Ukraine’s 2012 election: one vote forward, two votes back


November 23, 2012 

OPSEU communications officer Greg Hamara returned to Canada this month after participating as a short term election observer for Ukraine’s Oct. 28 parliamentary elections. He was seconded by the Canadian government to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a 56-member state organization established at the height of the Cold War in 1970 to foster dialogue, good will and democratic reform among its participating nations. The OSCE has organized more than 60 election observer missions since its establishment, including several dozen in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This was Greg’s third occasion to monitor elections in Ukraine having previously been a member of Canada’s official election observer mission for the 2004 and 2010 presidential elections.

Here is Greg’s first-hand account of the fairness of last month’s parliamentary election and what it may forecast for the future of democracy in Ukraine.

(The political opinions expressed are his and not necessarily a reflection of OPSEU policy. Greg volunteered for the mission, covering his time away with credits.)


When Ukrainians went to the polls to vote in parliamentary elections on Oct. 28 there was music in the air. Literally.

In a custom that dates back to the one-party elections organized under the former Soviet Union, it is not uncommon for voters to be drawn to a polling station by the loud and clear sound of traditional Ukrainian or Russian folk tunes wafting from speakers mounted in the vicinity of schools, the sort of facility mostly commonly used on election day for citizens to cast their ballots.

It is just one, small cultural expression that distinguishes the electoral process in a nation like Ukraine from what we, in Canada and Ontario, are more accustomed to on voting day. There are plenty of others. Some border on the quaint like the sale of pastries, fruits and soft drinks inside polling stations. Other customs represent questionable distractions, like the omnipresent portrait inside polling stations of Ukraine’s current president who, coincidentally, also happens to be the titular head of the country’s leading party that contested last month’s election.

By any definition Ukraine is a “developing democracy,” which is a polite way of saying it is a nation with some distance to travel before it adopts the principles, practices and universal respect for outcomes that liberal democracies such as ours in the West adopted generations ago, notwithstanding robo-calls, prorogued parliaments and occasional challenges to the Supreme Court as we witnessed in Etobicoke-Centre over voter irregularities.

For a host of reasons, in the post-Soviet Union era, the West has made it clear it wants to see Ukraine firmly in its camp – and not tethered to the Russian Federation. Ukraine’s strategic geo-political location, its well-developed industrial infrastructure, its highly-educated population, fertile agricultural sector and certain key natural resources make it appetizing to Canada, the U.S. and the European Union to see that it aligns with “us” and not “them.”

What has held Ukraine back, much to the dismay of the West, is the painfully slow progress it has demonstrated in adopting western democratic practices, among other significant shortcomings. It is a nation where powerful industrial and media oligarchs – and the forceful financial means at their disposable – are tied tightly to the current president Viktor Yanukovych and his dominant Party of Regions. The rule of law is treated with suspicion and too often meted out arbitrarily, witness the current imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and allies of hers on corruption charges – charges that western governments and human rights organizations have universally denounced as a sham and politically motivated.

The dissemination of news and information, especially by television, is financed and controlled by a small handful of oligarchs and their mentors (or clients) who occupy the highest political offices in the land. By all independent accounts, corruption oozes from every corner of public life and within private business activity.

It is against these social, economic and political conditions that the West so desperately seeks a Ukraine that is strong, independent of Russia and which will one day adopt a venerable democratic electoral tradition that will shield it from strong-armed rulers and autocratic regimes.

In no small measure the political climate of today’s Ukraine helps explain why, since the demise of the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, the West has deployed tens of thousands of election observers whenever the country organizes municipal, parliamentary or presidential elections. It’s the West’s way of saying to the people of Ukraine: electoral democracy is the path to building a better country where the will of citizens can be recognized and, by the way, we’re here to help you along this path.

The Oct. 28 parliamentary election was no exception to this trend. At an estimated cost of $9 million the government of Canada deployed more than 400 long- and short-term electoral observers, including more than 40 seconded to the ranking international mission, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Dozens of other sovereign states and international non-governmental organizations deployed thousands more, including observers from the parliament of the European Union, the NATO parliamentary assembly, the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, the World Congress of Ukrainians, the Central Election Commission of Russia, and the European-based Organization for Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights, among many dozens of others.

In short, on election day, Ukraine was flooded with international election observers, by some counts more than 5,000 in all. Were that not plenty enough, it is estimated another 10,000 or more domestic, Ukrainian observers also participated in overseeing the voting process.

To be called an “international election observer” carries with it the faint breeze of diplomatic authority. Strictly speaking that’s not the case at all, but election observers take their responsibilities seriously – a few too much so.  Despite their earnestness no one electoral observer can single-handedly rescue a state, like Ukraine, from democratic collapse on voting day.

More than 2,000 Canadians applied this year to be members of the official delegation representing this Canada. The screening process is rigorous and is handled by Canadem, an arms-length office funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Besides holding a Canadian passport and committing oneself to a 12-day mission, successful applicants must show previous experience in civic engagement, obtain a certificate of good health and pass a United Nations online course in what is termed “field security” that instructs observers how to conduct themselves safely when working abroad in volatile regions.

Those selected as election observers have their travel and accommodation expenses covered [including health insurance] and are provided with a daily allowance of about $50 to cover meals and other incidentals. In Ukraine, and especially outside the major centres, that amount can purchase plenty of borsht, pork and chicken cutlets, and cucumber salad – all staples of the nation’s daily diet.

What unites all observers is fidelity to a formal code of conduct that makes clear they are on Ukrainian soil at the invitation of the Ukrainian government. Lanyards indicating so must be worn at all times while inspecting polling stations. Observers may observe but not interfere with the voting process. They may bring attention to voting officials apparent irregularities, but they cannot request corrective measures. They may raise questions about process, but they cannot arbitrarily change guidelines already in place.

In short, an election observer represents the eyes and ears of the outside world on how a nation, like Ukraine, goes about the conduct of its electoral process.

Election observer work – especially for the thousands designated as Short Term Observers (STOs) -- is not glamorous work. In the case of the Ukraine parliamentary elections it involved lengthy international travel, two days of briefings in the capital Kyiv [and beforehand, in Ottawa] deployment by train, bus or plane to one of Ukraine’s regions on transportation systems that are often slow and wanting by western standards, followed by as many as two or three days of advance pre- inspection of polling stations to ensure all is in order.

All that takes place before election day and the tabulation of ballots, which itself can often take one or more days following the vote if irregularities are identified.

Ukraine is made up of 24 “oblasts,” or jurisdictions much like Canadian provinces. Each has a capital, or a main regional centre to which STOs are deployed. From there, observers can be further re-deployed to smaller towns in the oblast, travelling in teams of two with a driver and interpreter over roads that are often little more than glorified cow paths and staying in Soviet-era hotels with all the charm of a TTC subway station.

In all, more than 33,000 polling stations were scattered across Ukraine’s cities, towns and villages. Virtually every one of them was inspected by an STO team either prior to election day, or on voting day itself.

Polling station “inspections” involve considerably more activity than a leisurely walk-through. The OSCE, which has dispatched dozens of electoral observer missions over the course of the past 40 years, demands very detailed accounting of conditions, organization and conduct of voting conditions inside and outside the station. Each two-member team is provided with a comprehensive Observation Report Form which includes more than 60 questions that each require an answer, either in the form of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses, or by a sliding-scale numeric grade.

Observers are expected to report on the number of women working as polling station officers, the number party scrutineers [each national party is permitted two inside officials, a number that in most polling stations totaled more than 20, making for occasionally crowded conditions], whether election rules were properly posted, whether police or military personnel were present [they are allowed indoors under certain conditions of overcrowding or the possibility of disorder], whether there was evidence of “intimidation” or “tension” inside the station, whether there was an adequate number of ballots issued and whether the indoor webcams [two per voting station] were operating correctly. Observers can ask the chair of the station to unseal the wall-mounted boxes that contain webcam monitors to ensure they are operating properly.

In a measure that was initially established for Soviet ‘elections’ and which is still maintained, the elderly and the infirm are eligible to have a ballot delivered to their place of residence, typically an apartment, by a team of election officials. Election observers are permitted to join the team as it goes about the task of delivering ballots, and the small, mobile ballot box itself, to the home of an eligible voter. Dutifully, election officials turn their back to the voter as the person goes about marking their ballot and placing it inside the mobile ballot box which is about the size of a microwave oven.

For the international election observer this practice ensures that the election is conducted fairly, even inside someone’s home. As a bonus, it also affords the observer a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of what conditions might be like inside the private residence of a voter.

Under Ukraine’s parliamentary electoral system, 450 deputies are elected to the national ‘Rada’ or parliament. Half that number – 225 seats – are distributed by a national system of proportional representation based on a party’s per cent of the national vote. The other 225 seats are contested by a method termed ‘single-mandate candidates’ who represent a party but are elected in the ‘first-past-the-post’ fashion used in Canada, the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

[For the record, the party that captured the largest number of seats in the Oct. 28 election was the Party of Regions, with 30 per cent of the national vote, followed by the main Opposition party, Bakashiyna [Fatherland] with 26 per cent, UDAR, which literally means ‘punch’ and which is led by former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaliy Klichko, at 14 per cent, the Communist Party at 13 per cent, and the right-wing, nationalist party, Svoboda, at 10 per cent].

Observers are advised beforehand in briefings that election day itself will be long and arduous. It’s not uncommon for an election observer to spend 20 hours at work or more on the day of the vote. Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but the observer teams are instructed to attend the pre-vote protocols at 7 a.m. at a pre-determined polling station where ballots are removed from safety boxes, escorted into the main voting area and unsealed. Voters’ lists are confirmed and other administrative tasks are accounted for – all under the watchful eyes of the party’s designated scrutineers.

Typically, an observer team will visit 10 to 15 stations on election day depending on whether the district is more rural or more urban. Upon entering the voting station, with their interpreter at their side and their driver waiting outside, the delegation introduces itself to the chair, records basic numerical information about voters and ballots, and then spends the remainder of the time [usually about 30 minutes] watching for details that have been set out in the Observer Report Form. Video and still photography is permitted inside the election stations.

Then the real long and tough work sets in – the counting of the votes after the poll closes.

A typical polling station in Ukraine will have about 2,500 eligible voters. Based on turnout this year about 65 per cent cast a vote, or about 1,400 at each station.

Counting 1,400 ballots should be a speedy process. In Ukraine, though, it isn’t. Based on anecdotal accounts from election observers in de-briefings after Oct. 28 it wasn’t uncommon for the count to take more than six hours to complete, often closer to 10 hours when one includes the final obligation of the observer team to accompany the physical transfer of the ballots from the local election station to the district election office which is most often located in the chambers of the local city hall. Once there, the team is required to wait until the vote total is announced by the district election chair for the polling station at which they had been monitoring the count earlier that night.

If there are challenges to the final count from an individual polling station they can drag the process out even longer, often into the next day or beyond.

There are a host of reasons why the vote count moves at a snail’s pace. Some involve practices inherited from the previous Soviet election system. Others simply by the sheer volume of party scrutineers who must, literally, sign off at each of the multiple steps in the vote-counting process. The paper ballots – each voter was handed two, one for their choice of a national party and one for local candidates – are large and cumbersome to handle.

But what Ukraine and many other emerging democracies lack is a professional, arms-length, non-partisan agency like Elections Canada to supervise and conduct voting. The national voting system in Ukraine is tied too closely with the president’s ruling party and political operatives for all parties at the national, regional and local levels. The system is ripe, if not for outright corruption, but for grinding vote tabulations to a standstill. Party representatives can bring the whole process to a halt by invoking procedural challenges, and they often do so even if the evidence of misconduct is scant.

This shortcoming was most apparent in the transmission of voting results from the district election commissions to the central election commission, based in Kyiv. The results are transmitted from what are known as “the computer rooms,” private offices located inside city halls but over which election observers or other non-authorized personnel are denied access. The presence of these so-called computer rooms became the focus of much post-election commentary and criticism because of the secrecy which surrounds them and the task assigned to those individuals responsible for inputting data and transmitting voting results.

Were the Oct. 28 Ukraine parliamentary elections clean, transparent and conducted fairly? Did the presence of international election observers make a difference? What does the conduct of last month’s elections hold for the future of electoral democracy in that country?

By the vast majority of accounts from dozens of recognized election observer missions, voting on Oct. 28 was conducted cleanly and fairly. Certainly there were many dozens of reports of voting abuse to greater but mostly lesser extents discovered in polling stations around the country. In fact, the central election commission of Ukraine has, to date, not declared final results in five constituencies on account of voting misconduct.

But at post-Oct. 28 debriefings and by independent media accounts, the consensus stood that Ukraine’s parliamentary elections were conducted by the rules of voting, at the least in local voting stations. The country has some distance to go before it streamlines its voting process and removes impediments to transparency, like the ‘computer rooms.’ But it still finds itself in liberal democratic infancy and conditions inside Ukraine are no worse, and often better, than those experiences of other nations struggling to plant democratic roots.

What, to many, is more troubling is the conditions the country found itself in during the 90-day election campaign itself. In its preliminary report issued on the day after the vote, this is what the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported:

The 28 October parliamentary elections were characterized by the lack of a level playing field caused primarily by the abuse of administrative resources, lack of transparency of campaign and party financing, and the lack of balanced media coverage. Certain aspects of the pre-election period constituted a step backwards compared with recent national elections. Voters had a choice between distinct parties. Election day was calm and peaceful overall. Voting and counting were assessed mostly positively. Tabulation [at the district level] was assessed negatively as it lacked transparency.”

In other words, for every step forward along the road to electoral democracy, Ukraine also experienced serious and unnecessary obstacles,

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