Despite vocal support for the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the international community has so far failed to ensure the re-run of a clearly rigged presidential election, and authoritarian leaders around the world appear to have taken note. Events in Benin, which holds a presidential election in April, follow the Belarus playbook.
Almost seven months have now passed since the authoritarian leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, had himself declared the winner of a presidential election, officially taking more than 80 per cent of the vote.
By any objective measure, Lukashenko lost the election to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who only stood for the presidency after the candidacy of her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTuber, was annulled.
Mr Tikhanovsky was later jailed, and remains in prison pending trial for fraud charges that he denies, and which he claims are politically motivated.
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Other potential rivals of Mr Lukashenko, who has been president of Belarus since 1994, suffered the same fate, including Viktor Babaryko, the former head of a major Belarusian bank. Mr Babaryko was arrested in June of last year – also on fraud charges – and denied the opportunity to run against Lukashenko in the August election.
Valery Tsepkalo, the founder of the Belarusian High-Tech Park and another potential rival to Mr Lukashenko, was prevented from running on the grounds that he had failed to collect the requisite number of signatures to support his candidacy in the allowed time frame.
Limited international action
That Mrs Tikhanovskaya made it on to the ballot paper at all was therefore a major surprise: the only other candidates were allies of Mr Lukashenko whose presence was solely to offer a fig leaf of democratic competition.
The notoriously misogynistic Lukashenko never took Tikhanovskaya seriously and so never had her arrested.
She quickly became a focal point for the Belarusian opposition however, attracting large crowds to her election rallies. In the days following the election she was forced into exile in Lithuania, but huge protests calling for a new, free and fair election continued inside Belarus.
She continues to lead the opposition movement and has called for new protests to begin on March 25.
International condemnation for the brutal way in which Mr Lukashenko’s security forces have put down the protests against his regime – more than 35,000 people have been arrested, and just last week two journalists were jailed for covering the protests – has so far been limited.
While the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States have so far offered support for the Belarusian opposition, and have imposed some personal sanctions against leading figures within the Belarusian regime, Mr Lukashenko has so far been unwavering in his determination to cling on to power.
The limited sanctions have had no effect.
On February 28, Mrs Tikhanovskaya said that more pressure needs to be exerted on Lukashenko “until he finally goes”.
On the same day, the EU decided to prolong the current measures targeting high-level officials in Belarus, but stepped back from introducing new sanctions.
Benin: Copying the Belarus playbook
The limited, and until now fruitless nature of the measures taken against Mr Lukashenko would not have gone unnoticed by other authoritarian leaders around the world.
In Benin, in West Africa, a presidential election scheduled for April 11 looks set to be almost a carbon copy of events in Belarus.
There, the country’s president, Patrice Talon, is – like Mr Lukashenko – taking no chances: the main opposition candidate, Reckya Madougou, is one of eight who has been disqualified. Just three candidates – the incumbent president and two of his political allies – have made it on to the ballot paper.
Mrs Madougou had hoped to run against Mr Talon, a cotton magnate, as the candidate of the opposition Les Democrates. However, for a candidacy to be approved, it needs to be sponsored by 10 per cent of the country’s elected officials (mayors and MPs). This has been the rule since a controversial constitutional reform was introduced in 2019.
Following a parliamentary election in 2019 in which no opposition parties were allowed to present lists of candidates however, around 90 per cent of Benin’s elected officials are from the incumbent president’s party, making the candidacy of opposition figures all but impossible.
Elected president in 2016, Mr Talon initially vowed to introduce measures that would limit Benin’s presidents to one term in office. However, parliament rejected the proposal.
Mr Talon said that he was “saddened” by the outcome but that he respected it because of his “commitment to democracy”.
That commitment was brought into doubt by the 2019 election, which shattered the country’s image as a bastion of democracy and stability in a troubled region.
That Mr Talon is now running for a second term in office also suggests his sadness quickly passed.
“It is outrageous that for the third time, no opposition candidate can stand in this election,” says Mrs Madougou.
“The electoral commission refusing my candidacy shows the incumbent president is confiscating our people’s right to take part in a free and fair election. This is an unacceptable blow against the democratic principles we must proudly defend.”
Mrs Tikhanovskaya in Belarus still has hopes that the international community will take concerted action against Mr Lukashenko.
But the longer he remains in power, the less likely such action appears.
If the international community is unwilling to do more to bring about change in Belarus, who will Mrs Madougou be able to count on to defend her democratic principles in Benin, a country that gets far less media attention?
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