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Rigging elections, Ukrainian-style

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On 28th October Ukrainians go to the polls to elect a new parliament, but it is already clear that the election will not be fought by fair means. Sergii Leshchenko outlines the various, and sometimes ingenious, methods used to rig the vote.

Sergii Leshchenko
10 October 2012

The forthcoming Ukrainian parliamentary elections already represent a significant step backwards from the democratic gains of the Orange revolution. The opposition certainly won’t be able to win a majority, and Viktor Yanukovich will be victorious thanks to his party’s MPs being elected in safe seats.

Despite having lost the popular support he had when he was elected president in 2010, Yanukovych has found a way to retain his control over the Ukrainian parliament. He has done so by resurrecting an electoral system last used in a parliamentary election a decade ago. This system is superficially similar to that used in Scotland. Half the MPs are elected by proportional representation from party lists, and half from constituencies. The difference is, however, that in Ukraine there are often only two types of people who can be elected as constituency MPs: local government officials and local businessmen, who are equally dependent on the regime and need to demonstrate their loyalty to it. 

The opposition supported a return to this system when it was voted on in November 2011, and the government was able to report to Brussels and Washington that a compromise had been found. Yanukovych’s opponents were, however, relying on the new electoral law being formulated in such a way as to allow candidates to stand for election in both constituencies and lists. That way, parties could put their stronger candidates up in the constituencies, with a fallback position on their list.

But the government, having ensured the opposition’s support for the new law, somehow forgot about that condition, and the clause that would have provided a safety net for the opposition was declared unconstitutional  by the Constitutional Court, which remains loyal to Yanukovych.     

After that, decisions at constituency level were completely predictable: strong opposition candidates got cold feet and opted for safer party list places. As a result, the ruling Party of Regions and its acolytes are preparing for victory in a majority of constituencies, other than those in Western Ukraine and possibly Kyiv, where the opposition has strong support.

The hopeless state of the opposition

The opposition has equally little to hope for in those seats determined by proportional representation from party lists. A year ago, a victory for the Party of Regions would have seemed incredible; its all-encompassing corruption and  assaults on democracy had cost it its support. Today, however, it would be incredible if anyone else were to win - an increase of the equivalent of £10 a month on pensions has brought the electorate flooding back. 

‘The main news of the last few weeks has been the steep fall in support for Tymoshenko’s ‘Fatherland’ party; with its charismatic leader in prison the opposition has been incapable of standing up to the government’s propaganda machine.’

According to poll results published on 8th October, the Party of Regions has the support of over 23 % of voters. Boxer Vitaly Klychko’s party ‘UDAR of Vitaliy Klychko’ – deciphered as Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform but whose acronym means literally ‘Strike’ -  is assured of 16% of votes and Yulia Tymoshenko’s All-Ukrainian Union "Fatherland" party is supported by 15% of the electorate. The Communist party, with the support of 10% of voters, and the nationalist ‘Svoboda’ (Freedom) party with 5%, also have a chance of returning MPs to parliament.   

The main news of the last few weeks has been the steep fall in support for Tymoshenko’s ‘Fatherland’ party; with its charismatic leader in prison the opposition has been incapable of standing up to the government’s propaganda machine. The party’s lacklustre campaign has failed to excite the voters, despite its recent union with the party of Arseniy Yatsenyuk, another democrat. Insiders say that Tymoshenko, jealous of Yatsenyuk, ordered her campaign team to minimise photos of her new co-leader on election posters, so the party’s slogans, in black lettering on a white background, look frankly boring.

At the same time the popularity of Vitaly Klychko’s party is also growing, as it actively courts former Tymoshenko supporters. However, even the combined forces of Tymoshenko and Klychko won’t be able to shake the Party of Regions’ majority, which it is planning to achieve by wins in the constituencies.

Buying and selling Ukrainian votes

The battle for votes in the constituencies looks pretty crude for a European country. You would think the methods used would have disappeared after the 1990s, when the innocent Ukrainian public first tasted the fruits of democracy. But it seems that 21 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, election rigging is alive and well in Ukraine.  

'According to the latest polls, one Ukrainian in ten is prepared to sell his or her vote for a sum equivalent to less than £50.'

The simplest and most obvious tactic is bribery of voters. The law forbids candidates from giving gifts worth more than the equivalent of £3, but voter bribery is rife in nearly all constituencies. It comes in three forms.

The first is a straight cash backhander, organised on the pyramid principle. The candidate comes to an agreement with someone and pays him ostensibly to campaign for him. In fact his function is not campaigning as such: his job is to find another person who will sell his vote for money, and bring him to party headquarters, for which he receives a bonus. And the more people he brings, the more bonuses he receives. And so on down the line.

The question arises: how do you check whether a person actually votes for the right candidate? Here the riggers have hit on a simple ruse. Bribed voters are asked to mark their voting paper not with any old mark, but to draw a specific shape: a square, a circle, a triangle. The law permits voters to make any mark they please, so the vote will be perfectly valid, but the candidate’s ‘mole’ on the electoral committee will be able to check the number of marks against the number of bought votes.

A leaked document obtained by the author, above, indicates how election manipulators intend to check voters vote for the right candidate. Bribed voters will, it seems, be asked to mark their voting paper with a specific, recognisable shape, e.g.  a square, a circle, a triangle. All such marks admissible by Ukrainain electoral law. 

The second form is the distribution of food products or other material goods. For several months now Ukrainian households, especially in the east of the country, have been receiving modest food parcels containing kasha and other grains, sunflower oil, tea, biscuits, sugar and sweets. 

Even the PM’s son Aleksey Azarov, who has decided to become a Ukrainian MP after many years living in Austria, does not disdain such ‘sweeteners’. He is standing in a safe seat, a constituency in the Donetsk region, the ruling party’s heartland. Just before the start of the school year Azarov gave every child in his constituency a satchel containing all the instruments they would need in class. When his political rival filed a complaint, the court took no chances, and ruled that this was not a bribe, since children do not have the vote. The court failed to take into account the fact that it was in fact parents who were being bribed, since they were saved the cost of kitting out their children for the school year.  

According to the latest polls, one Ukrainian in ten is prepared to sell his or her vote for a sum equivalent to less than £50.

The third, crudest form of persuasion at Ukrainian elections is for the ruling party candidate to take credit for improvements for which local government has been responsible.  Some examples of this, you couldn’t make up! In one case, the employees of a road maintenance department carried out their duties wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with the candidate’s logo. In another, a stretch of highway under repair was cordoned off by barriers bearing the legend: ‘these road works come to you courtesy of Party of Regions candidate X’.

These cases, moreover, happened not in some provincial backwater, but in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. And this ‘privatisation’ of improvements is merely an embodiment at micro-level of the Party of Regions election campaign, which has involved covering every billboard in the country with its logo alongside pictures of the stadiums and airports opened this summer for the Euro-2012 football championship.    

'Privatising' successes: Signs claiming a candidate's 'support' of road improvements have become commonplace across Ukraine

Fakes and doubles

One aspect of fraud in the present Ukrainian elections is the use of ‘doubles’, when a constituency candidate tries to ruin an opponent’s chances of election by bribing someone with the same surname as his rival to add his name to the list of candidates, in order to split his rival’s vote by confusing the electorate.

Sometimes the absurdity can reach unimaginable heights. In one constituency in the suburbs of Kyiv, both main candidates have put up doubles against each other, so the voters have to choose between two Mr Poplavsky’s and two Mr Boiko’s. And this is not an isolated case. In one constituency in the Lugansk region the two pairs of doubles share not only the same surname, but even the same Christian name.

‘In one constituency in the suburbs of Kyiv, both main candidates have put up doubles against each other, so the voters have to choose between two Mr Poplavsky’s and two Mr Boiko’s’

A further common element of Ukrainian elections are so-called ‘technical candidates’, when a strong contender puts up a few of his subordinates as notional opponents. A case in point is the well known Ukrainian businessman Konstantin Zhevago, who spends a lot of his time in London, where his iron ore company Ferrexpo is quoted on the Stock Exchange. Last year he even donated £100,000 to St Mary’s primary school in South London as part of a city wide scheme to provide volunteers to help children with reading problems. Mr Zhevago is also, however, standing for election to the Ukrainian parliament, having provided himself with a ‘technical’ opponent in the person of an employee of his charitable foundation. Zhevago’s election is a more or less foregone conclusion, since even the local election committee shares a building with Ferrexpo’s training department.

Today’s Ukraine lives according to Stalin’s precept: ‘It’s not how they vote that matters; it’s how they count’. The selection of local electoral committees has intensified suspicions about planned fraud at polling stations. Formally, committees are chosen by lot, but the results speak for themselves.

Parties existing only on paper have received large quotas in constituency committees. A ‘fictitious’ party has only to put up one candidate in one constituency to be eligible to nominate electoral committee members in constituencies all over the country. There are 19 parties represented in local election committees across Ukraine, but seven of them have five or fewer candidates standing. These parties have never registered even 1% support in opinion polls, but they have unexpectedly received 37% of places on election committees. On selection, they all also replaced their original nominees, many of them with former representatives of the Party of Regions.

‘A ‘fictitious’ party has only to put up one candidate in one constituency to be eligible to nominate electoral committee members in constituencies all over the country.’

A report by Canadian observers of the selection process includes an account of conversations with nominees of fictitious parties: it seems they could not name either the party they represented, or its leader, or even its office address. One local election committee member supposedly representing the ‘Brotherhood’ Party happily admitted to a Canadian observer that the Party of Regions asked her to take part in this ‘show’.  

Ruling party candidates have also attempted to benefit from ‘electoral tourism’, where voters register to vote in a constituency other than that in which they live, on the grounds that they will be visiting there on polling day. More than 1100 applications for such votes were made in the Kyiv constituency where the ruling party candidate is head of the National Aviation University, whose campus is situated in the constituency.  Almost as many - 950 – were made in Irpin, a small town on the edge of Kyiv and the home to the country’s National State Tax Service University, whose head is also standing for the Party of Regions.  

Under pressure from international observers Ukraine has, however, closed this loophole, and now its citizens may only vote in their home constituency. But even this concession hasn’t changed the atmosphere in which these elections are taking place. Its most obvious feature, apart from a ban on opposition leaders Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuri Lutsenko standing for election, is the curtailment of  freedom of speech in Ukraine, where TV channels have become a mere means of manipulating public opinion.

A recent demonstrations in support of the opposition TV station TVi. The last remaining critical broadcaster has found itself under increasing pressure in recent months (c) Demotix/Roman Pilipey

News broadcasts recall Soviet times, when the doings of the Communist Party leader were daily recounted ad nauseam. The guiding principle of TV in Ukraine today is ‘No criticism of our rulers’. In the last few years neither president Yanukovych, leader of the Party of Regions, nor PM Azarov, who heads the party’s election list, have entered into any debate with the opposition.

The only opposition TV channel, TVi, encounters new problems daily: its director is charged with a criminal offence; they try to smother it with fines; then they try to ban its external commercial activity or cut its access to cable networks. In the run up to the elections the Party of Regions also tried to pass a law on defamation that would have entailed sentences of up to three years for journalists who contravened it. The idea was only dropped after street protests organised by independent journalists.

Journalism is one of the few sectors where the ruling party can still be held at bay. Nobody, however, will be surprised if this noxious bill raises its ugly head again after the elections, because this dirty election will inevitably produce another lapdog parliament for Yanukovych.   

Thumbnail: http://www.president.gov.ua/

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