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Election watchers worried by lack of independent exit poll; survey essential to deterring vote fraud

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Dec. 11, 2009, 1:57 a.m. | Politics — by Mark Rachkevych

Voters are questioned on the way out of a polling station in Kyiv during a parliamentary election that took place on Sept. 30, 2007. (exitpoll.org.ua)

Mark Rachkevych

Mark has been a reporter for the Kyiv Post since 2006, but joined full-time in 2009. A native Chicagoan where he was the co-founder of the now defunct Glasshouse Magazine, Mark currently is an editor of business news and still contributes stories on an ongoing basis. He is a former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, a graduate of St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, and fluent in the Ukrainian and Russian languages.

As if it wasn’t enough to have an inconsistent election law, huge budget shortfalls and a voter list riddled with inaccuracies, the country now faces the prospect of having no independent exit poll, a tool successfully used in the past to curb fraud. Yet there seems to be no shortage of locally funded polls financed by political forces and TV stations, owned by politically connected businessmen. In the meantime, a nationwide non-profit organization will use a statistical quick vote count for the first time in Ukraine.

The independent poll, traditionally financed by foreign embassies and international donors since 1998, has been used to create public expectations that make fraud more difficult to accept.

A change in funding priorities has been cited as the main reason that some traditional sponsors are not supporting the exit poll that had previously been organized by Democratic Initiatives, a mostly Western-financed policy center.

“We learned that some embassies have already allocated money for the fiscal year while others said the exit poll is beyond the scope of their funding priorities,” said Ilko Kucheriv, director of the pro-democracy think tank in Kyiv. He said he has yet to raise a third of $130,000 needed to conduct fieldwork for exit polls in both election rounds.

The exit poll proved especially effective in the second round of the 2004 presidential election when it showed that today’s president, Victor Yushchenko, had beaten Victor Yanukovych, 53 to 44 percent. The fraudulent official result showed that Yanukovych had won narrowly: 49.5 to 46.6 percent.

The exit poll findings were also used as evidence during the ensuing Supreme Court hearings, which concluded there was widespread fraud and ruled that a repeat vote should take place. Yushchenko won that vote on Dec. 26, 2004, and became president the next month.

A recent poll found that 82 percent of Ukrainians expect vote rigging, according to Oleksiy Anypovych of the Lviv-based Rating Group polling firm. These fears are shared by election observers, both international and domestic.

“As a public oversight instrument, the exit poll is very effective in Ukraine if it is conducted and carried out by qualified professionals,” said Oleskandr Vyshniak, director of the Ukrainian Sociology Service.

Democratic Initiatives’ Kucheriv said he has already had to make concessions that could compromise the quality of the poll. In past nationwide elections, 300 polling stations were surveyed out of the existing 33,000, allowing for better accuracy and a lower sample error. This year, the exit poll team is settling for a lower sample size of 240 polling stations, which will yield a higher error rate. But that number is considered to be the minimum needed to keep the poll representative and accurate.

“Some donors have pledged money for other activities like carrying out an information campaign but this will be useless if the actual field work isn’t done,” Kucheriv said.

Traditional supporters like the Canadian International Development Agency, Swedish International Development Agency, Swiss Cooperation Office and Royal Norwegian Embassy have declined to provide funding due to shrinking budgets, shifting funding priorities or fiscal timing purposes.

Although “Canada"

Two reputable policy centers, Razumkov Center and Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, have traditionally carried out the field work for Democratic Initiatives. But it seems that KIIS and other large market organizations that could potentially be contracted are being engaged by the candidates.

“We’re keeping our options open and are in negotiations with other potential clients for the first round, which isn’t as important as the second round,” said Volodymyr Paniotto, director of KIIS.

Market research firms GfK and Research and Branding said negotiations are under way with potential clients to conduct an exit poll. GfK are holding talks with a TV station while Research and Branding confirmed they have a private client they would not name. Experts said they work with Yanukovych’s headquarters.

Oleskandr Bukhalov of FOM polling firm, a Ukrainian offshoot of its Russian counterpart, said it is also holding talks with potential clients and said “chances are high that we’ll conduct an exit poll.”

Ukraine Sociology Service’s Vyshniak said that KIIS is in talks with Sergiy Tigipko and that SOCIS, another polling group that discredited itself during the 2004 presidential election, was in negotiations with Yulia Tymoshenko’s representatives to conduct exit polls.

Spokespersons for the Party of Regions and Tigipko wouldn’t confirm or deny they are planning on funding an exit poll. A spokesperson of the Kyiv branch of Batkivshchyna party, headed by presidential frontrunner Tymoshenko, did not respond to a Kyiv Post request before deadline.



In the meantime, another non-profit organization is planning on using a different monitoring device. A network of election monitors from Opora, a nationwide civic activist group, will carry out a quick vote at 1,000 polling stations, the first of its kind in Ukraine. Drawing on international practice, Opora plans to observe the vote count and then text message results to a database and publicize results through the media. Kyiv Post staff writer Mark Rachkevych can be reached at rachkevych@kyivpost.com
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