A seven-question referendum was held in Belarus on 24 November 1996. Four questions were put forward by President Alexander Lukashenko on changing the date of the country's independence day, amending the constitution, changing laws on the sale of land and the abolition of the death penalty. The Supreme Council put forward three questions on constitutional amendments by the Communist and Agrarian factions, local elections and the national finances.
All of Lukashenko's proposals were approved, namely changing Belarus's national day, amending the constitution, and retaining the death penalty and a ban on land sales. Voter turnout was claimed to be 84.1%. However, the referendum, like its 1995 predecessor, was condemned by international organizations including the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, as falling far short of democratic standards, while others described it as a further consolidation of Lukashenko's dictatorship.
In the summer of 1996 President Lukashenko presented constitutional amendments for approval to the Supreme Soviet. However, the Soviet then produced a counterproposal, one provision of which would abolish the position of President. The ensuing power struggle escalated quickly, leading to intervention by Russian officials to try and negotiate a compromise that included declaring that the referendum would not be binding.
Voters were asked whether they approved of:
- Independence Day (Republic Day) being moved from 27 July, the day of the Declaration of Sovereignty of Belarus from the Soviet Union, to 3 July, the day of liberation of Belarus from Nazi Germany in 1944;
- Constitutional amendments put forward by President Lukashenko, which dramatically increased the president's power. Among other things, these amendments gave Lukashenko's decrees the force of law, gave him near-total control over the budget and extended his term to 2001;
- The free sale of property;
- The abolition of the death penalty;
- The constitutional amendments put forward by the Supreme Soviet;
- Direct elections to local bodies;
- All state expenses being part of the national budget.
- The local referendum commissions that should have been formed by local legislative bodies no later than one month before the referendum, were only set up for 5–7 days;
- President Lukashenko illegally removed Viktar Hanchar, chairman of the Central Commission for Elections and National Referendums, from office. As a result, the work of the Commission, that was supposed to control the legality of the vote, was paralyzed;
- By the time early voting began (9 November), polling stations had not been provided with proposed amendments and additions to the Constitutions, so the citizens did not know what they were voting for;
- Voters were illegally called (and in many cases forced) to vote earlier than the actual date of the referendum. As a result, by the day of the referendum, nearly a quarter of voters has already voted;
- Ballot papers were printed by the Office of Presidential Affairs of the Republic of Belarus. They were taken to polling stations without passing through the Central Commission for Elections and National Referendums and its regional divisions. There was no accounting for the number of ballots;
- The referendum was funded not from the state budget, but from unknown "charitable" contributions, which was illegal. The Central Commission for Elections and National Referendums was completely removed from funding the referendum;
- There was agitation and propaganda in favour of the position of President Lukashenko. In some cases the agitation was carried out directly at polling stations;
- On the day of the referendum, observers, representatives of political parties and public organizations had obstacles placed in their way in trying to monitoring the voting, they were not allowed to enter the voting stations and were not given information they required;
- There were numerous violations of the law at polling stations, such as no booths for secret ballots, no draft amendments and additions to the Constitution, voters allowed to vote without presenting identification documents, damaged seals on ballot boxes, and evidence of forgery of voter signatures.
The opposition also spoke of rigging of the referendum. According to Sergey Kalyakin, head of the Eurocommunist faction of the parliament, 20 to 50 percent of the votes counted have been falsified. Syamyon Sharetski, speaker of parliament, called the 1996 referendum "a farce and violence against the people" and said that "the outcome of such a plebiscite could not be accepted either in Belarus nor by the international community". The opposition did not recognise the results of the referendum, nor those of the previous referendum held in 1995. The oppositional Conservative Christian Party calls for a return to the Constitution of 1994. Alena Skryhan, the deputy head of Communist fraction of the Parliament in 1996 said that the referendum had led to monopolization of all branches of power by president Lukashenko. Since then, various Belarusian opposition figures and former officials have criticized the referendum, with former Minister of Labour, Aliaksandr Sasnou, calling it a "coup".
|Increased powers for the president||5,175,664||88.2||689,642||11.8||316,157||Approved|
|Free sale of property||948,756||15.6||5,123,386||84.4||109,321||Rejected|
|Abolition of the death penalty||1,108,226||18.2||4,972,535||81.8||100,702||Rejected|
|Constitutional amendments proposed by the Supreme Soviet||582,437||10.0||5,230,763||90.0||368,263||Rejected|
|Direct elections to local bodies||1,739,178||28.7||4,321,866||71.3||120,419||Rejected|
|All state expenses are part of the national budget||1,989,252||32.8||4,070,261||67.2||121,950||Rejected|
|Source: Nohlen & Stöver|
Although Lukashenko and the Supreme Soviet had signed an agreement that the Soviet would have the final decision on whether to adopt the constitutional amendments, Lukashenko broke the agreement. After the constitution was promulgated a new House of Representatives was assembled, with only Lukashenko loyalists admitted. Around sixty members of the Supreme Soviet who rejected the new constitution continued to work in the Soviet, which was recognised as the legitimate parliament by the international community.
- Dieter Nohlen & Philip Stöver (2010) Elections in Europe: A data handbook, p252 ISBN 978-3-8329-5609-7
- Nohlen & Stöver, pp256–257
- Why Does The “Last Dictatorship In Europe” Hold Elections? Belarus Digest, 26 March 2012
- Profile: Europe's last dictator? BBC News, 10 September 2001
- Nohlen & Stöver, p236
- Nohlen & Stöver, p237
- Referendum 96 (Opinion of the Opposition): numbers, judgments, law. The Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Minsk, 1996
- Народная воля, № 109, Свабода, 29 November 1996
- Свабода. 1996, нумар ад 26 лістапада
- Ці адпавядаў рэфэрэндум 14 траўня 1995 году Канстытуцыі і законам? - Was the Referendum of 1995 held according to the Constitution and laws? - analysis by Siarhei Navumchyk, former member of parliament; Круглы стол “Рэфэрэндум 1995 году – пачатак наступу на беларускую мову й гістарычную памяць” - The referendum of 1995: the begin of an attack against the Belarusian language and historical memory, a roundtable held by the Partyja BNF
- Conservative Christian Party official programme Archived September 15, 2009, at the Wayback Machine: Адразу пасьля сканчэньня дыктатуры, адмены ўлады рэжыму і ўступленьне ў дзеяньне беларускай улады, аўтаматычна зноў вяртаецца дзеяньне Канстытуцыі 1994 года і ўсё адмененае і забароненае рэжымам заканадаўства і інстытуты ўлады. Неадкладна вяртаюцца дзяржаўныя сымвалы Беларусі: бел-чырвона-белы сьцяг і гэрб Пагоня. Адмяняюцца вынікі незаконных рэфэрэндумаў 1995 і 1996 гг., узбуджаецца крымінальная справа супраць іх ініцыятараў, распускаецца нелегальны, незаконны «нацыянальны сход». Беларуская мова зноў вяртаецца на дзяржаўны пасад, а пазачыняныя рэжымам беларускія школы тут жа і неадкладна адновяць свой беларускі статус. Будуць зачыненыя ўсе фашыстоўскія і антыбеларускія антыдзяржаўныя арганізацыі. Пра гэта павінны быць прынятыя адпаведныя заканадаўчыя акты.
- Radio Free Europe Belarusian Edition: 9 Years Ago Lukashenko Changed the Constitution via a Referendum Archived 2011-08-07 at the Wayback Machine(in Belarusian)
- "Sasnou: I View "Referendum"-1996 As Coup". charter97.org. Retrieved 2015-12-26.
- Official 1996 Belarus Referendum data
- Ці быў рэфэрэндум 1996 году паваротным пунктам?
- 24 ноября - вторая годовщина референдума; “Белорусская газета”, 23 ноября 1998 года
- on YouTube
Projects of the ConstitutionEdit
- Parliamentary project (Communist and agrarian deputy groups): (in Belarusian), (in English) (chapter 10 has been not translated)
- Presidential project (in Russian)
- Earlier presidential project (not put into referendum), 20 September 1996 (in Russian)