The All-Belarusian People’s Assembly: Cementing President Lukashenka’s Consolidation of Power
The All-Belarusian People’s Assembly was constitutionalized in February 2022 in a referendum denounced as a sham by the democratic opposition in exile. This new iteration of the “supreme representative body of the power of the people” has been granted extensive but somewhat vague functions, elevating it above the parliament and all other representative bodies. Through its membership and powers, including the power to remove presidents, it is also a vehicle through which Lukashenka can ensure his control over all aspects of Belarusian politics, even post presidency.
In February 2022, Belarus passed wide-ranging constitutional reforms via a referendum denounced as a sham by the democratic opposition in exile, the EU, and the United States, among others. The constitutional changes, previously analyzed on ConstitutionNet, were generally understood as a way for President Lukashenka to consolidate his control over the government, legislature, and state institutions, allowing him to remain in office until 2035, and to ensure his immunity from prosecution. Another key motivation for the reforms was to provide President Lukashenka with several avenues to exert personal authority, even post presidency. A key instrument for this was the constitutionalization of a currently existing body, the All-Belarusian People's Assembly (ABPA), but empowered with new, wide-reaching powers. Article 144 of the amended Constitution stipulates that the law on ABPA must be adopted within a year from the day the amendments to the Constitution come into force, therefore not later than 14 March 2023. This law, the Draft Law on All-Belarusian People's Assembly, was recently published online for public discussion. The draft law confirms, as was previously clear from the constitutional amendments, that the ABPA may play a pivotal role in Belarusian politics in the future, if Lukashenka so decides.
Constitutionalizing the ABPA: a pretext of conciliation
While the ABPA is a new constitutional body, Belarus already had six Belarusian People's Congress meetings during its 31 years of independence, with the last one held in 2021. There are two main reasons for the body’s elevation to constitutional status. The first is to persuade citizens of Belarus and the international community that a dynamic and representative constitutional development is taking place in Belarus. As President Lukashenka has recently admitted, he understands that the situation in the country cannot be unchangeable and static. When speaking of the Assembly, he portrayed the Assembly as the “correct” venue for citizen representation (perhaps tacitly referring to the unprecedented mass protests in 2020 when Lukashenka claimed his sixth term): “Why not make [the ABPA] constitutional, why not strengthen its role, why not listen to people there, at this forum? It is better to do it not in the street, but there, at the forum”. The second and the most important reason for this reform is to keep the power in the hands of the current president as long as possible and, if needed, to try control the future process of transfer of power to the newly elected president. This is guaranteed in several ways. The ABPA membership includes former presidents (Article 89-2) so Lukashenko would retain membership even after a transition of power. Further, the ABPA is effectively charged with selecting and monitoring the president and can remove him from office, and because Lukashenko would likely chair the ABPA he will effectively have control over the fortunes of a new president through the ABPA. Lukashenka openly confirmed this motivation in November 2021 saying, “Let's be frank, and I will publicly say this today: everything will depend on which President replaces this President. Therefore, the All-Belarusian People's Assembly can back us up”.
Historical roots of the ABPA
The first ABPA in Belarus was convened on 19-20 October 1996. This period in the country's history was characterized by a sharp confrontation between, on one hand, the charismatic and populistic president elected in July 1994, and the Parliament and the constitutional court on the other. The Constitution in force at that time did not meet Lukashenka's ambitions, as it established a real system of checks and balances in the form of a moderately strong parliament and an independent constitutional court. Between October 1994 and October 1996, many legal acts issued by the President were declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. Further, in the autumn of 1996, the threat of impeachment became real as Lukashenka pursued constitutional amendments through extra-constitutional means to formalize a hyper-presidential system in Belarus.
In that situation, Lukashenka decided to appeal “directly to people”, completely ignoring the members of parliament who were elected by the same people and which had exclusive constitutional authority to call referenda on constitutional amendments. 4,700 delegates from collective farms, factories and state enterprises were nominated to the first ABPA, which was envisaged to provide an economic plan for the next five years. At this forum, which consisted almost exclusively of the president’s supporters, Lukashenka made a speech devoted to the justification of a future constitutional referendum. It goes without saying that all of his proposals were approved by the ABPA, but at this point the Assembly’s approval did not have any legal effect: it was merely an instrument to support Lukashenka’s policies and priorities and to create the appearance of a popular mandate for his reform program. Since then, the Assembly has been convened every five years (though with fewer participants). The main task of this collective body has been as a mouthpiece of Lukashenka’s policies, and to approve whatever he has suggested.
Membership formula for the constitutionalized ABPA
Under the amended Constitution, the term of office of the All-Belarusian People's Assembly is five years and the Assembly will meet at least once a year. The maximum number of delegates is 1,200 people (Articles 89-2, 89-4). Powers of the ABPA begin on the day of its first meeting and end on the day when the new convocation starts its first meeting. The first meeting of the ABPA is convened by the Central Electoral Commission no later than 60 days after the elections of the deputies, in this case no later than 60 days after 25 February 2024, the date of the next elections in Belarus.
The Draft Law establishes several distinct groups of members. The Assembly includes both the incumbent and all former presidents of the country (except those that were impeached), so, at the moment, Lukashenka will be present as the only president. All members of the National Assembly, the two chambers of the Belarusian Parliament, represent the legislative branch, and their number cannot exceed 174 persons. Representatives of the executive power include all members of the Government (as of today, around 42 persons), seven chairmen of the regions (“oblasts”), Minsk City executive committees and all chairmen of district and city executive committees (not less than 128 persons).
Another group of members consists of up to 350 representatives from local government councils. This figure includes all (currently 57) members of Minsk City Council. Other representatives from local councils will be nominated according to the Council Rules of Procedure and a geographic representation quota established by the Central Election Commission, based on the number of voters residing in the respective region (“oblast”) (Article 9 of the Draft Law on the ABPA). Then they will be elected (or not) by Oblast Councils.
Over one-third of the ABPA will consist of ex officio delegates, whose loyalty had been checked several times during their careers.
Judicial power will be represented by all Constitutional and Supreme Court judges (currently 73 persons). All parliamentarians, as well as local deputies, secured their seats by preliminary (formal or informal) approval of the presidential administration, and all judges are personally nominated by Lukashenka. Thus, a considerable part of the ABPA, over one-third, will consist of ex officio delegates, whose loyalty had been checked several times during their careers.
Moreover, up to 400 representatives of “civil society” will be elected “by the highest bodies of the civil society subjects from among its members” (Article 10 of the Draft Law on the ABPA). But who exactly are these subjects of civil society? The Head of Presidential Administration answered thus in August 2022: “…only representatives of those civil society entities that are registered and have regional and Minsk City bodies, and also national public associations with at least 100,000 members will be able to nominate delegates to the ABPA”. As of August 2022, these criteria were met by only five organizations: the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (over 4 million members), Belaya Rus (more than 188,000 members), the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (more than 380,000 members), the Belarusian Union of Women (140,000 members), and the Belarusian Public Association of Veterans (more than 2 million people). One can safely predict that exactly these five associations will each elect (or rather nominate) 80 delegates to ABPA. Interestingly, political parties will have no direct right to elect members of the ABPA and will need to struggle for a place at the National Assembly in order to be represented.
No person with a criminal record, dual citizenship or status issued by a foreign state and granting benefits and advantages due to political, religious or national origin of the person can be elected to ABPA. Obviously, these disqualifications are aimed at preventing the election of any opposition representative who either left Belarus under the threat of criminal prosecution, or was prosecuted for participating in peaceful protests.
Thus, despite the large number of delegates, one can hardly say that the ABPA will represent all groups of the Belarusian people. Rather, carefully selected delegates are representatives of the Belarusian nomenklatura and it is impossible to imagine a situation in which they would refuse support any decisions proposed by the current president.
The ABPA’s sweeping mandate
According to Article 89 of the Constitution, the All-Belarusian People's Assembly is the “supreme representative body of the power of the people of the Republic of Belarus that determines the strategic directions of the development for society and the state, and ensures the inviolability of the constitutional system, the continuity of generations, and civil accord.” Thus, the body is endowed with broad powers, some of which, in the old version of the Constitution, belonged to the President, some to the Parliament, and there also some new powers specially devised for the Assembly.
The key new power of the ABPA is to determine the “legitimacy” of presidential and parliamentary elections…
The key new power of the ABPA, under Article 89-6, is to determine the “legitimacy” of presidential and parliamentary elections. The right to initiate this procedure no later than five days after elections belongs to the Presidium of the Assembly (detailed below), after which the ABPA presumably investigates and makes a decision in the following ten-day period. If the elections are found illegitimate, the results are annulled and repeat elections are scheduled. Remarkably, neither the new bill nor the Electoral Code specifies the legal grounds for declaring elections illegitimate. This means that such a decision will be political by its nature and a candidate who is undesirable to the regime will be prevented from taking office, even after winning the elections. Such a legal norm is unprecedented in modern constitutionalism.
Even if the Presidium does not initiate such a proceeding, the Assembly has another option: not later than five days after elections to apply to the Constitutional Court to confirm the “constitutionality” of the elections. If the elections are recognized as unconstitutional, their results are annulled and repeat elections are scheduled (Articles 81-1 and 81-2 of the Draft Amendments to the Electoral Code). The ABPA further has the power to recommend charges against the president for “systematic or gross violation of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus” and initiate impeachment proceedings for this or other serious crimes such as high treason (Article 18 of the Draft Law on the ABPA).
The competence of the Assembly includes making (in practice, approving) decisions of a strategic and programmatic nature including the main directions of domestic and foreign policy, military doctrine, national security, and programs of socio-economic development as submitted by the President of Belarus or the Council of Ministers of Belarus.
The Assembly has the competence to elect the judges, including President and Vice-Presidents of the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court, the Central Electoral Commission Chairman and members, as well as to dismiss them from office for reasons prescribed by law. However, the Draft Law stipulates that this is done “at the suggestion of the President of the Republic of Belarus, previously approved by the Presidium of the ABPA”, so the President and his administration will still play first fiddle.
The ABPA has the right of legislative initiative (including the right to propose amendments and additions to the Constitution). As most constitutional provisions must be approved via referendum, the Assembly also has the right to initiate such a process.
The ABPA also has highly ambiguous rights to overrule the decisions of state bodies other than the judiciary, as well as to provide binding instructions to state bodies and officials assigned to the assembly, which clearly violates the principle of separation of powers.
A powerful Presidium
A key role in organizing the work of the Assembly will be played by a collegiate body called the Presidium. The (non-exhaustive) description of the powers of this body occupies two-and-a-half pages of the text of the Draft Law. The Presidium will consist of up to 15 persons from the ABPA, including the Chairman of the All-Belarusian People's Assembly, his deputies and other members of the Presidium, elected by the ABPA’s members by secret ballot. It is important to note that this is the only decision that is taken by secret ballot: all other matters are decided by open ballot (Article 28 of the Draft Law on the ABPA). Interestingly, Article 144 of the Constitution stipulates that the current President of Belarus may simultaneously serve as President and Chairman of the All-Belarusian People's Assembly. The probability that this is exactly how it will happen is very high. The Presidium will gather at least two times a year supported by a permanent Secretariat established, of course, by the current President.
The Draft Law on the ABPA nicely demonstrates the maxim coined by Professors Sajó and Uitz: “Fear drives the minds and pens of constitution-makers”. After the 2020 peaceful and powerful protests in Belarus, the regime has recapitulated its power through constitutional and legislative changes aimed at warding off any potential threat. The ABPA is a tool for creating the illusion of popular support for the policies being pursued and a safeguard that can be used to dismiss people unacceptable to the regime who may "accidentally" get into parliament or the presidency. In the period from 24 October to 2 November 2022, the public discussion of the Draft Law on the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly garnered 485 proposals and responses. Among them, only 3,7% respondents were not in favour of the Draft, according to the official data. While Lukashenka recently claimed that because of the new constitution, “everything will be more democratic than ever before. Remember: more democratic than ever!”, the deck is stacked, and Lukashenka has fixed the rules: one does not need a fortune teller to predict that the results of open voting at the future Assembly sessions will be completely unanimous.
♦ ♦ ♦
Suggested citation: Anonymous, ‘The All-Belarusian People’s Assembly: Cementing President Lukashenka’s Consolidation of Power’, ConstitutionNet, International IDEA, 30 November 2022, https://constitutionnet.org/news/all-belarusian-peoples-assembly-cementing-president-lukashenkas-consolidation-power