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OSCE On Belarus Elections: There Are Partial Improvements, But Long-Standing Systemic Shortcomings Remain

The 11 September parliamentary elections were efficiently organized and there were visible efforts to address some long-standing issues, but a number of systemic shortcomings remain, the international observers concluded in a preliminary statement released today.

Four OSCE officials – Kent Harstedt, Gisela Wurm, Ivana Dobesova and Tana de Zulueta – held a press conference in Minsk on Monday, September 12.

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The legal framework restricts political rights and fundamental freedoms and was interpreted in an overly restrictive manner. Media coverage did not enable voters to make an informed choice and, despite an overall increase in the number of candidates, including a significant number from the opposition, the campaign lacked visibility, the OSCE statement said.

Despite some positive efforts by the authorities, early voting and counting and tabulation procedures were still marred by a significant number of procedural irregularities and a lack of transparency.

Kent Harstedt, Special Co-ordinator and leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission, reminded that he had observed the presidential election in 2015.

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“It remains clear that Belarus still has some way to go to fulfil its democratic commitments. In the run-up to the elections, the authorities made a number of promises regarding the transparency of the process, on which they delivered partially, but insufficiently,” he said.

“We hope the Belarusian government, together with the newly elected parliament, will carry on with the democratization process and undertake a comprehensive effort to address our long-standing recommendations.”

Some of the problems highlighted by Harstedt are the absence of a single voter registry, and a small number of opposition in electral commissions: “We’ve highlighted these things before, but the authorities did not take notive of these recommendations.”

Among the positive changes mentioned by the official was the increased number of the registered candidates, including the representatives of the opposition. There were no uncontested constituencies.

Gisela Wurm, Head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) delegation, said that her delegation consisted of ten people, and thanked the Belarusian authorities for invitation.

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“Yesterday, voting was calm and well-organized, although there were concerns regarding the counting”, she said. Wurm underlined that the elections are not limited to voting day only, so Belarus, as a European country, needs a truly competitive political system in order to realize its democratic potential.

“PACE and the Venice Commission stand ready to co-operate with Belarus in this regard”, the official added.

Ivana Dobesova, Head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation, called yesterday’s elections historical, because the opposition has finally entered the parliament.

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“We note that, for the first time in 12 years, some members of the opposition will be represented in parliament. However, the legal and constitutional framework limits public space for debate and did not provide voters with the opportunity to make an informed choice”, Dobesova stated.

She called on all members of parliament to use this opportunity “to engage in genuine discussions about the future of the country.”

Tana de Zulueta, Head of the OSCE/ODIHR long-term election observation mission, spoke about the work of the media at the elections. According to her, some news sites were unavailable on the elections day. She later added that around 11 am on September 11  information websites charter97.org, belaruspartisan.org, udf.org and nn.by  (all of those are considered opposition websites in Belarus – note) were not available for a short time.

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The official added that media regulations remain strict. During the campaign, news programmes on state-owned media focused largely on the activities of the president and other state officials, as well as political statements by the CEC Chairperson. Coverage of candidates’ campaign activities, meanwhile, was virtually absent and largely limited to short, pre-recorded speeches. This narrowed voters’ access to candidate information.

Answering a question about whether vote count has become more transparent this year compared with the presidential elections, Kent Harsted said: “As you remember, last year I was very disappointed by the fact that about a third of our observers could not fully observe vote count. Now there is little progress. According to preliminary data, the number of complaints about non-transparent vote count from our observers decreased to 24%.”

He explained that this number is still very high, and the objective should be to make it less than 1%.

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Of 630 candidates nominated for the 2016 parliamentary elections, 484 eventually stood for election, including a significant number from the opposition. Despite this overall increase in the number of candidates, the legal provisions for registration allowed for selective implementation, the report summarizes.

Women are well-represented in the election administration, but less so in political life. There are no special measures to enhance women’s representation, and women constituted 25 per cent of candidates in these elections.

The CEC exhibited a welcoming attitude towards international observers. In an inclusive process, more than 827 international and 32,105 citizen observers were accredited. Despite some improvement in access provided for both citizen and international observers, a number of undue legal limitations and a restrictive interpretation of observers’ rights remain.

On Monday morning the CEC announced that two opposition candidates won seats in the House of Representatives. The elections authorities promised to announce the final results by the end of the week.

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