Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, is widely considered to be an authoritarian, earning him the unflattering title of “Europe’s last dictator.” Historically, elections have been neither free nor fair in Belarus and opposition candidates have often been barred from running or jailed. However, the 2020 election defied all expectations. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a jailed presidential contender, gained significant support as she took her husband’s place as the opposition candidate. Tikhanovskaya’s signature campaign promise? To hold free elections within six months. The momentum surrounding her candidacy developed into massive protests following the announcement of Lukashenko’s alleged landslide victory, which was widely denounced as fraudulent. Lukashenko’s regime responded to the protests with brutal crackdowns and mass arrests. The 2020 election and its aftermath further damaged Lukashenko’s reputation.
After being heckled during a speech soon after the election with calls to resign and accusations of lying, Lukashenko suggested that new elections could be held following a referendum to adopt a new constitution. The referendum, now scheduled for February 27, would bring significant changes to the Belarusian government. But are the constitutional reforms on the ballot a step towards democracy, or a means to consolidate Lukashenko’s power?
Lukashenko’s regime is transparently authoritarian in many ways. However, the constitutional reforms and the surrounding rhetoric are perhaps more aligned with stealth authoritarianism. Varol theorizes that, “stealth authoritarianism serves as a way to protect and entrench power when direct repression is not a viable option.”  The aftermath of the 2020 election may have signaled to Lukashenko that his power is vulnerable, and further transparent repression to protect it may not be tolerated. He has faced pressure from his citizens, the international community at large and the Russian government to make reforms. The Russian government encouraged constitutional reform in Belarus as a means of settling the unrest. Belarus has also been subjected to multiple rounds of sanctions from Western countries which have intensified to coordinated, broad economic sanctions. A joint statement of the European Union, the United States, Britain, and Canada, “called on Mr. Lukashenko to release all political prisoners and ‘enter into a comprehensive and genuine political dialogue’ with the democratic opposition and civil society.”
Lukashenko has endeavored to depict the reform process as legitimate, even democratic. The central components of the constitutional reform would limit the president to two five-year terms and strengthen the All-Belarus People’s Assembly by transferring powers that are currently delegated to the president and parliament. Lukashenko has indicated that he will step down after the reforms are instituted, stating that “If everything is quiet and peaceful, then I can step down any time. Yet, I will be there for backup: if you need my help, I will do what I can. I declare my plans honestly, publicly for the whole country, for the whole world.”
The promise of a change in leadership and presidential elections in which there is meaningful competition would be a step towards democracy for Belarus. However, a closer look at the proposed constitutional reforms provides insight into what Lukashenko means by claiming that he will be there for backup. Significantly, the term limits for the president will be instituted only upon the election of a new president. So, after the conclusion of his current term, Lukashenko would be eligible for two additional terms and a ten-year extension of his rule. The All-Belarus People’s Assembly would be granted the power to amend the constitution, appoint the election commission, appoint senior judges, and impeach the president. The assembly ostensibly represents the people. However, it currently consists of government loyalists and the draft constitution states that the election procedure for the assembly would be determined at a later time. Notably, the president serves as a member of the assembly, and is able to be elected as the chairman. Finally, former presidents would be granted prosecutorial immunity for their actions while in office under the proposed reforms.
It is likely that Lukashenko will indeed step down as president, immediately or following two terms, so that he may take up the role as chairman of the People’s Assembly. In the assembly, Lukashenko would be empowered to continue his reign. He would be shielded from prosecution, surrounded by loyal supporters, and licensed with increased power including oversight over his successor.
Despite the clear implications of the proposed constitution, Lukashenko has clung to democratic rhetoric, another hallmark of stealth authoritarianism.  For example, the power of the People’s Assembly was referred to by Lukashenko as a system of checks and balances. In addition, Lukashenko has emphasized the citizens’ involvement in the process and the fact that the referendum is the decision of the people. Varol theorizes that, “The illusion of choice can pacify the polity by allowing citizens to experience participation in the democratic process, without providing a meaningful opportunity to displace the incumbents”.  Lukashenko has embraced this illusion, citing the importance of the people’s decision and claiming that there will be no external pressure. He goes so far as to state that the referendum campaign is “fully consistent with all democratic criteria.” In addition, Lukashenko has emphasized that a group of citizens was involved in the drafting of the constitution and that it was presented to the public so that they could voice their opinions prior to the vote.
This democratic rhetoric has framed the referendum as the final say of the people, legitimizing the entrenchment of Lukashenko’s power. These stealth authoritarian practices work to disguise Lukashenko’s intentions; however, opposition leaders remain optimistic that the people will see the truth. In the words of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya,”It’s a lie no one will believe in. Choosing between Lukashenko and Lukashenko is impossible. And we won’t choose him like we didn’t choose him last year.”
 Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015): 1678-1732.
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