlighted where efforts will be concentrated.

Officially, Belarus has an unemployment rate of only 1% (data from the National Statistical Committee as of late July 2015). There is a system in operation for retraining people: if desired, an unemployed person can become an entrepreneur and receive a grant with which to open his or her own business. Meanwhile, several Belarusian companies have shortened the workweek by two or three days, which does not permit talk of 100% employment.

Increasing exports is of extreme importance for the country’s industrial sector. Factories are groaning under the weight of unsold goods. Massive stockpiles deplete working capital making it necessary to take out unfavourable loans and operate at a loss. It was just last June that stockpiling was reported on, in particular with relation to the company Brestgazapparat, which manufactures gas stoves under the brand name Gefest and is one of the country’s largest exporters. The lack of major investments and, in recent years, the reduction of – according to data from the Ministry of Economy – direct foreign investments, are also important reasons for the stagnation.

Modernisation of the economy and administration were proposed as solutions to these problems. Specifically, adopting “global corporate governance practices”, attracting leading foreign companies to the country, putting a five-year ban on raising old or introducing new taxes, and creating a venture capital industry were suggested. Some of the candidate’s plans, for example – turning Belarus into a major regional logistical centre – are already being implemented.

At the same time, the programme contains some interesting political positions. Lukashenko promises to streamline the state administration (by cutting redundant and unnecessary functions), increase the prestige of public service, reduce bureaucracy and fight corruption. But chiefly, there is a promise to expand the “power and responsibilities” of parliament. However, there are no details for these plans yet.

Sergei Gaidukevich: For a Strong Belarus

The permanent leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus withdrew his candidacy during the 2010 election campaign. This time, he will mostly likely see that which he has started through to the end.

Sergei Gaidukevich positions himself as a supporter of Alexander Lukashenko and talks in his programme about how to reform the current state of affairs in the country, but without radical transformations (“experiments”, as he puts it) and grounded in the “the historical experience of the people”.

Nevertheless, some of his proposals are rather ambitious. In domestic policy, he proposes conducting the upcoming elections according to a mixed proportional-majority system, expanding the authority of local government and encouraging political competition.

In questions of social and economic policy, Sergei Gaidukevich calls for making the social pension equal to minimum wage, stopping the outflow of young specialists from the country by, for example, increasing salaries. In addition, he proposes transferring vacant administrative buildings to businesses and not charging rent for 3 years.

In foreign policy, Gaidukevich promises a multidirectional approach, “maintaining parity between West and East”. He wants to achieve the removal of sanctions and encourage the creation of a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok as well as integration processes in the post-Soviet space.

Nikolai Ulakhovich: For Peace, Tranquillity and Order

These are the first presidential elections this candidate has participated in. He is currently working as the deputy chairman for Construction at the Minsk Oblast Union of Consumers. Interestingly, Nikolai Ulakhovich stands at the origins of the Belarusian Cossacks and is leader of the corresponding association.

He starts off his programme with ideological directives. “In conditions of globalisation, one of the most important things to do is preserve the uniqueness and traditions of the Belarusian people while ensuring that Belarus’s cooperation with international partners is mutually beneficial and conducted on equal footing; cooperation within the CIS must also be strengthened and developed,” he writes. The candidate appeals to Belarusians, calling on them to develop their national identity, traditions and culture, including love for the Motherland and family values.

Rejecting “blind adherence to of the principals of illusory Western democracy,” he, nevertheless, speaks about the importance of “universal human values” and “advanced forms of cooperation between civil society and the authorities”. Thus, he favours a more active participation in state governance by civil society representatives.

He also supports the transition to a mixed electoral system with party lists. The presidential candidate’s vision for the economy is described in generalities: augmenting the competitiveness of manufactured products; creating conditions that facilitate the inflow of investment and advanced technologies; reforming the tax system by simplifying and reducing the number of taxes; providing comprehensive support for small business; and introducing non- or low-waste technologies into the manufacturing, agriculture, construction and public utility sectors.

In the programme’s social issues section, it speaks of a decent wage to doctors, teachers and cultural workers, maintaining state support for society’s most vulnerable, and increasing state allocations for health, education, culture and science.

Finally, Ulakhovich gave separate attention to the topic of health. According to him, it is necessary to promote the development of sport and increase the effectiveness of the war on alcoholism and smoking.

Tatyana Korotkevich: “Peaceful Changes – Only Thus!”

Tatyana Korotkevich is from the “Tell the Truth” civic campaign which emerged in 2010 during the previous presidential race. A key figure in it then was Vladimir Neklyaev. (This time he gave up the initiative just before the elections.) In 2012 Tatyana Korotkevich took part in parliamentary elections for one of Minsk’s districts but could not attain victory. She positions herself as a real alternative to the current regime.

The candidate’s programme places social and economic issues at the forefront. Korotkevich stands for free public medical care with “private healthcare and insurance also developed in parallel”, the elimination of tuition for state educational institutions, the cancellation of taxes for those who have lost their jobs and the elaboration of long-term urban development plans for each population centre.

In addition, she favours the independence of the National Bank, currency stabilisation, lowering credit rates, abolishing forfeiture and punitive sanctions for business and adopting an Investment Code.

The political part of the programme contains some bold proposals. Korotkevich calls for enshrining in the Constitution that Belarus is a parliamentary-presidential republic, limiting the possibility of electing one person president to two five-year terms, signing the European Charter of Local Self-Government, making the publication of budgets mandatory at all levels and encouraging the development of non-profit organisations.

In foreign policy, she advocates a flexible approach, entering the WTO and restoring a preferential regime with the EU, and the elimination by Russia of all restrictions in relation to Belarusian goods.

Finally, in the concluding section, she addresses culture. In her words, it is necessary to introduce tax benefits for all who facilitate the development of Belarusian culture, to develop a programme for returning cultural values to the country, to open a university and local schools where all subjects are taught in the Belarusian language and to remove limitations on media activities.

Belarus’s presidential elections will be held on 11 October 2015.

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