Belarusian president has been in office for almost 25 years. He is now 64. During his recent Big conversation, Alexander Lukashenko addressed his own political future.
He said he plans to run for the sixth term in 2020, adding:
“I promise you that I will not be president for life. I promise that I will not hold on to power for the sake of my children and will not pass it on to them.”
So, what’s the plan then? To change the constitution.
Reshuffling the balance of powers
It is not the first time Lukashenko announced a constitutional reform. He has been flirting with the idea since 2016.
According to him, more powers should go to the government and the parliament. Lukashenko suggested that the electoral system might change as well.
The president set the time frame for the reform, saying it will take less than five years, but he will not start it before the elections of 2020.
The plan is to have Constitutional court draft the new constitution, get it approved by the president, and then by the public via the referendum. Given how tightly elections are controlled in Belarus, the last step is merely a formal one.
Why change anything?
Lukashenko himself explained why he thinks about a new constitution:
“Any sensible president is thinking about this at a time he decides to end his political career… I see it through the prism of what will become of Belarus and who will be the next to take the lead.”
The Belarusian constitution, as it stands today, gives president enormous powers.
He is the commander in chief. He unilaterally appoints governors, mayors, almost all judges, ministers, heads of the largest state companies and banks. His edicts and decrees are above the laws adopted by the parliament.
In such a vertical, authoritarian system too much depends on a personality in charge. The whole regime risks collapsing if the leader is incapable to rule due to any reason, including health.
The struggle for power then may become unpredictable with a window quite open for foreign influence.
Apparently, Lukashenko wants neither to hand over all his powers to a successor nor to risk triggering the political chaos were he is unable to govern
He seems to be thinking about how to make this inevitable process smooth and controlled.
If Lukashenko delivers on his plans, parliament and government will get some powers and thus become the pillars for stabilizing the system when the time demands it. This will be a step towards a more collective rule.
Yet, not so fast
That said, nothing is set in stone here. Alexander Lukashenko is an extremely cautious and conservative politician when it comes reforms of this scale. Especially, when they deal with delegating his own powers.
The last time the president raised the topic was in spring 2018.
Those days the revolt in Armenia brought down the government precisely because it changed the constitution for political ends. The next day Lukashenko downplayed his plans to hold a constitutional referendum any time soon.
Besides that, Lukashenko might change his mind or kick the can down the road if some domestic or foreign crises will threaten the political stability in the country.
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It will take at least several politically and economically calm years for Lukashenko to make up his mind and start any meaningful changes.
However, the very fact he is discussing the topic quite frequently is telling.
Text by Artyom Shraibman. Photo: Press Service of the President of the Republic of Belarus, BelTA.