Uneven Campaign Playing Field Causes Ukraine Elections to Fall Short

October 29, 2012
Kolbe (right) talks to a polling station chairman (middle) at a station in Kyiv.Kyiv, Ukraine – While overall Ukraine’s October 28 parliamentary elections were administered in an orderly manner, Ukraine continues to fall short in ensuring voters a campaign in which candidates have an equal opportunity to be heard and they can be confident that their individual votes count.  Despite the efforts of polling officials and voters who turned out to cast their ballots, after more than 20 years of independence, Ukraine still faces significant obstacles to its democratic development.

“A country that imprisons its political opponents, removes independent television from the air and harasses civil society is not an example of a country progressing in its democratic development,” said Congressman David Dreier, who has led election observation teams throughout the world.  “This is a message I heard throughout the day and is most disheartening to many Ukrainians, who want a better life and a better government but had months ago lost hope that these elections would bring about the change they have so eagerly hoped for.”

Click here to view more photos from Ukraine's parliamentary elections.

IRI delegation co-leader former Congressman Jim Kolbe also noted that, “While there didn’t appear to be systemic violations on Election Day, there are a number of issues that we are concerned about.  The most significant issue is the Central Election Commission’s [CEC] refusal to release results at the polling station level to ensure official results from the CEC can be compared with what was recorded during the count.  This is a critical component of transparency in any democratically conducted election and I urge the CEC to reconsider its decision and release the results in this manner.”

Dreier (left) looks at the video footage being broadcast from the polling station.IRI delegation observed more than 160 polling stations on Election Day, the second step in a process that also includes the campaign period, ballot counting, adjudication of complaints and acceptance of results.  While observers did report some irregularities they did not report incidents that were systemic election abuses.

However, during the campaign period significant problems combined to create a very uneven playing field that made it difficult for the opposition to compete.  These included the following:

  • The Law on Parliamentary Elections, which was adopted on November 17, 2011, and established a mixed electoral system – half of the deputies being elected under a closed-list proportional system and the other half selected through individual mandates in a majoritarian system – was a return to the system last used in 2002 when international observers reported significant fraud.  While several countries in the region have successfully instituted similar electoral systems, the Venice Commission strongly criticized the law for over-politicizing the electoral process.  In addition, this is the fourth election system utilized by Ukraine since independence, and was implemented to maximize a political advantage for the ruling party.
  • The government increased pressure on independent media.  The independent television station ATN was closed in September 2011 and in April 2012, the tax authorities, a body increasingly used as a tool of government to exert pressure on the media, began to target TVi and this past summer opened a criminal case against the station’s owner.
  • The Ukrainian government has also started to more closely monitor and regulate activities of domestic civil society organizations.  Tax authorities have targeted independent civil society organizations with criminal cases and in one case the Association of Ukrainian Banks came under pressure from the tax authorities to cease its work.
  • Political parties and candidates have suffered intimidation and investigation by tax authorities and security forces that reduced their ability to compete in the elections. 
  • Key opposition figures – including Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister and head of the united opposition – were prevented from participating in the elections, due to their incarceration stemming from politically motivated charges against them for acts undertaken by the previous administration.A woman casts her ballot.
  • The lottery system – outlined in the November 2011 election law – meant the composition of election commissions was uneven, and major parties were at times excluded from membership in polling stations commissions.  IRI observers also noted what appeared to be pseudo parties that may have been created with the sole purpose of allowing the ruling party to dominate membership of commissions.  As a result, the composition of precinct election commissions suffered from a lack of representation of legitimate political parties competing in these elections.
Today, the CEC indicated that it would not release election results by polling station protocol totals.  This is a major failure in the administration of elections and the lack of transparency will undermine public confidence in the electoral process.

Ukraine had made good progress in the administration of elections and ensuring a level playing field in its most recent presidential election and the last two parliamentary elections.  The problems in the campaign period and on Election Day are particularly troubling, as they indicate that Ukraine has not progressed in the way that it should and has not advanced as far as other former Soviet Republics, including Georgia, which just saw its first peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another.

IRI delegates from Cyprus, Lithuania and the United States observed voting and ballot counting at polling stations in Cherkasy, Chernihiv, Crimea, Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kyiv, Lutsk, Lviv, Mykolayev, Odesa and Zhytomyr.

IRI’s delegation was led by U.S. Congressman David Dreier (CA-26) and Jim Kolbe former U.S. Congressman (AZ-8) and a Senior Transatlantic Fellow for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, both of whom serve on IRI’s Board of Directors.  Other delegates were:

IRI staff also served as observers and assisted in the mission.  IRI staff were led by Judy Van Rest, Executive Vice President of IRI, and Stephen B. Nix, Regional Director of IRI’s Eurasia division.

Prior to the election, delegates were briefed by representatives from the U.S. Embassy, political party representatives and Ukrainian election officials.  They were also briefed on the rights and responsibilities of international observers and Ukrainian election law. 

Since 1983, IRI has monitored more than 150 elections in more than 46 countries, including Ukraine’s 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2007 parliamentary elections and the 1999, 2004 and 2010 presidential elections.