2020 Belarus’ Presidential Election First Poll

Top to bottom: Sergei Tikhanovski, Viktor Babariko, Valery Tsepkalo

The first poll on the upcoming presidential election in Belarus is out. A few remarks: first, it’s not the list of candidates yet, just people who expressed their will to participate. The election will be held on August 9. The date was only announced last Friday which left the potential candidates less than a week to register their initiative groups and submit all necessary paperwork (they need to do it by tomorrow). So there is a chance not all of them will make it to the next stage.

Even if they do, the next stage is to collect 100k signatures by June 19. That’s an extremely difficult task even at normal times, not to mention during the pandemic. It is an open secret that since 2006 no opposition candidate has collected 100k signatures. The government always turned a blind eye to it because the opposition candidates were ‘safe’ (especially in 2015) and Lukashenko needed sparring partners in order to legitimize the elections.

This time the situation is different, at the moment Tikhanovski, Babariko, and, to some extent, Tsepkalo appear to be genuine candidates with plenty of potential to pose a real threat to Lukashenko at fair elections. So their signatures, in case they fail to collect 100k of real ones and have to fabricate the rest (that’s how things have been done before) are likely to be deemed invalid.

Now to the poll. It’s from an anti-Lukashenko telegram channel so it’s obviously biased in that sense that it doesn’t represent the views of the entire population, just those who are unhappy with the regime. On the other hand, independent sociology in Belarus was banned in 2016 after Lukashenko’s rating dropped below 30% and there were no signs of recovery since then so these figures (apart from Lukashenko) might actually be quite close to the real picture. In any case, that’s the only thing we have, besides, more than 50 thousand people took part in the poll, so it’s a pretty sizable sample.

The three most popular candidates are: 1) Sergei Tikhanovski, a populist YouTube blogger appealing to ‘ordinary people’ tired of decades of Lukashenko’s stagnation. He has no programme, avoids giving interviews, and generally gives an impression of a rather dodgy character. He travels around the country talking to people about their day-to-day problems. In a way, he’s very much like Lukashenko in 1994 (yes, people never learn). At the moment he is in custody along with many of his supporters but just this morning he managed to get registered anyway (through his wife). He has a lot of support in the regions and if he does everything right he could pose a real threat to Lukashenko (hence the preventive measures like arrests etc.)

2) Viktor Babariko, for 20 years he’s been CEO of the Belarusian branch of Gazprombank (he resigned two days ago). But despite this clear connection with the ‘bloody Putin’s regime’ he has very good publicity among Belarusian civil society. He’s very well known for his support of various civil initiatives, crowdfunding, arts patronage, etc. Basically, he’s some sort of a ‘modernizer’ appealing to the well-educated urban population and business community. He’s clearly not anti-Russian in his interviews but at the same time, he is somehow very popular among the opposition public. Perhaps that’s the sign of a good politician. In just over a day after his announcement, almost 5000 people joined his initiative group (these are the people who’ll be collecting signatures, so the more the better) so he has a very good chance to make it to the ballot.

3) Valery Tsepkalo, slightly behind the former two in terms of popularity but definitely the most unexpected of all the candidates. He is a former Belarusian ambassador to the US and creator of the IT Park in Minsk which is the only prospering sector of the economy at the moment. In 2016 he had a conflict with the prosecutor general which resulted in Tsepkalo’s removal from his position of the head of IT park and generally from the system. He’s been keeping a low profile since then so his announcement has definitely come as a surprise sparking some talk of whether we’re dealing with a possible elite rebellion or he’s just another spoiler. However, his first interview left a very poor impression. He first gave the interview, then didn’t allow it to be published. Then some fragments were published anyway in which he says that he is not in opposition to the regime or in opposition to anyone. Technically he could’ve counted on the same voters as Babariko but because of the interview and the fact that he speaks like a robot, his chances are rather slim.

4) Also, the most popular option is ‘against all’ which effectively means boycotting the election. The elections in Belarus are rigged to the point that nobody doesn’t even count the votes. The Electoral Committee simply announces the results it received beforehand in which Lukashenko always gets around 80%. Again, the candidates are perfectly aware of that. They mostly use the elections either to promote themselves or, ideally, to ignite a protest movement.

On the side note, the united candidate from the ‘professional opposition’ can expect to get 1% among the anti-government voters. I think it’s time for Brussels or whoever gives them money to stop doing that so that they could finally die out in peace.

In any case, it’s still too early to say for sure but this year’s campaign promises to be much more fun than the completely hollow election of 2015.

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