Referendum-2022: Findings and conclusions
Preliminary analytical report of the expert mission to assess the 2022 nationwide referendum on amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus
February 28, 2022
The expert mission of observation of the 2022 referendum is carried out by the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the Human Rights Center "Viasna" within the campaign "Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections".
Preparation for the referendum took place against the backdrop of a profound socio-political crisis that began immediately after the 2020 presidential election and the pervasive atmosphere of repression targeting those disloyal to the authorities, as well as a tense international situation caused by the possible armed conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine and the current Russian-Belarusian military exercises.
On February 24, the Russian Federation launched a military attack on Ukraine, including from the territory of Belarus. The transport and military infrastructure of Belarus is used for military operations.
The authorities have not attempted to eliminate the factors in the legal regulation of electoral procedures that led to the onset of the post-election crisis in August 2020.
The draft amendments to the Constitution, which were first announced by the authorities more than two years ago, became available to the public less than a month before the referendum was called. During this period, the authorities organized a discussion of the draft, mainly at government-owned businesses and organizations, which in reality constituted campaigning, as well as at the so-called “dialogue platforms” arranged in cooperation with government agencies and pro-government organizations.
Discussing changes and additions to the draft Constitution and considering the submitted proposals did not take into account critical opinions and was another example of the formal practice of “nationwide discussion”, designed to replace a transparent and inclusive debate on proposals from various groups of society.
As a result, the proposed amendments to the Constitution have aroused fair criticism from the expert community.
The preparation and conduct of the referendum did not meet several basic international standards for holding democratic and fair elections and was accompanied by numerous violations of these principles and provisions of national legislation. This was due to the atmosphere of fear on the eve and during the referendum, caused by a crackdown on citizens, civil society organizations, and independent media; lack of unbiased election commissions; unequal access to state media for supporters and opponents of constitutional changes; use of administrative resources to support the draft submitted to the referendum on changes to the Constitution; arbitrary deprivation of the right to vote of citizens who are outside the Republic of Belarus; numerous facts of coercion of voters to participate in early voting; inaccessibility of electoral procedures for observers.
Ongoing repression of civil society, preparation, and conduct of the referendum in an atmosphere of total fear, and introduced by CEC restrictions on the number of observers at polling stations led to a lack of independent monitoring of all types of voting (early voting, voting on the main election day and mobile voting) as well as the vote count; these important phases of the election campaign were completely non-transparent. This assessment cannot be changed by the presence of pro-government observers at polling stations and commissions. This assessment cannot be changed by the presence of pro-government observers at polling stations and commissions.
Significant violations of the national legislation and fundamental principles of fair and democratic elections during the referendum, including depriving observers of the opportunity to monitor the counting of voting results, do not provide grounds to trust the election results announced by CEC and consider them reflecting the real will of the citizens of the Republic of Belarus.
When forming the election commissions, executive committees applied a discriminatory approach to representatives of opposition parties: out of 20 candidates nominated by opposition parties to the TECs none were included. The same applies to 42 oppositional candidates to PECs. This is the first time in the history of sovereign Belarus that the opposition is not represented in election commissions at all.
Most members of election commissions traditionally represented the five largest pro-government public associations: the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM), Belaya Rus, the Women’s Union, the Union of Veterans, and trade unions of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FPB). In violation of the electoral law, the list of members of precinct commissions was not published.
The absence in the electoral legislation of guarantees for the representation in election commissions of representatives nominated by all political actors taking part in the elections, as before, resulted in an arbitrary and discriminatory approach towards opposition parties and movements.
The agitation in support of the draft of amendments to the Constitution put to the referendum was not limited to the terms of the electoral campaign and started long before the appointment of the referendum. At the same time, the authorities used all the resources of the state mass media, pro-governmental telegram channels, ideologists, pro-governmental experts, and officials to support the new draft of amendments to the Constitution.
While preparing and holding the referendum, the authorities widely used administrative resources to campaign in support of the draft amendments to the Constitution. At the same time, equal campaign conditions for opponents and supporters of the draft of amendments to the Constitution submitted to the referendum were not ensured. Moreover, the authorities persecuted opponents of the referendum and the draft amendments to the Constitution by means of repressions that have become traditional in the last 18 months: detentions, administrative arrests, publication of video confessions of detained opponents of the referendum in pro-governmental Telegram channels, etc.
Legislative restrictions on public campaigning during the referendum, as well as general restrictions of mass events by opposition parties and ordinary citizens, make it impossible to extensively use rallies to campaign during the referendum.
According to the CEC, 42.93% of voters took part in early voting, which is a new record in the history of elections in Belarus. In fact, early voting has become the norm, which does not meet the requirements of the Electoral Code. EC provides for such voting type for those voters who cannot be at their place of residence on referendum day.
During early voting, observers of “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” documented numerous facts of organized and forced voting of certain categories of voters (students, employees of government-owned enterprises).
The practice of early voting remains one of the systemic problems of the electoral process, creating ample opportunities for the use of administrative resources and other manipulations.
Voting at polling stations and counting of votes
In accordance with the Electoral Code, voter lists at polling stations remain closed to observers. A unified voter register has not been created. This creates conditions for turnout manipulation.
The legislation does not provide for the method of counting ballots by precinct election commissions. There is no clear-cut procedure for counting votes, whereby the mark on each ballot is announced aloud and the ballot is displayed to all PEC members and observers present.
Since on the eve of the referendum the Belarusian authorities created conditions that made it impossible to monitor the elections freely and safely, observers of “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”, as well as observers of other civil initiatives and opposition political parties, were not allowed to monitor the counting of votes. Thus, there is every reason to assert that the establishment of the voting results was completely opaque. This is a violation of one of the fundamental principles of elections — the transparency of their conduct.
Copies of the results protocols were not posted at a significant number of polling stations. Together with the lack of transparency during the vote counting, this indicates that the authorities are trying to conceal the falsified election results and the real figures of vote counting. This gives every reason to doubt the authenticity of the voting results determined by the precinct commissions.
During the preparation for the referendum, there were few appeals and complaints about violations of the EC during various stages of the election, which can be explained by the low level of confidence in the electoral bodies and the courts. Besides, in practice, they fail to resolve issues in the course of electoral procedures and, thus, are not an effective means of protecting the violated rights of voters and participants of the electoral process.
Complaints to courts against the decisions on the formation of election commissions were not filed at all. 426 appeals and complaints were submitted to election commissions, including 357 to the CEC. No information about the content of the complaints and the results of their consideration was published.
The Electoral Code, as before, contains a limited list of cases subject to judicial appeal. The decision of the CEC on the establishment of the referendum results is not subject to judicial appeal.