There were raids, searches, arrests, tapped calls, and mutual threats.
The presidential campaign has heated up over the last weeks of February when top candidates accused each other of vote buying in the run-up to the March 31 presidential election.
The camps of President Petro Poroshenko and his challenger ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko also got the Security Service of Ukraine involved on the president’s side and the police on her side.
Both have denied the accusations of vote buying, which is of questionable value since there’s no way to guarantee how a Ukrainian citizen will cast his or her ballot.
Still, Ukrainian politicians have been bribing voters with cash or presents for decades, especially on the local level. But the attempt to curry favor in the 2019 presidential campaign is happening on a national scale involving tens of millions of dollars, some of which comes from the state budget.
In Ukraine, where average monthly salary is $400 and average pension is just $120, voters could use any extra money.
In an attempt to stop it, activists distribute brochures trying to persuade people not to accept bribes. They also give them another option: take the money and still vote for whom they wish.
But the campaign is not enough. “Everything is being done in a more intense and more creative way now,” said Vita Dumanska, the coordinator of the Chesno anti-corruption watchdog.
Tymoshenko struck the first blow. On Feb. 19, she came to the Interior Ministry with documents that she said were evidence of vote buying by Poroshenko’s people. She said Poroshenko’s campaign was seeking to bribe 6 million people by paying them Hr 1,000 (about $37) each.
Election watchdogs and media have already reported about the scheme, also called “Petro’s thousand.” Oleh Medvedev, spokesman of Poroshenko’s campaign, called these accusations “groundless” on Feb. 21.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced that the police would seek to prevent potential vote buying and election fraud by all parties, including Poroshenko.
Many alleged that Avakov has secretly allied himself with Tymoshenko, although both deny it. Avakov has had a distant relationship with Poroshenko, never publicly supporting his bid for re-election, unlike other top members of his party, People’s Front, with 81 seats in parliament but no presidential candidate.
The Interior Ministry’s pledge to prevent election fraud is a new phenomenon in Ukraine, because previously all key law enforcement agencies were presidential tools in the election, political analyst Oleksiy Kovzhun said.
The police on Feb. 21 searched an office of Poroshenko’s party in Sumy, a city of 264,000 people located 335 kilometers northeast of Kyiv, and arrested two of its employees suspected of vote buying. The local prosecutor’s office, subordinated to Poroshenko’s ally and Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, responded by opening an abuse of power case against the police officers who conducted that arrest.
In a Feb. 23 interview with the Dzerkalo Tyzhnia newspaper, Avakov exposed Poroshenko’s campaign’s alleged vote buying scheme. Avakov said it involved 200,000 paid campaign workers, was expected to cover from 700,000 to 6 million voters and would cost some $56 million. He added that Serhiy Berezenko, a deputy head of Poroshenko’s faction in parliament, was under investigation. Berezenko denied the accusations, saying they are linked to a “dirty election campaign.”
From 2006 to 2012, Berezenko was a member of ex-Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky’s team, which was accused of large-scale vote buying, political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko and political consultant Serhiy Gaidai said. Another former member of Chernovetsky’s team is Poroshenko’s top ally and lawmaker Ihor Kononenko.
Just two days after Tymoshenko’s claims of Poroshenko bribing voters, a symmetrical accusation hit the ex-prime minister herself.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) on Feb. 21 said it was investigating jointly with the Prosecutor General’s Office and the State Investigation Bureau an alleged attempt by one presidential candidate to buy votes all over Ukraine. Though they didn’t name the candidate, the searches were conducted in the offices of Tymoshenko’s party. These three agencies are subordinate to Poroshenko.
According to Viktor Kononenko, a deputy head of the SBU, a group led by several lawmakers was building a network of paid campaign workers that would involve 680,000 people, paid from Hr 500 to Hr 2,500 per month despite the legal ban on paid campaign workers. Kononenko presented photos of cash found in the offices, videos from CCTV cameras and intercepted phone conversations.
Ukrainian media reported that the alleged scheme involved lawmakers of Tymoshenko’s party Valeriy Dubil and Ruslan Bohdan. Tymoshenko responded that both were “decent people” and her team would go to court to prove their innocence.
The Babel website published a table of Tymoshenko’s alleged vote buying plans in Vinnytsia, Volyn and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts that envisaged that Tymoshenko’s team was planning to spend from Hr 1,000 to Hr 1,500 for each voter. The total spending would be more than $62 million in three oblasts.
How it works
Observers warned of possible vote buying in January, when Poroshenko’s party representatives started going to voters’ apartments, collecting their personal data and asking them questions about the presidential election and plans to join NATO and the European Union.
Medvedev, a spokesman for Poroshenko’s campaign, said this data is being collected to personalize the campaign message to voters. “Maybe someone wants our party’s newspaper to be delivered to their door,” he said.
This practice caused a stir because journalist investigations showed Poroshenko’s campaign workers were paid, although Poroshenko’s campaign denied it. The use of paid campaign workers is banned under Ukrainian law.
In February, the Central Election Commission published an interpretation of the law according to which legal entities can get money from presidential candidates to finance campaign workers’ expenses. Presidential candidate Anatoliy Grytsenko challenged this interpretation in court as illegal, and his lawyer Ruslan Chornolutsky accused the commission of attempting to legalize vote buying.
Artem Romanyukov, head of the Dnipro-based Civic Control anti-corruption watchdog, said that budget money might be used for payments to both campaign workers and voters.
Avakov said that Poroshenko’s campaign workers were identifying the president’s supporters in order to give them financial benefits from the state budget as a form of vote buying. Voters identified as loyal were asked by campaign workers to fill in applications for such state subsidies, Avakov and Romanyukov said.
Such subsidies targeting loyal voters are a novelty in Ukrainian politics, Gaidai and Kovzhun said.
While vote buying is a criminal offense, there was just one case in Ukraine’s history when a person received a prison term for bribing voters.
In December, Liudmyla Shchehlova was sentenced to 5.5 years in jail for organizing payments of cash bribes of Hr 600 per vote in Kiliya, a city of Odesa Oblast, at local elections in May 2018, police reported. Shchehlova, according to the police footage and media reports, was organizing bribes on behalf of Tymoshenko’s team.
In the run-up to the March election, authorities in many regions have started allocating additional benefits for low-income residents since the beginning of 2019.
In Kyiv, the authorities plan to spend more than Hr 903 million to increase the salaries of public sector workers. The mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, is an ally of Poroshenko and has backed his re-election bid.
“Is this a bribe or not?” said Dumanska from Chesno. “This is direct financial influence on voters.”
The Dnipro City Council started accepting applications for more than $5 million in cash benefits. The mayor of Dnipro, Borys Filatov, is also allied with Poroshenko.
The city government made it easy for applicants to get financial benefits: they are only required to submit their passport code, Romanyukov said, adding that the benefits were intended for loyal voters, not for people who need the subsidies.
The new benefits were included in the city budget secretly “by stealth,” and most residents were not supposed to know about them initially, he added.
The Dnipro scheme stalled because many people who were not targeted by Poroshenko’s team found out about the payments and also applied, and the city council had to cancel the simplified procedure for getting benefits, according to Romanyukov.
Romanyukov’s Civic Control anti-corruption watchdog has published video footage of city administration officials in Dnipro urging public sector workers to vote for Poroshenko. Romanyukov said the city administration had offered state benefits to such public sector employees.
Meanwhile, the national government has also decided to distribute state subsidies worth about Hr 1,500 per person to some 4 million households for increased utility prices in the run-up to the election. The money will be sent to them by mail in cash in March, and the total sum will be more than $200 million.
On Feb. 25, the government also announced additional bonuses for 10 million pensioners as compensation for smaller pension payments in 2015–2016. Some 1.8 million people will receive Hr 2,410 each in two equal portions in March and April, which the government says is an initiative of Poroshenko — despite the president having no legal authority over the state pension payments.
“My opponents say this is a bribe. Yes, we will keep bribing pensioners in the next five years by increasing pensions,” Poroshenko wrote in his Twitter.
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter