The challenges for Ukraine’s presidential election

On Sunday 25 May, President Putin permitting, 36.5 million voters will go to the polls in Ukraine to vote for a successor to President Viktor Yanukovych, ousted after three months of protests, and over 100 dead

Janek Lasocki
24 March 2014

The problems of holding a fair election are numerous enough in Ukraine, but the country’s interim government also has to deal with post-revolutionary instability, an actual military occupation (and annexation) of Crimea and the threat of further war. But despite all this, and amidst all the promise and expectations, it is crucially important that this election should be seen to be free and fair, so that Ukraine and its people can finally turn over a new leaf after the revolution.

A poll before the last national elections in 2012 found that only 14% of Ukrainians thought they would be free and fair.

A vital part of democratic governance is that citizens believe electoral results reflect their choices, and that elections are therefore seen as legitimate. A poll conducted among Ukrainian voters before the last national elections in 2012, however, found that only 14% of people thought the elections would be free and fair - and this figure in fact represented an improvement after years of consistently low trust in the electoral system. The reasons respondents gave for their mistrust tallied with the final report of the OSCE election observation mission sent the same year. People believed that electoral results could be falsified, and that this was exacerbated by a lack of transparency. They also believed that the media did not provide the objective information they needed and that money and abuse of power played far too big a role in the electoral system.

Ukrainians count ballots for the 2007 election.

Polling in 2012 indicated only 14% of Ukrainians expected their elections to be free and fair. CC Russianname

New legislation

The newly invigorated Verkhovna Rada (parliament), is currently in the process of passing a law incorporating several recommendations made by the OSCE. Electoral laws will be harmonised, and transparency increased through a number of measures: voter lists will no longer be allowed to be changed on election day; election commission resolutions must be published as soon as possible the following day and election commissions will not be able to take decisions without the agreement of a majority of members, forcing them to take account of the views of opposition party members. These new provisions, however, require extra training for election officials, and there is a risk that this could be inadequate. In 2012, insufficient training was one reason why vote counting took several days, which did nothing for the credibility of the process.

Parliament must now clarify the term of office of the Central Election Commission, whose membership is up for renewal before the potential second round. It also has to confirm that candidates are legally eligible to stand for election and eliminate any questions of legitimacy surrounding the campaigns. For years, both Vitaly Klitschko and Yulia Tymoshenko were, under some interpretations, both deemed ineligible to stand, – yet they are now frontrunners. And, most importantly, whatever changes are enacted, they must be communicated properly and as soon as possible.

Media coverage

Judging by previous years, Ukrainians are impressively well organised when it comes to street campaigning. But most people will be relying for their information on the mass media, which collectively failed to give balanced coverage in 2012. According to analysts at the media monitoring NGO Telekritika, TV news and current affairs has become more balanced since Yanukovych’s departure. Some previously banned channels are back on screen: ATN in Kharkiv, for example, the only news channel independent of the Kharkiv authorities until shut down in 2011. Others, such as Hromadske, an independent channel launched at the start of the Euromaidan demonstrations, have been given airtime for the first time. Most of the big channels are owned by Ukraine’s oligarchs, whose views often dictate editorial policy, so this new openness seems to demonstrate how much their positions have changed.

Crimea has seen channels replaced by Rossiya 24. Here the station reminds viewers of Russia's nuclear arsenal.

In Crimea, Ukrainian channels were replaced by Rossiya 24, shown here reminding viewers of Russia's nuclear arsenal. Via youtubeThe new draft law also allows for increased media coverage and requires candidates reaching the second round in elections to take part in a televised debate. Other amendments, which could strengthen independent journalism, include a requirement for more transparent state procurement and a change in copyright law, which as it currently stands allows interviewees to censor interviews.

Crimea’s largest independent channel was replaced with the state-owned ‘Rossiya 24’ news channel.

The greatest problems lie in the south-east of the country. Under normal circumstances, at least 10% of viewers in the region watch Russian TV channels that are at the moment presenting a warped version of reality. In Crimea, however, following the incursion of Russian troops, Chornomorska TV, Crimea’s largest independent channel, was replaced with the state-owned Rossiya 24 news channel, and other more independent broadcasters, Channel 5 and ‘1 + 1’ were simply taken off air. Meanwhile In Donetsk the two big regional channels, Union and Donbass, were threatened by local pro-Russians, and local journalists trying to give more objective coverage are seriously worried about a hostile takeover. In other words, in certain areas it will be hard to provide balanced campaign coverage.

Election observation

The organisation of election observation by both domestic and international observers seems to have swung into action relatively quickly. Two local NGOs, Civic Network ‘Opora‘ and the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, are preparing to deploy thousands of election day observers and both have already begun long-term assessment. All the bigger political parties are also expected to recruit their own observers for most polling stations, whose proposed new rights will include being allowed to watch results being entered on election night into the results database, something previously closed to them.

Observers will also come from abroad. The CIS is likely to send a mission, although CIS missions seem to find it hard to see problems with even the worst elections. The large Ukrainian minority in Canada means a big Canadian delegation can be expected. But the most important external observation mission will be from the OSCE, which has a long track record of comprehensive election observation: EU conditionality often rests on its assessments. The OSCE is also seen as the most impartial observer: its 57 member states include all of the former Soviet Union countries, as well as Europe, the US, and Canada. Its election arm ODIHR has requested 1,000 observers, which would make it one of the OSCE’s largest ever observation missions. One worry is that foreign ministries will not invest enough – the UK Foreign Office, for example, has been cutting its observation budget. Another concern is that parliamentarians accompanying the OSCE mission should not discredit it by declaring it to be compliant with international standards contrary to the assessment of experts, as happened recently in Azerbaijan.

The abuse of money and power

Little can be done to combat the influence of power and money. 

More damaging than anything else in past elections has been the abuse of power and the role of money in influencing electoral campaigns and results. While there is a lot of optimism and trust in the process at the moment, little can be done in concrete terms to combat the influence of power and money, especially given that there is so little time and that manipulation of the system for personal gain is so deeply entrenched in Ukraine. The best young entrepreneurs can only succeed if they pay off the right people, often including their MP; people buy driving licences and degrees, and bribe policemen and judges. In Transparency International’s last Corruption Perceptions Index, Ukraine came 144th out of 177, and the World Economic Forum’s last judicial independence indicator  put it 139th out of 148. Stories of corruption from past elections are rife: pensioners would be offered cash to vote a certain way; local candidates or parties would spend lavishly on certain towns and promise the impossible; public sector workers and students would face pressure to vote for certain candidates. The actual amounts of money involved in campaigns are also staggering. Political parties declared total spending of £63m, although most accept this is far below the true figure, with some estimates as high as £2.1 billion. In comparison, £31m was spent on the 2010 UK general election. 

Yulia Tymoshenko speaking to the press in 2007

Even 'Gas Princess' Yulia Tymoshenko has spoken of the need to combat the oligarchs' influence on politics. CC Igor KruglenkoIn the short term, some sufficiently harsh penalty for bribery or blackmail needs to be put in place, since too many people think this kind of transgression goes unpunished far too easily. Campaign financing should be made more transparent and should be controlled by stricter limits and better monitoring. And all elected officials should ultimately submit themselves to audit. Many measures to combat corruption at every level will have to wait for a new government: the Georgian experience shows this is possible. But even so, a concerted effort must be made to convince voters that people and organs of state that engage in influencing the result will not go unpunished.

And all elected officials should ultimately submit themselves to audit.

Some post-revolutionary challenges could not have been foreseen. The first is the potential disenfranchisement of millions of voters who see none of their representatives in the contest: this problem will be greatest in the south-east, where Yanukovych’s Party of Regions has traditionally dominated. The party is now in disarray and is not likely to put forward any credible candidate; its most plausible contender, Serhiy Tihipko, is polling very poorly. And it is worth asking to what degree the EuroMaidan protestors see the frontrunners as enough of a change from the old establishment.

Then there is the need to call for early Parliamentary elections as soon as possible. The new president will be the key figure to push for change, but the re-adoption of the 2004 constitution that limits his powers means that if people want meaningful change with a popular mandate, a new parliament needs to be chosen, and so new elections called, as soon as is practical. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians agree.

An election in wartime

Above and beyond all of this, as things stand the election will be held while Ukraine is effectively in a state of war and not in control of all its sovereign territory. The Crimean peninsula, home to two million voters, is under Russian occupation and increasingly cutting itself off from mainland Ukraine. The rest of the country seems under threat and rumours abound of Russian movements by the border. ‘Ukraine now faces the threat of a full-scale invasion’, says Andriy Parubiy, Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council (and former Euromaidan commendant). Needless to say, the new president, especially coming to power after the tumultuous events of the last few months, needs to have the democratic mandate of the whole country.

Militant protester on the Maidan with armour, a stick and helmet.

Militant forces like Pravy Sektor may capitalise on Russia's actions in the upcoming elections. CC Mstyslav ChernovThere is nothing like a war to unite people, but also to encourage people to look for strong leaders who promise decisive action. History shows these can turn out to be nationalists who fulfil the need of the moment, but polarise the country thereafter. Be it in Mali, Israel or Croatia, candidates who have invoked threats to security and territory and the need for defence have defeated moderates. Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the ultra-nationalist Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) group involved in much of the fighting on the Maidan, has recently announced his bid for the presidency and he stands to gain from the uncertainty. It is too early to tell what effect the Russian incursion will have on the campaign, but it risks turning it into a debate about national defence and a contest in nationalist rhetoric rather than how best to change the country, which is what this whole revolution was for.

To keep the public’s support, the new leader will have to meet expectations set on the bloodied streets of Kyiv..

By 4 April, 50 days before election day, candidates are required to register, with a £150,000 deposit, and campaigns are expected to go into full swing. The latest post-revolution polling puts the oligarch Petro Poroshenko top (21.2%), followed by Vitaly Klitschko (14.6%) and Yulia Tymoshenko (9.7%). But we do not yet know whose names will ultimately be on the ballot papers, although a second round is expected to be held in June. After all the turmoil of recent months and the current economic and political instability, Ukraine cannot afford for these elections not to be a success. Ultimately, however, for the winner even the legitimacy granted by a well-run election will not be enough to satisfy the watching Ukrainian people. To keep the public’s support, the new leader will have to meet the expectations set on the bloodied streets of Kyiv, and avoid disappointing another generation, as the Orange Revolution did a decade ago.

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