On August 9, citizens of Belarus will have a chance to participate in “elections”. On paper, they will decide who will be the next president. In reality, the most popular opponent of Lukashenko is in jail with his son and dozens of supporters and activists. Others fled the country. Svetlana runs for president because her husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested after he announced his plans to be a candidate in May. Svetlana was allowed to run because the dictator himself, as macho as most strongmen are, does not believe that citizens of Belarus might vote for a woman.
In a paper “Elections in Nondemocracies”, forthcoming in The Economic Journal, Georgy Egorov and I analyzed the reasons why authoritarian leaders organize elections. They need them to project strength – even if the citizens would not quite believe the 75 or 90% reported by the election commission, they would believe that the dear leader is the most popular politician in the country. Also, it is not that hard to gather 75% of the vote if you can jail your real opponents, select some placeholders to be on the ballot, and have full control over the media. The chance that citizens have is to protest the official results, if they do not believe them. This is what the Belarus citizens might have to do.
Lukashenko seems to be aware of his inability to win fair and square. Back in the 1990s, his rule provided steady growth rates and a sense of security. Now, after a decade of subpar growth followed by a decade of stagnation, Belarussians are really tired of their leader. Russia’s oil subsidies are no longer able to provide a decent support to the economy. Blaming the West and Russia for meddling no longer works with the voters. The state TV channels are filled with images of police and military dispersing peaceful demonstrations. Lukashenko openly praised the Central Asian strongmen who brutally suppressed protests against their authoritarian rule.
In the dire circumstances, Tikhanovskaya is running a smart campaign. She powerfully criticizes Lukashenko without calling him by name. She promises Belarusian dignity and respect, and this might resonate more, than just promises of freedom and democracy. Wherever she goes, in the capital or small towns, Tikhanovskaya draws crowds that Belarus has not seen in decades. Yet she also promises to organize free elections and, more importantly, to undo the constitutional changes that Lukashenko has constructed over his quarter-century in power. Belarusians do not want another strongman to replace the old one.
In a telling sign, the incumbent is not trying to gather large crowds. The example of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian communist dictators, is fresh in memory of many post-Soviet strongmen three decades after the demise of communism. Facing popular discontent, Ceausescu called a mass meeting to demonstrate the strength of his support yet was shouted down by the people tired of empty promises and no longer scared by threats, evacuated by helicopter from his palace, and executed by firing squad two days later.
The Ceausescu parallel might be extreme, so another example might be more pertinent. On February 15, 1986, Ferdinand Marcos, the president of the Philippines since 1965, was announced to be the winner of the snap presidential elections that he organized to project his strength. His announced margin over a political novice Corazon Aquino, the widow of an assassinated opposition leader, was healthy – but it was a result of massive electoral fraud, voter intimidation, and arrests and murders of Aquino’s supporters. After a week of mass protests Marcos was abandoned by top military commanders and fled the country. Aquino became president, and transferred her country to democracy. This might be the best-case scenario for Belarus and, hopefully, a realistic one.