The last time that Ukraine had a mixed election system – electing half of its 450 members of parliament in geographic districts, the other half through party lists – was 2002. This year's return to the mixed system a decade later, for the Oct. 28 parliamentary election, is instructive because of the high probability that history will repeat itself in the voting results.
Ten years ago, the opposition did well on the party lists, but failed to muster a majority after doing poorly in the single-mandate districts. Experts think that history will repeat itself in the fall parliamentary election, enabling President Viktor Yanukovych, like Leonid Kuchma 10 years before, to retain control over the Verkhovna Rada.
The expectation is that opposition candidates will do poorly in the 225 districts, where the watch of election observers will not be strong enough in number to catch pro-presidential candidates using influence, voter intimidation and more, to squeeze out victories.
If this scenario plays out, the outcome will be the same as a decade ago, with the ruling, pro-presidential parties still in charge.
According to the Central Election Commission, in 2002 the pro-presidential parties “For A United Ukraine!” and the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (united) got 18 percent of votes combined on the party-list voting. They were defeated by oppositional forces, which then consisted of Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine, the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko and Socialist Party of Ukraine, which together gained 37.7 percent.
But the strong showing was not enough for the opposition to form a coalition as the results in the geographic district races were poorer. Polls and experts are expecting the same this year. It’s one reason why Yanukovych’s Party of Regions championed the change from the all-party list format in electing the nation’s 450 lawmakers.
A poll conducted by Democratic Initiatives Foundation and Razumkov Center between Aug. 10 and 15, showed that the ruling Party of Regions may get 28.1 percent of votes during the next election. In contrast, the United Opposition and Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR Party combined may get 37.1 percent of the votes. But that opposition triumph is expected to be offset by victories in the districts by candidates from the Party of Regions and other pro-presidential groups.
“Certainly, history will repeat,” said Iryna Bekeshkina, director at Democratic Initiatives Foundation.
Olexander Vyshnyak, head of the Ukrainian Sociology Service, predicts more than half of the 225 single-mandate constituencies will be won by Party of Regions candidates and 20 percent will be won by independents, most of whom will join the Party of Regions faction in the new parliament. “Even on its own, the Party of Regions will have about 200 mandates as a result of this election and together with non-partisan candidates it will get up to 250 lawmakers,” Vyshnyak said.
Bekeshkina said the opposition is itself, in part, at fault. “I travelled recently to Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv and Donetsk oblasts, and saw no strong candidates from the opposition there,” she said.
Volodymyr Bondarenko, an opposition lawmaker who took part in the 2002 election and is running for re-election, said bribery will be rampant. Bondarenko said the price for one vote in his constituency in Kyiv is $50. He said voters are given Hr 150 first by officially employed campaign agitators and are then promised the rest of the money after the elections if the candidate wins.
“The scale of this phenomenon is huge,” Bondarenko said. “It will greatly influence the result of these elections.”
Votes are generally cheaper to buy in the provinces. Viktor Rybachenko, vice president at the Association of Political Psychologists of Ukraine, said that earlier this month, one of the local candidates was handing out bread and a chocolate bar to bribe his voters. “There was not enough stuff for everyone. People were fighting,” Rybachenko said.
Vasyl Horbal, currently a Party of Regions lawmaker who has experience in the 2002 campaign but is now running as an independent, says it’s likely that attempted bribery of voters will take place.
The payoffs may extend to election commissions. “In remote villages, where there will be no international observers and exit polls, such bribes will be widespread,” added Bekeshkina.
But bribery is not the only way to trick voters. Many self-declared independents are really supported by the ruling party. It often becomes obvious only when by the level of support a candidate receives from local authorities – either by direct government favors and spending, privileged access to meeting halls and rally sites or favored treatment in the local news media. Often it’s a combination of all three factors for the government favoritism, also called “administrative resources.”
According to the new election law, voters can temporarily change their place of voting without changing their permanent voting address. This may lead to an abuse involving organized group of voters sent to vote in certain districts in order to influence results.
“Unfortunately, the 10 years between these two elections made them neither more democratic nor more transparent,” Bondarenko concluded.
Kyiv Post staff writer Oksana Faryna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.