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Ukraine’s invisible voters

In Ukraine, displaced persons from the Donetsk and Luhansk areas that are not under government control, as well as Russian-annexed Crimea, have no vote in local elections. RU

The campaign "Invisible voters", Kyiv, March 20, 2018. Source: Civic Holding Group "Vplyv".According to Ukraine’s Social Politics Ministry, there are over 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country, and the latest data from the International Organization for Migration show that 80% of IDPs regard themselves as completely or partially integrated in their new communities. They cite the availability of housing and work and presence of family and friends as the main criteria for successful integration.

Another important condition for integration is, of course, the ability to take part in political life. In Ukraine, however, IDPs can vote for the president and part of the Verkhovna Rada, the country’s parliament, but they can’t vote in local elections or one-member constituencies as they are not locally registered as householders.

No registration, no vote

“I pay my taxes like everyone else but I have no influence on who will dispose of my cash, as local elections happen without any participation on my part”, says Katarina Zhemchuzhnikova, a settler from Donetsk. Katarina moved to Kyiv at the start of the war, and has been standing up for IDPs’ rights with colleagues from the “Support” Civil Network NGO.

IDPs have the right to vote in local elections, provided they register in a government-controlled area and so will no longer be IDPs. But there is nowhere for them to register: most don’t have the money to buy a house or flat and the owners of rental property won’t usually agree to register tenants. And IDPs who could register in government-controlled areas don’t usually want to, fearing problems with crossing the demarcation line.

Before the 2015 local elections, IDPs took to the courts to have their voting rights returned. Oleg Tarasenko, the senior strategic lawyer with the “Right to Protection” charity knows of cases where IDPs won the first round of their battle, but were turned down by the higher appeal and cassation courts. And this was all because of a clause stating that “internally displaced persons are not members of local communities”. Among those who have tried to reclaim their voting rights through the courts is Yury Gukov, an IDP from Alchevsk, a city in the Luhansk region and chair of the “Kharkiv Human Rights Group” NGO.

The campaign "Invisible voters", Kyiv, March 20, 2018. Source: Civic Holding Group "Vplyv".“In November 2015 I filed a lawsuit with the court in Kharkiv and lost every round. And last year, colleagues from the “Kharkiv Human Rights Group” sent a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on the issue, but they haven’t heard it yet”, Gukov tells me.

He is annoyed that after three years, the problem is no nearer a solution, and no one knows whether the IDPs will be able to vote in the 2020 local elections. “Surely after five years you should be able to become a fully fledged member of your community” says Gukov.

“Right to Protection” is still inundated by IDPs, wanting to know how they can vote in the communities that are being amalgamated as part of a decentralisation plan. “The IDPs realise that gaining voting rights through ECHR is a lengthy process and are losing interest in elections”, says Tarasenko.

However, according to the latest data from the International Organization for Migration, 41% of polled IDPs are intending to use their legal vote in the next presidential and parliamentary elections. 

“Special” voters

According to the International Organization for Migration, “The biggest reason for IDPs not intending to vote in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections has been their conviction that their status wouldn’t allow them to do so”. Members of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and the Influence Group organisation have also carried out a survey of IDPs’ political opinions and attitudes. The results show that 48% of IDPs feel it is important to be able to vote in local elections.

“The results of the survey dispel the myth of ‘special’ political opinions among this group”, Influence Group CEO Tatyana Durneva tells me. “IDPs don’t represent a threat; they are normal voters like everyone else. The state can’t restrict the political rights of a particular group on the basis of myths, hypotheses or predictions of their voting patterns. But these are the arguments we hear from some politicians who oppose IDPs’ right to vote in local elections”.

The authors of the survey believe that the law should be changed to allow IDPs to take part in normal political life. And banning them from voting is a breach of an Article of Ukraine’s Constitution, which states that, “Elections to central and local authorities are free and take place on the basis of general, equal and direct suffrage”. According to Influence Group, IDPs constitute 4% of Ukrainian voters.

In spring 2017, draft bill №6240, “On the access to electoral rights of Internally Displaced Persons and other mobile citizens within the country” was registered in the Verkhovna Rada. The amendments included in the bill apply not only to IDPs but to other people, such as labour migrants, who also lack permanent residence registration.

Work on the bill was initiated by members of the IFES, the Influence Group organisation, the “Support” Civil Network and other organisations engaged with IDP issues. In drafting the bill, its authors based their work on the UNHCR’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

IDPs constitute 4% of Ukrainian voters

The draft bill has now been approved by Ukraine’s Ministry of Temporary Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons (MOTVPL), gone through five Verkhovna Rada committees and received a positive report from the Chief Scientific Expert Department, but has been waiting for over a year to be presented for voting by MPs.

The relevant parliamentary committee – the Committee on Legal Policy and Justice – has postponed its consideration of the draft bill for the sixth time because it can’t reach a quorum”, says Aleksandr Klyuzhev, an analyst with “Support”. “The members of this committee only meet when there is something important to discuss, and matters involving IDPs evidently don’t fall into this category”.

A similar draft bill was registered on the eve of the 2015 parliamentary election, but was also denied consideration by the same committee and thus a vote by MPs.

“Parliament isn’t keen on changing electoral legislation, but there is a chance that the bill will be passed in 2020”, says Klyuzhev. “Are voting rights a burning issue for IDPs? It’s not a subject for discussion as such, as attitudes to the institution of elections are much the same across the population. But declarations about removing voting rights from IDPs who support anti-Ukrainian candidates come close to discrimination”.

The invisible electorate

In March this year, IDPs took their places alongside civil activists for a protest action in support of draft bill №6240, gathering outside the Verkhovna Rada’s committee building with placards reading, “My vote is important” and “MPs, we want to vote in local elections”.

“The IDPs are invisible to local council members, because they can’t elect them”, says “Right to Protection” legal analyst Anastasiya Odintsova. “We hope that the bill will be debated in the near future and there will be no more discrimination”.

The passage of the bill is being promoted by Influence Group members, who hold meetings with MPs and activists. Among the organisation’s successes are decisions by local authorities to support IDPs’ electoral rights, and it has reported that letters on the subject have been sent to the Verkhovna Rada by city councils in Vinnitsk, Uzhgorod, Mariupol, Kryvyi Rih, Kherson, Korosten and Dobropillia as well as the Shostka district council.

A number of MPs have also expressed their support for the bill. “Four years into the war, all these people are still only guests in our towns, in not just a moral and material sense, but also politically”, says Mustafa Nayem, a Petro Poroshenko Bloc MP. “The fact is that Ukraine is one of the few countries where IDPs are excluded from membership of local councils and have no vote in local elections, and this could turn into a potential conflict in the future”.

“Four years into the war, all these people are still only guests in our towns”

The subject of IDPs’ electoral rights in Ukraine was high on the agenda of the last meeting of the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, and its report on “Local electoral rights as an element of the successful long term integration of migrants and IDPs in European cities and regions” was approved.

The report includes a recommendation by the Congress, that governments create the conditions “for housing demands not to impede IDPs’ ability to exercise their electoral rights, and, in particular, that any procedure for moving their place of residence would allow them to change their registration from one constituency to another (or back) without unnecessary obstacles or delays. In addition, IDPs’ legal situation should not require them to choose between the exercise of their electoral rights and the right to the status of IDP and/or social assistance”.

“The Congress report is of a purely advisory nature, but disregarding it would have consequences for international relations”, says Ukrainian delegate Demid Mayornikov, who has also produced a report in support of IDPs’ electoral rights and draft bill №6240.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Central Electoral Commission has declared its readiness to implement the bill as soon as it is passed into law.

 

About the author

Hanna Sokolova is an Ukrainian freelance journalist working on human rights. She has previously worked for MediaPort news agency, as well as Ukrainska Pravda, Current Time, Focus and Left Bank. 

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