If the fix wasn’t in during Ukraine’s Oct. 31 local government elections, the contests sure didn’t pass the smell test to a host of reputable domestic and international observers.
As much as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych tried to put the elections behind him and say all was fine, an international consensus is taking shape that he failed his first big democratic test since taking power on Feb. 25.
The judgment could derail Yanukovych’s stated goal of integrating Ukraine into the European family of democratic nations.
The unfavorable assessments come at an unfortunate time, just ahead of the Ukraine-European Union summit in Brussels on Nov. 22, during which the administration will try to make headway on free trade agreements and visa-free travel for Ukrainians.
However, due to the elections’ shortcomings, European leaders are more likely than ever to take a skeptical view of Yanukovych’s aims and claims.
One of Ukraine’s largest election observation organizations, the U.S.-funded OPORA, stated on Nov. 1 that “there have been so many violations that we cannot say that [the election] was democratic, transparent and open.”
The environment surrounding Ukraine’s Oct. 31 local elections has deteriorated compared to the situation during the presidential election earlier this year.”
- U.S.-based National Democratic Institute.
The U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, which funds OPORA, followed up on Nov. 2, saying: “The environment surrounding Ukraine’s Oct. 31 local elections has deteriorated compared to the situation during the presidential election earlier this year.”
A big blow for Yanukovych, came on Nov. 3, when the U.S. Department of State said: “Preliminary reports from election monitors suggest that Ukraine’s Oct. 31 local elections did not meet standards for openness and fairness set by the presidential elections earlier this year.”
On the same day, Wilfried Martens, head of the European People’s Party of the European Parliament, Europe’s largest party, said: “I am disappointed with the conduct of local elections in Ukraine. Information so far reveals significant setbacks in democratic standards.”
These were some of the softer critiques.
Maryna Stavnijchuk, former deputy head of Ukraine’s Central Election Commission, said the elections were fixed from the start.
Like many observers and experts, she said the trouble started months before the voting, when Yanukovych’s ruling coalition adopted a cynical election law that undercut the election chances and oversight by opposition and independent candidates – giving Yanukovych’s Regions Party control over the vote.
Not only does the law not provide for creating conditions for fair, competitive and transparent elections, it does not allow for them to be declared invalid – even if serious election violations took place.”
- Maryna Stavnijchuk, former deputy head of Ukraine’s Central Election Commission.
“Not only does the law not provide for creating conditions for fair, competitive and transparent elections, it does not allow for them to be declared invalid – even if serious election violations took place,” Stavniychuk said during an election night marathon hosted by TVi.
OPORA head Olha Aivazovska and Oleksandr Chernenko, head of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, had long warned that the flawed law would form the basis for skewing election results in favor of the president’s Regions Party.
As of Nov. 4, the vote counts were coming in slow and disputes had broken out over some of the more than 15,000 races for city council and mayoral seats.
The legal deadline for publishing official results is Nov. 5. But exit polls showed big wins for the Regions Party in villages, cities and oblast councils across Ukraine.
“I’m not surprised by the mess on Oct. 31, but by the reported margin of victory for the Party of Regions,” Chernenko said. “I thought they would do well, but not as well as they did.”
Of course, the administration acknowledged little of this criticism. Nor were the shortcomings covered by many popular Ukrainian media outlets, whose journalists have been noticeably serving up pro-administration PR rather than hard-hitting, independent news coverage.
Quoted on Nov. 3 by reporters in his native Donetsk, President Viktor Yanukovych said everything was generally fine.
Overall, it is good that there were no systematic violations. This is emphasized by international observers and the police.”
- Viktor Yanukovych, president of Ukraine.
“Overall, it is good that there were no systematic violations. This is emphasized by international observers and the police,” Yanukovych said. “There were those satisfied and dissatisfied, winners and losers. That is life.”
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, who on election night proclaimed the elections as problem-free, sought to move the nation quickly forward.
“The elections are over. Two years of calm work are ahead of us,” Azarov said. “The government and local authorities are now facing a lot of important and complicated tasks and there’s no time to waste before getting started.”
Ukrainian media also dutifully quoted fly-in, fly-out visitors from the Commonwealth of Independent States – made up of largely undemocratic former Soviet republics – as saying everything was fine.
Outlets also publicized a visit by a representative from Kazakhstan, an authoritarian Central Asian nation that holds the rotating chairmanship for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The envoy, Marat Sarsembayev, visited eight polling stations, saw no violations and concluded everything was fine.
Many Party of Regions officials found vindication in a GfK Ukraine exit poll, which showed the party outpolling its second-place rival, the opposition Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, by a nearly three-to-one margin – 36.2 percent to 13.2 percent.
This was another test of democracy; Elections were marked by real competition between political groups.”
- Yuriy Miroshnychenko, the president’s representative in parliament.
Yuriy Miroshnychenko, a Party of Regions deputy and the president’s representative in parliament, said that the voters supported the Regions Party in the local elections because they sensed a sincere desire by the president’s party to conduct serious economic and political reforms.
“This was another test of democracy; Elections were marked by real competition between political groups,” he said.
That’s not the way their opponents saw it.
A group of 10 opposition parties on Nov. 2 said the president, prime minister and pro-presidential parliament at every stage of the election campaign worked to fix the election.
“The election law facilitated the flagrant disproportional representation of the composition of the territorial and district election commissions.
In practice, it permitted the president to grab control of the territorial election commissions and their heads, and form exclusive district election commissions that became a major element in facilitating vote-rigging.
The completely subordinated law-enforcement agencies provided a mechanism for protecting vote-rigging facilitated by the commissions at different levels,” the opposition parties’ letter said.
So, what was so wrong?
A simple chronology shows numerous problems, from adoption of an election law only two months before the voting, to ongoing problems with the transparency in reporting the results of the Oct. 31 vote:
- Pre-election problems highlighted by national and international groups included postponing the elections from May to October and hasty adoption of a new election law, which incorporated complicated new candidate nomination and voting procedures;
- A provision blocking parties registered less than a year before the election was rescinded in August, but other controversial provisions remained. Foremost, it allowed for Ukraine’s president to stack commissions with allies, giving opposition parties little oversight;
- Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna Party complained that several mayoral candidates were pressured by law agencies to withdraw their candidacy;
-The decision by territorial election commissions in Kyiv and Lviv oblasts and in Ternopil to register bogus opposition candidates instead of recognizing Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna Party candidates;
Numerous incidents of alleged unauthorized printing of extra ballots (Kharkiv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Khmelnytsky) surfaced several days prior to the election.
The most common problems reported by OPORA and the Committee of Voters of Ukraine observers on voting day involved ballot papers, including:
- Ballots for many single-mandate constituency races were delivered to the wrong polling stations;
- Polling stations stamped out certain political parties and candidates from the ballots;
- The number of ballots received by polling stations was incorrect;
An insufficient number of voting booths combined with the large number of ballots for each voter led to the formation of long lines, which caused many voters to leave without casting ballots.
Preliminary figures suggest that voter turnout was below 50 percent, considered low compared previous years and a sign of voter apathy.
Territorial election commissions have until midnight on Nov. 5 to report the results of elections in their regions, according to the election law, which allows candidates and parties to contest them in the administrative courts, which critics say are stacked with presidential allies.
Batkivshchyna leader Oleksandr Turchynov said on Nov. 4 that his party has already filed 2,000 petitions to courts to overturn dozens of races in Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv and Luhansk regions.
“We know, of course, that they will not rush to hear these cases, but we are not giving up the battle and will do everything in our power to defend election results.” Turchynov said.
Kyiv Post staff writer Peter Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.