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How to Compete in Unfair Elections

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Oppositions in electoral authoritarian regimes often boycott sham elections. Yet unfair elections can be game-changing. This article shows how the opposition contested the 9 August 2020 presidential election in Belarus to mobilize a large-scale grassroots prodemocracy movement by: 1) presenting a credible alternative to the regime and unifying efforts, 2) drawing on citizen-led initiatives—including an innovative artificial-intelligence parallel vote-tabulation system—to expose the extent of electoral manipulation, build solidarity, and engender belief in the possibility of change, 3) involving citizens at every stage of the electoral process to credibly demonstrate support for the opposition, and 4) wielding the regime’s electoral law against it to publicize electoral violations. The election transformed Belarus’s once-apathetic populace into active citizens and created conditions for future change, despite mass state-sanctioned violence.

Leaders of electoral authoritarian regimes use unfair elections to deceive their citizens, create the illusion of popular support, and legitimize their rule. To those ends, they employ a myriad of nefarious tactics that include repressing the opposition and its supporters as well as manipulating the law, media, electoral   administration, and campaign resources. When opposition movements confront seemingly impossible odds of success, many argue that there is no use in their participating in sham elections and advocate boycotting them. Oppositions worldwide, including in https://www.advertisementshout.com/ Algeria, Kenya, Serbia, Tunisia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, have opted to sit out elections.


Yet even unfair elections present rare and valuable opportunities to challenge authoritarians that oppositions can and should exploit. Elections are national events that attract increased public scrutiny at home and abroad. They involve complex bureaucratic exercises, for which autocrats must secure both the loyalty of state agents and the acquiescence of the public at every stage of the process.1 Elections may also enable oppositions to organize and campaign more openly, as authoritarians limit the use of repressive tactics in order to create the appearance of a fair contest. As such, oppositions can use electoral procedures to engage otherwise apathetic citizens in the struggle for fair elections and to undermine support for autocratic incumbents.

This essay examines how oppositions can take advantage of unfair elections to mobilize mass grassroots resistance to authoritarian rule, drawing on lessons from strategies used by the opposition during the 2020 presidential election in Belarus. While such strategies are unlikely to succeed in closed authoritarian settings, they may open an effective pathway to democratic change in hegemonic and competitive authoritarian regimes.

By 2020, Alyaksandr Lukashenka had ruled Belarus for 26 years, coming to power three years after the country’s 1991 independence from the Soviet Union. According to official results, Lukashenka had won every presidential election—a thin democratic veneer over his regime’s overt and intense repression. The key to Lukashenka’s success, Vitali Silitski wrote in these pages, is a strategy of “preemption.” By eliminating any potential challenger or source of dissent well before they could foster a credible democratic alternative to his rule, Lukashenka sought to project an aura of invulnerability and wide popular support.2

Lukashenka’s excessive control of the political and economic spheres has made popular mobilization in Belarus particularly difficult. Laws on public assembly are overly restrictive, and the regime exercises tight control over https://www.technologyshout.com/ public-opinion surveys and exit polls. The state controls roughly half the economy, although Belarus had a vibrant information-technology (IT) sector. In 2020, Varieties of Democracy classified Belarus as an “electoral autocracy,” and the country ranked in the bottom fifth of the Liberal Democracy Index. In the lead up to the 2020 election, traditional opposition parties were in disarray and advocated boycotting it.

Yet the 9 August 2020 election catalyzed Belarus’s largest civic mobilization since independence and posed the most serious challenge to Lukashenka’s rule. A united opposition led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya—the only major opposition candidate not imprisoned or expelled by the regime—drew more than a hundred thousand to rallies around the country (population: nine million) with a simple message based on a love of Belarus and a desire for fair elections. After the official results implausibly showed a landslide for Lukashenka, hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets for several months and were only driven underground by a brutal crackdown.3 Forced to flee, Tsikhanouskaya has led an opposition movement in exile that has won global support for its cause.

While civic mobilization failed to oust Lukashenka in 2020, the opposition made significant, lasting gains in its struggle for democracy. First, many Belarusians became convinced that the majority of citizens support change and that Lukashenka’s power rests on violence rather than popular consent—a massive shift from Belarus before 2020. Second, the opposition-contested election transformed an apathetic populace into active citizens and spurred the creation of influential grassroots initiatives. Belarusians at home and in the diaspora formed new civic organizations with credible leadership. Protests spanning society—including women, workers, students, pensioners, doctors, and athletes—led to the creation of networks of solidarity and mutual support in the face of Lukashenka’s repression.

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How did Belarusian civic actors make these inroads? They devised a set of tactics to counter the very cynicism that Lukashenka’s preemptive strategy was designed to foster among Belarusians. First, a unified campaign led by three political outsiders provided a credible vision of a future without Lukashenka. Second, citizen-led efforts, including an innovative parallel vote-tabulation system, exposed the extent of the regime’s electoral manipulation, built solidarity, and convinced many once-apathetic Belarusians that change was possible. Third, campaigning at rallies and signature-collection drives yielded massive popular mobilizations, demonstrating Lukashenka’s weakening support among the public. And fourth, the opposition campaign wielded the regime’s electoral law against it to underscore the unfair nature of the election.

Several contingent factors also facilitated sustained opposition to Lukashenka. For starters, the government’s negligent response to the pandemic—which consisted of denying that it was a problem and minimizing the deaths that it caused—galvanized ordinary Belarusians and spurred the creation of a volunteering campaign, #ByCovid19. It helped hospitals across the country to procure personal protective equipment, and some of its volunteers later joined fair-elections initiatives.4 In a similar manner, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster resulted in one of the first civic initiatives in communist-controlled Belarus, the Chernobyl Children’s Fund. Existential challenges can redefine the boundaries of possible and desirable civic action.

In addition, a constellation of independent media and bloggers facilitated civic action by producing livestreams of key electoral mobilization events and communicating information about the opposition. Further, in 2019, the Kremlin negotiated a deal with Lukashenka to deepen the integration of Russia and Belarus within the “Union State,” but did not reveal the contents of the agreement. The fear that Belarus’s independence was in jeopardy spurred opposition candidates to run. These factors—combined with the opposition’s strategies—enabled a sustained protest movement that has permanently damaged the Lukashenka regime.

Real Candidates   

Autocrats in hegemonic regimes eliminate any sources of potential opposition in order to convince the public that there are no viable alternatives to the regime. Faced with heavy repression and demoralized by successive electoral defeats, oppositions in authoritarian regimes are often marginalized, divided, and distrusted by ordinary citizens.5 As a result, autocrats benefit from the illusion of invincibility at the polls.

In 2020, Belarus seemed to be heading down this path: Lukashenka’s well-tested repertoire of electoral-manipulation tactics and a lack of credible alternatives to his rule were poised to turn that year’s election into another acclamation of the incumbent. The inability of Belarus’s traditional opposition to put forward a credible electoral challenger was on full display. Several months before the election date was set, five political parties participated in primaries to nominate a single opposition candidate. But they failed to execute a complex voting procedure, and the three frontrunners opted to boycott the election. Their decision was also motivated by the covid pandemic, which made the task of collecting the required hundred-thousand signatures to register as a candidate overwhelming. In an interview, a veteran opposition activist suggested that traditional opposition leaders were unpopular and incapable of mobilizing voters.6

But then several unexpected, independent challengers entered the race. Popular vlogger and entrepreneur Siarhei Tsikhanouski was preemptively arrested on May 6—two days before the official start of the campaign season—but announced his presidential candidacy in a YouTube video released that same day. But the Central Election Commission (CEC) rejected his candidate registration because he was imprisoned and so could not file his documents in person. His wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, later registered in his stead. As an ordinary citizen herself, she became a powerful example of popular defiance of the regime. On May 8, Valyer Tsapkala—a former high-ranking state official and founder of Hi-Tech Park (Belarus’s Silicon Valley)—joined the presidential race. A few days later, Viktar Babaryka, a prominent patron of Belarusian culture who had spent twenty years as the head of the Russian-owned private bank Belgazprombank, resigned his post to run in the election.

All three electoral challengers were new to the opposition and (with the exception of Tsikhanouskaya) had experience in business, finance, and the state bureaucracy, rather than political parties or NGOs. These new leaders made change seem not only possible, but something that individual citizens could affect. An activist lawyer, discussing Babaryka’s candidacy, explained in an interview that before May 2020, the political field consisted of veteran oppositionists who could not bring about change. Babaryka, by contrast, inspired hope among activists that “if we gave it all we’d got, we would achieve results.”7 Tsapkala, Tsikhanouskaya, and Tsikhanouski engendered similar sentiments among Belarusians.

When the CEC denied registration to Babaryka and Tsapkala, Tsikhanouskaya emerged as the only major opposition candidate. She pitched herself as a transitional leader; her campaign platform prioritized fair, new elections and the release of political prisoners. Maryya Kalyes’nikava (Babaryka’s campaign chief) and Vyeranika Tsapkala (Tsapkala’s wife) united their campaigns behind her. The three women embarked on a national tour, holding rallies of unprecedented scale: Ten-thousand people attended the first campaign rally in the capital, Minsk, and attendance at events in regional centers and smaller towns also broke records. The second Minsk rally had up to seventy-thousand participants, and the final large rally in the regional center of Brest attracted twenty-thousand. Onstage campaigning by Tsikhanouskaya, Kalyes’nikava, and Tsapkala had a theatrical quality, and the three women were enthusiastically received by admiring crowds—a powerful demonstration of popular support for the united campaign.

Change Is Possible

Even with a compelling candidate, oppositions still face significant obstacles: Electoral authoritarian regimes severely limit opposition access to media, finance, the rule of law, and other resources. By tapping into the citizenry’s unique assets—enthusiasm, expertise, creativity, solidarity, and courage—Belarus’s opposition crafted a powerful strategy to make up for these imbalances and challenge dictatorship. Citizen-led efforts of solidarity inspired growing numbers of everyday Belarusians to fight for fair elections.

For example, Tsikhanouski’s antigovernment vlogging resonated with ordinary people in ways that traditional media never could. He built an online community around his YouTube channel, “Country for Life,” which had grown to more than 130,000 subscribers by the start of the official campaign season. Tsikhanouski and his subscribers co-created informal and occasionally humorous videos about the regime’s failings, including police and judicial lawlessness, bureaucrats’ negligence, the decay of the country’s post-Soviet economy, and electoral manipulation. As one journalist observed, Tsikhanouski spoke with a passion and emotion that resonated with his subscribers, unlike the stilted tone employed by mainstream media.8

His efforts mobilized many once-apolitical Belarusians to become involved. As he explained to his followers in a 2019 livestream, “Do not count on the opposition; take everything into your own hands. It is a mistake to think that you alone cannot do anything. You are the masters of history.”9 After broadcasting his experience as an observer of the rigged November 2019 parliamentary election, Tsikhanouski called on his followers to protest Lukashenka’s election fraud by wearing white ribbons and clothing. Tsikhanouski also conducted a national tour in the five months preceding the presidential-campaign season, organizing forty meetings with his YouTube subscribers in 35 regional cities and towns. These meetings, broadcast live on his channel, served as open-air public forums in which subscribers recounted their daily problems and the regime’s abuses. These forums revealed a deep, nationwide dissatisfaction with Lukashenka’s government. Tsikhanouski also fostered grassroots organization and in-person interaction by setting up local and regional channels and chats on Telegram, a social-media messaging platform.

Due to his extensive community organizing, Tsikhanouski could rely on a committed online following and a core network of activists to support his wife’s presidential campaign. In the two weeks following his first arrest in early May, his YouTube-subscriber count rose 40 percent. His vlogging and tour before the presidential race effectively extended campaigning beyond the short, official campaign season and grew his base. Tsikhanouski’s mounting popularity demonstrated weakening support for the Lukashenka regime.

Grassroots efforts were crucial to launching and sustaining the opposition challenge to Lukashenka. In the first few days of his campaign, Babaryka attracted almost ten-thousand volunteers. Volunteers for the Tsikhanouskaya campaign had very meager resources and were constantly persecuted by the regime. Nevertheless, their efforts to collect, verify, and count signatures were critical, enabling Tsikhanouskaya to register as a candidate. After the three opposition campaigns united, photographers volunteered to produce their campaign photos, ordinary citizens provided security, and an artist designed their signature tripartite campaign logo consisting of a fist, heart, and victory sign.

Citizen electoral-integrity efforts helped to preempt and expose regime attempts to manipulate the results, making Belarusians optimistic and enthusiastic about the possibility of change. On June 9, Babaryka launched a new civic initiative called Honest People to promote free and fair elections.10 By July 25, Honest People had three-hundred volunteers working on ten different projects and had recruited ten-thousand citizens to apply for election-observer roles.11 The group educated citizens about electoral falsification, communicated the importance of participating in the electoral process and voting, and encouraged them to wear white bracelets to the polls to show their support for change. Ordinary citizens helped Honest People to print shirts, contributed white bracelets, and donated their savings.

Volunteers also led efforts to use cutting-edge technology to expose electoral fraud and pressure state agents to avoid tampering with the vote. A group of forty Belarusian software engineers pioneered the use of artificial-intelligence (AI) technology for parallel vote tabulation. In June 2020, IT professional Pavel Liber wrote in a Facebook post that “if the majority of citizens of the country have a smartphone, you can turn this crowd of people into one big digital electoral district.”12 This idea became Golos, a digital platform to which citizens could send a photograph of their ballot. Golos, which means “vote” or “voice” in Russian, used these images to create an independent tally of the precinct-level election results. This secure AI-based system was developed in under a month and went live on July 23. It used neural networks and machine vision—the large-scale extraction of information from an image—to recognize, authenticate, and tabulate ballots; encrypted voter data for security; and collected images via chat bots. In a three-week span before the election, Golos grew to 1.2 million users—representing more than 17 percent of all registered voters. After the election, Golos received more than 550,000 ballot photographs. Honest People played a crucial role in getting citizens to send photos of their ballots to Golos.13

The use of machine vision to quickly and accurately process ballot photos was a major breakthrough: Vote totals could now be checked independently of the official, manipulated results. According to a postelection report, Golos reported significantly more votes for Tsikhanouskaya than the official results in at least a third of all precincts. And even these falsified precinct counts differed significantly from the CEC results. The report also suggests that more than 70 percent of all precincts withheld their results altogether.14

As Golos founder Pavel Liber explained, his platform served as a tool for citizens to defend their vote, and as an instrument to hold election-commission members accountable. In his view, Golos was critical to getting people “directly involved” and “interested” in the electoral process.15 Because electoral fraud is typically committed in secret, these initiatives helped to “render visible what cannot be reliably observed by relevant audiences.”16 The three united campaigns projected optimism about the possibility of change through elections in part because emerging technology promised to increase the transparency of the vote.

Campaign staff and civic associations, including Honest People and Golos, were made up of decentralized volunteer networks that lacked rigid hierarchical structures. Decentralized organization enabled citizens to show initiative and creativity. Importantly, citizens were left hopeful that change was not only possible, but something to which their efforts could contribute. Tsikhanouskaya and the united campaign also encouraged citizens to engage with grassroots electoral-integrity efforts. At nearly every campaign rally, Kalyes’nikava, Babaryka’s campaign chief, proclaimed that fear they could not change anything was the biggest enemy of success. She chanted with the energized crowds, “I can change everything.”

An exiled strike leader argued that one of the most significant achievements of the opposition campaign was solidarity, a feeling “that I am not alone, that we are many.”17 In a severely repressive regime, solidarity can help to mitigate the risks of resistance. Babaryka encouraged citizens to support those who suffered persecution or were fired as a result of their activism. Honest People managed the Emergency Mutual Aid digital platform that connected those in need to citizens with resources and opportunities.

Despite Lukashenka’s continued grip on power, these citizen-led efforts became a lasting demonstration of his illegitimacy, fueling hope for the future. Three months after the election, a prominent doctor wrote in an open letter to a high-ranking state official that

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