Belarus should be a warning to the UK

“In a tweet about the protests in Belarus, former Green MEP Molly Scott Cato said ‘They are demanding something better – why aren’t we?’.” Student and Green Party member Matthew Staton argues the UK should take heed of anti-government and anti-corruption protests in Belarus and implement electoral reform to protect our weakening democracy.

President Lukashenko
President Lukashenko

Image: Serge Serebro, Vitebsk Popular News, CC BY-SA 4.0

Under-fire President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko

Matthew Staton

What does the UK have in common with ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’, Belarus? Although the majority of countries in Europe now use some form of proportional representation (in which the share of seats a party wins matches the share of votes it receives) for general elections, the UK and Belarus remain the only countries to use First Past the Post. Given that Belarus is far from being a substantive democracy, this does not reflect well on the UK.

Overwhelming evidence suggests that the 2020 Belarusian presidential election, held on 9 August, was rigged. Opposition candidates have either gone into exile or been jailed in their own country. Election monitoring has been blocked. Voting was extended to facilitate ballot-stuffing. The Belarusian Green Party chose not to stand. Officially, President Alexander Lukashenko has been re-elected, but this result has been rejected by the UK, the EU and most importantly, the Belarusian people, who have protested against it en masse. 

Throughout his 26-year presidency, Lukashenko has had enough support to claim legitimacy, even though elections have never been considered free or fair during his rule. However, recently the Belarusian people have complained of corruption, poverty, a lack of opportunity and low pay. Lukashenko’s incompetent response to Covid-19 was the final nail in the coffin for any support he retained. 

We can hear similar complaints in the UK. The Jenrick affair and the recent PPE procurement scandal have been cited as evidence of corruption in our government, and a YouGov poll has revealed that 56 per cent of people believe our government has handled the pandemic poorly. The Belarusian people have attributed problems such as these to a lack of democracy in their country. Perhaps it’s time that in the UK we did the same.  

Our voting system grants a disproportionate share of power to the majority government, and silences minority parties. As a result, the cooperative politics required for an effective pandemic response are stifled. Furthermore, when swathes of power are disproportionately handed to one party, opportunities for corruption arise. The most damning charge of corruption against both main political parties in the UK is their collective failure to champion electoral reform. They surely know our system is undemocratic, and yet they choose to do very little about it. In Belarus, Lukashenko does not allow free and fair elections. Neither does our two-party state in the UK. 

However, it is Russian interference that should alarm the British people the most. President Putin will undoubtedly keep a close eye on his client state in the coming months. Whatever the outcome of the unrest in Belarus, he will want to retain his influence. Again, this mirrors concerns in the UK, specifically around Russian interference in our politics. 

Our voting system is particularly open to such interference, as many seats are won or lost on a handful of votes. According to the Electoral Commission, UK parties spend 37.5 per cent more on average in marginal seats. Worryingly, they’re not the only ones who can seize this opportunity. Russian campaigns involving disinformation, data harvesting, and targeted ads could pose a serious threat to our democratic process if they reach marginal seats. In July, a report from the Intelligence and Security Committee warned that the UK government had ‘badly underestimated’ the threat posed by Russia, and recommended ‘immediate action’ to mitigate this threat. The Belarusian people deserve a democracy free from Russian interference. So do we. 

In a tweet about the protests in Belarus, former Green MEP Molly Scott Cato said: ‘They are demanding something better – why aren’t we?’. The recent ‘Day of Action’ co-ordinated by Make Votes Matter was only the beginning. We need to close down opportunities for foreign interference in our elections; we need checks and balances which mitigate the danger of one party seizing disproportionate power. We need a democracy in which everyone’s vote counts equally, no matter who they vote for, or what constituency they vote in. We need to replace First Past the Post with a form of proportional representation. Only by doing this will we fix our broken democracy.

Matthew Staton is a student and member of the North Staffordshire Green Party.