Who is making sure Belarus' presidential election is free and fair?

Concerns are growing over the apparent lack of impartial international observers at next month's presidential elections in Belarus.

Incumbent Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and is seeking a sixth term in the August 9 ballot.

The campaign has been marked by a crackdown on opposition figures, sparking protests as well as hundreds of arrests, detentions and fines.

This included, most notably, the arrest over fraud and embezzlement charges of Lukashenko's main rival, Victor Babariko, and the ban of another potential rival, Valery Tsepkalo, because of allegedly handing invalid signatures to Belarus' Central Election Commission (CEC), the body that oversees the organisation of the electoral process, including the registration of the candidates.

Last week, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), an international body that assesses the fairness of elections, announced it was pulling out of a planned mission to the eastern European country.

"Belarus announced the forthcoming presidential election well over two months ago," OSCE spokeswoman Katya Andrusz told Dailyrater.

"And the Belarusian authorities are aware that ODIHR needs a timely invitation in order to make a full assessment of the election process. The formation of election commissions and registration of candidates has already been completed, and these are specific areas ODIHR recently identified as requiring improvement."

ODIHR published a statement announcing its withdrawal from the observation mission on July 15 because it hadn't been formally invited. It was only then that Minsk sent an invitation, according to Andrusz.

It's the first time ODIHR won't be monitoring a Belarusian nationwide election since 2001.

Nabila Massrali, EU spokeswoman for foreign affairs, is concerned this situation will have "severely negative consequences for the transparency and integrity of the election process" and added that "the seemingly arbitrary exclusion of candidates" undermines "the overall integrity and democratic nature of the elections".

Could ODHIR have sent a smaller observation mission at short notice?

Katya Gloud, a former ODIHR member of observation missions to Belarus, said the organisation normally sets up six or seven weeks before the election.

"From a purely operational point of view, it’s not possible for them to set up a proper mission and a comprehensive observation” at such short notice, she told Dailyrater.

“You need to find a hotel, an office, buy equipment, find local assistants and that takes three weeks. You also need to interview local people."

Gloud took part in ODHIR missions to Belarus during the 2006 and 2001 presidential elections, as well as the 2004 and 2000 parliamentary elections.

She said it was difficult to properly observe what was happening.

"You can’t see much even at the polling station, you need to be five metres away from the counting table," she said.

"You don’t get to see the ballots because they are encircled by a group of people and counted secretly.

"If you are too pushy the authorities of the polling station might call the police."

Who is overseeing the election process?

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - a Moscow-based organisation of USSR former member states - has accepted Belarus' invitation to follow the election.

Gloud, however, thinks they are "not credible observers".

"CIS is very biased and never contests the results. They are fully controlled by Moscow," she said.

There are some considerable differences between the way ODHIR and CIS carry an electoral observation mission, she added.

"CIS come too late to be able to observe a meaningful election process. They arrive only three weeks before the election, and they don’t have as many people as OSCE, which can count on 300-500 people, including observers, assistants, election analyst and legal analyst, and they stay for about 200 days in the country where election happens."

There is also a big difference over how CIS and ODHIR recruit their observers.

"ODHIR recruits from many nationalities to prevent biases, and they do it openly, on their website, whereas CIS only hires nationals from the former Soviet area and there is no transparency over the recruitment process, we don't know where their analysts come from."

Other issues over election monitoring

Citing concerns of COVID-19 spreading during the election, the Belarusian authorities have reduced the number of local observers at each polling station, human rights organisation Viasna told Dailyrater.

That is despite Belarus being one of the few countries in Europe not to implement strict confinement measures during the pandemic, even allowing large events such as Belarus' Independence Day parade to go ahead on May 9.

Viasna was among local groups to miss out on getting authorisation to monitor the election after the number of observers was reduced.

“We can’t observe the counting process, the most important part of the campaign, it’s completely against the standard of democracy,” Viasna board member Valiantsin Stefanovic told Dailyrater.

“CIS has never criticised an election and said everything was transparent. We don’t trust them. That’s why it was important to have OSCE with us."

Gloud said the organisations likely to be given the authorisation to observe are state-sponsored ones like the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus andì the Belarus Public Association of Veterans.

Dailyrater asked Belarus' Central Election Commission to comment on this article. It had not responded by the time of publication.

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