Monitors declare election fair but with campaign violations

Kyiv Post

By Igor Kossov, Teah Pelechaty, Bermet Talant.

Ukrainian and international election observers have announced that the July 21 parliamentary election was held in a fair and competitive manner. 

“No systemic violations that could affect the vote result or the counting process were recorded,” said Olga Aivazovska, head of Ukrainian election watchdog Opora, at a press briefing on July 22, adding that there were many procedural violations, however. 

“Being able to conduct three elections in a four-month period, and at the same time engage in the defense of a country against a foreign aggressor that has invaded Ukraine, is an extraordinary feat,” said Stephen Nix, Eurasia Director at the International Republican Institute.  

According to a preliminary count, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s party, Servant of the People, won the party vote and the majority of single-member districts. It is followed by Opposition Platform — For Life, former President Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna, and rock musician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s Voice. 

This results were largely confirmed by Opora’s parallel vote count. The official count continues. 

This year’s parliamentary election demonstrated that the voting system in single-member districts is becoming obsolete, said Aivazovska. 

“Party brand played a bigger role than the activity of a candidate in a particular district,” she said. 

The new electoral law passed on July 11 abolishes single-member districts starting from Dec. 1, 2023. 

Campaign violations 

Although Election Day went off without a hitch, massive violations took place during the campaign season, election observers said. 

Ukrainian and international observers noted long-standing bad practices in Ukrainian politics: for example, vote-buying and clone candidates in single-member districts both occurred during the campaign. Opaque campaign financing and the lack of media independence were also named top issues. 

Vote-buying and clones

Ambassador Albert Johnsson, head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) mission, said on July 22 that vote-buying remains a problem in single-member districts. 

Candidates offered voters cash, food, medication, lottery tickets, prizes, concerts and trips. Incumbents also made promises to provide certain benefits to voters to entice them, observers found. Moreover, some state and local officials either endorsed certain candidates or gave them preferential treatment. 

Clone candidates are an age-old trick in Ukrainian politics aimed at confusing voters and stealing votes from strong candidates. This year, it was the frontrunner of the race, Servant of the People, whose brand and candidates were copied en masse. 

For example, 79 self-nominated candidates campaigned using the Servant of the People brand, running against actual Servant of the People candidates. They mimicked the style of their campaign and registered companies and public organizations named Servant of the People. And, 152 candidates appeared to share 69 similar or identical names. 

Police opened 46 investigations into clone candidates, which could have misled voters and impacted the election outcome, according to OSCE/ ODIHR. 

The observers noted some physical assaults on candidates as well.

Campaign funding 

All parties opened dedicated electoral funds, but many were opened in July, which left earlier expenditures unreported. Affluent candidates used their own funds up to the expenditure ceiling, which gave them an advantage.

Schemes for exceeding legal limits also existed. Companies or NGOs sometimes campaigned or paid for advertisement on the candidate’s behalf, since campaign finance regulations don’t apply to third parties. Some advertisements lacked official funding sources.

The government identified no finance violations in the election and imposed no sanctions during the campaign period. 

“There is no system of effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions,” the OSCE/ODIHR wrote in its report. 

By Opora estimates, some $2 million had been spent on political advertising on Facebook, but most of these expenses were not reflected in the campaign financial reports. 

Oligarch-owned media

Observers stated that Ukraine’s media landscape is diverse and competitive, but also suffers from a lack of autonomy. Five major private media groups, owned by a handful of oligarchs, have a combined audience of more than 70 percent of the population. 

The powerful businesses that control the media have editorial policies and political agendas that amplify some candidates’ messages while shutting others out. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Public Broadcasting Company is “severely underfunded,” the mission of the International Republic Institute said.

Christine Todd-Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and an observer with the National Democratic Institute, also lamented Ukraine’s deeply-entrenched “concentrated media ownership, weak regulations, and a concerted campaign of Russian disinformation (that) hindered voters’ ability to have access to impartial and authentic information.”

NDI recommends that parliament fully-fund the public broadcaster, so as to promote a “viable alternative to oligarch-owned media,” as well as providing the media with the “space and resources to operate independently.”

Access to voting

Former director of the OSCE/ODIHR, Dame Audrey Glover, cited the incredible hurdle that many citizens in Ukraine face with respect to casting their votes on Election Day.

“Millions of Ukrainians faced hurdles to voting due to the conflict in the east, and the occupation of Crimea, as well as internal migration for other reasons,” she said.

Observers also brought attention to the thousands of internally-displaced persons who were not eligible to vote in their current locations without “undertaking burdens to change their place of voting,” as well as to traditionally disenfranchised groups, such as the Roma.

Despite the country’s attempt to abide by internationally-approved electoral guidelines, Ukraine has a long way yet to go with respect to improving its electoral code, fighting corruption, revising its laws regarding campaign financing, and working toward greater inclusiveness and representation of women within the electoral process.

“The success of Ukraine’s efforts to establish a prosperous, independent, and democratic future is of vital importance to global security and well-being,” says John Bruton, the former prime minister of Ireland and EU Ambassador to the to the United States.

“The democratic nature of these elections provides a strong foundation for the consensus-building that will be necessary to form a government and begin enacting difficult reforms.”

Russian influence

 IRI applauded Ukraine’s resilience, citing a drop in “pro-Kremlin political forces… from over 50 percent seven years ago in peacetime, to approximately 15 percent.”

The organization’s polling data confirmed a continued support for EU and NATO membership, as well as for the return of Russian-occupied territories to Ukraine.

However, 16 percent of Ukraine’s voting population continues to be affected by Russia’s presence in the country, says Executive Vice President of IRI Judy Van Rest. This is illustrated by the low number of those who came out to vote in Russian-occupied regions of the country — an issue which IRI urges the new parliament to address.

IRI also summarized the three main problems that Ukrainians wished to see addressed going forward: ending the war in Donbas, healing the Ukrainian economy, and corruption.

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