How to prevent authoritarianism and how the elective democracy can prevent authoritarian leaders from power, and how elections can be organized after an armed conflict and protect voter rights – the aspects were tackled in a discussion on “Ensuring Sustainability of Democracy Through Elections: Prospects and Challenges,” a part of the “Democracy in Action” conference.

A special representative on elections of the Belarus presidential candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Oleksandr Shlyk, said the situation currently evolving in Belarus is a consequence of the ongoing falsifications of elections. Although if we take a look at 27 years ago, Oleksandr Lukashenko gained power in rather democratic elections. Back then, few people expected his regime to turn so authoritarian.

“Since last August, we have seen elections as an institution of democracy; they resumed their central place in supporting democracy, and in fight for it. Let me remind that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a Belarus political leader, stood for elections with a very simple message and a very simple idea. The idea was not about being a good president but she said: "I will be the president to run fair elections. Her plan has been to conduct fair elections as soon as it is possible. Therefore, I believe we are in a unique situation in Belarus today. As we all know, as intellectuals and experts, elections are the touchstone of democracy, but since last August our fight has started with the manifestly faked and extremely unfair elections. The elections are the aspect of fight for democracy. We are running the elections not to prevent authoritarian leaders from power but because we know that elections are the only way to peacefully transfer power. As soon as we do it, as soon as we manage to do it, it will not matter who we elect at these democratic elections, we will still know that we will be able to dispose of them through a peaceful and democratic way. This is the rationale and idea of our fight,” says he.

Kenneth Wollack, a chairperson of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), also said that the international community should not support the electoral framework of Belarus, but the country should rather build democracy and expand the capacity of citizens to engage them into the process and use it to legitimize themselves.

“I think that Belarus political class, Belarus democrats have recently made an important decision. There were times when they boycotted the fraudulent process of elections as they feared lest they did not legitimize bad elections. They decided that it could be the way to reach some significant results. They learned the lesson from democrats of other countries – when you participate and use any available political means not to legitimize the wrong process but to use any place to legitimize themselves. It was a brilliant lesson to learn. I think Belarus people showed they were capable of winning and using a clean strategy. Unfortunately, the regime used some very conventional means to suppress the opposition. The more I think of an international community in this context I believe the electoral framework of the country shall not be supported. Instead, we need to build democracy and enhance the capacity of citizens to enable their participation in the process, so that they could use it to legitimize themselves, and to show the process as is. At some points you can have success. We remember the Philippines Revolution, the people in Chile, referendum, plebiscites; we remember the Nicaragua in the 1990s. There are times when citizens, including Belarus, can overcome the process and win this unfair process with their power, and achieve success. If they don’t, they are still in a much stronger position to continue the fight after elections and organize themselves for the next electoral battles,” said Kenneth Wollack.

He also added that currently in Myanmar the regime uses all the traditional methods to torture their citizens but the international community shall take responsibility to support citizens in their fight within the country, and also those who left it.

“We are getting back to the situation we used to have before the election process that helped the National League for Democracy to come to power; we see the return to the old methods of opposition support, so that it did not atrophy, so that it continued the fight and shared the information, and organized itself. I hope that with the help of international sanctions and other methods we will resume the situation when they could start organizing themselves normally, and eventually win in a democratic process,” said Kenneth Wollack.

As to the countries with raging armed conflicts, the participants discussed how elections could be organized in the Donbass after the cease of the armed conflict, and how to protect human rights and political rights of the government-controlled territories of Ukraine.  

According to the first advisor of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), director of IFES Ukraine, Peter Erben, the situation in Donbass is absolutely unique and it will require some unique solutions if the peacebuilding process resumes. He said that elections conducted following the conflicts are much more complicated and risky to administer, therefore, they require special attention.

“It is important to consider elections as part of a peacebuilding process rather than an isolated activity. It gives us hope because it offers an opportunity to set a new government. However, they may bring risks, too, as they can aggravate other misconceptions between the conflicting parties. Elections run in conflict areas are certainly much different from our routine common elections we are accustomed to. And we need to approach them as such. In post-conflict elections, we can often see how former combatants confront each other in a democratic competition, rather than as the enemies in a battlefield. It is crucial that the election process and election results win trust of all participants, and of all stakeholders. Therefore, whenever elections are conducted post-conflict it often calls for more activities that ensure high level of transparency, monitoring, and justice, and thus, the fairness of the elections. One such example is with the much higher level of domestic and international observation. We need to show that election process runs fair. Thus, the responsible post-conflict elections often require much more time. We can see it if we take a look at the history of elections in Kosovo, or Afghanistan. Often, from the moment of making the decision to run the elections, we need at least a year, or longer, to prepare for the election day. In other words, the three months we need to conduct elections in most countries are true for standard elections only. We need to do many more things. We need to have the legal framework in place, we often need much more funding, we need to jointly look at the election administration structures when each party has a say in how to run the election. Civil society plays an important role here, too. They act as observers and also promote certain fair processes before the elections,” said he.

Alina Zahoruyko, a people’s deputy, a chair of a subcommittee on elections and referenda of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on the Organization of State Power, Local Self-Government, Regional Development, and Urban Planning, said that some countries failed to achieve a consolidated democracy, and they stayed in a “grey zone” with a hybrid regime. It could be overcome only through elections attended by a sufficient number of people, and with the strong opposition.

“If we view the background, we can see the world has been engulfed with the optimistic wave since the 1970s, they were thrilled to see democracy progressing. There was a so-called third wave of democratization. The optimism ended in a disappointment. In some places, certain countries managed to reach a consolidated democracy. We are trying to understand why it happened and where the countries are today. The practice shows the countries that stay within the “grey area” have the hybrid regime. Why did certain countries fail to reach the consolidated democracy? There are many factors to that. The factors are both endogenous and exogenous. We can even see it when we reflect on the developments in the neighbouring countries. If we want a country to come out of the “grey area” or avoid this, it is important to ask questions, analyze, and reflect on them. There is a key peculiarity about all these hybrid regimes when leaders allow certain competition or pretend to allow it. However, I believe the hybrid regime can be overpassed through ballot boxes, through elections, when enough voters come to vote, when they are united around an idea, when there is a strong opposition. It is a chance for hybrid regimes to get forward, to make a step towards democracy.

There are many good cases of peaceful transition of power through elections. There are worse cases, too. However, eventually one could say that elections are not the panacea or the self-sufficient tool. After all, people’s choices are impacted by the information they are exposed to. Today, the world seems to live in a flow of disinformation. In this respect, Ukraine and its neighbours should focus on the rule of law in a broadest sense, clear, transparent, open, and inclusive procedures, and a strict division of all branches of power. Because – whenever the executive authorities fail, or the law-enforcement is lame, when the judiciary is not independent, the elections will remain to be just a screen. And it does not make sense to see elections as the solution to all problems,” says Alina Zahoruyko.