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Two years after Euromaidan, elections still dirty business in Ukraine

Nadiya Savchenko came to Luhansk Oblast to support a colleague from her Batkivschyna party Photo: Vyacheslav Shramovych, BBC Ukraine
Nadiya Savchenko came to Luhansk Oblast to support a colleague from her Batkivschyna party Photo: Vyacheslav Shramovych, BBC Ukraine
Two years after Euromaidan, elections still dirty business in Ukraine
Edited by: Andrew Fink

Starting from 2014, several waves of elections have swept over Ukraine. First the Early Presidential elections, then the Early Parliamentary elections, then local elections. There were also a few re-runs of disputed elections. On the 17 July 2016, there was a by-election for 7 MPs. It was necessary because some MPs resigned to serve as governmental or municipal workers and also one seat was vacant because of the death of Ihor Yeremeiev – he fell while riding a horse.

These elections cost Ukraine UAH 27mn (over $1mn), there were 371 participating candidates and it passed unnoticed in the rest of Ukraine. However, the elections was quite telling regarding Ukraine’s electoral prospects.

After two years of continuous elections and the previous period of constant machination people are jaded, tired, and see little sense in still more elections. There were the same violations with carousel voting and bribery as is usual, the usual group of “technical candidates,” the old majoritarian system (which some believe should be replaced), and even the same out-to-date Central Election Commission.

The main moral of what is happened is that voting in Ukraine is no longer considered something that can make a difference for ordinary people.

Map: Euromaidan Press
Map: Euromaidan Press

The voter turnout of the by-elections was 35%. At first it was announced that the highest was in the near the front line constituency in Luhansk Oblast. This turned out to be a mistake, but still the turnout was too high for this region. And the lowest one was in the elections in Kherson Oblast – 16.39%. These two areas deserve proper attention as they can reveal general trends of Ukrainian election.

A mysterious election near the front line

Every polling station in Luhansk Oblast had strengthened security  Photo: Vyacheslav Shramovych, BBC Ukraine

The election in district #114 in Luhansk Oblast was obviously the most troubled. It had the largest amount of candidates – 107, almost a half of which were “technical,” meaning that the candidates do not realistically intend to win and are on the lists to serve purposes of other candidates, such as drawing votes away from competitors.

A constituency election commission was removed from Stanytsia Luhanska, a town located just near the contact line, to Bilovodsk which is 50 km away from it.

Among the favorite election violations were bribes, taking elderly people to voting stations and dirty campaigning.

For example spreading the information about the death of one of the leading candidates Serhiy Shakov (who eventually became the winner). The Committee of Voters of Ukraine, an NGO dealing with electoral questions, observed the bribing of voters under color of doing research. Voters were invited for a meeting with a candidate Taras Konstanchuk and then given 200 UAH for it.

A leaflet with false information about the death of one of the leading candidates, Serhiy Shakhov. Source: courtesy of election observer in Luhansk Oblast

Experts had predicted the lowest turnout for this constituency. However, at some point it was announced that 63% of voters voted. Later, the local election commission corrected itself and said that the incorrect number was just a mistake from a system administrator and in fact the turnout was 42%. This is still unexpectedly high for the region.

“One of the largest mysteries of constituency #114 was the voter turnout. The vote counting is going most slowly in this district, as it shown on the CEC website. On Monday, July 18, at 10 AM there were only results from 10 polling stations. And then the process of counting totally stopped,” wrote journalist and activist Maria Tomak, who was covering the election.

According to the final results,  the candidate from Nash Krai (“Our Land”) Serhiy Shakhov won with 37.2% of votes.

The candidate is not new to the region. “Things have been written about Shakhov, that he used to be a criminal, a currency smuggler and a waster of resources,” said then-journalist (and now MP) Tetyana Chornovol in 2014. She also added that she had a personal source of information who said that Shakhov was an employee of the so-called “family” of Yanukovych, the name used for Yanukovych’s criminal-political network.

Chornovol made this comment when Shakhov became a chief of the Luhansk Oblast headquarter of Poroshenko’s election campaign during the 2014 presidential race.

Media and experts often say that the party Nash Krai itself is the project of the Presidential Administration that was created to take votes from the Opposition Bloc, the successor of the Party of Region, the party of disgraced former president Viktor Yanukovych, which has a lot of supporters in eastern Ukraine. Nash Krai’s members include a number of MPs who used to belong to the Party of Regions and some mayors who also came from the Party of Regions.

So if the story about support from Poroshenko is true, it also demonstrates the collaboration of the current authorities with representatives from the former Yanukovych regime.

Is there a threat of “little green men” in Kherson?

The lowest turnout was in Kherson Oblast. Photo: Serhiy Nikitenko

Something went wrong for Andriy Putilov in the election at the Kherson constituency #183. He was the candidate from the pro-presidential party Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc Solidarnist. Putilov was considered the frontrunner in the election.

One of the reasons why he might have won was his grip on local government resources. His team was so confident in his victory that Putilov did not even campaign until the last minute.

He had another reason to be confident of victory – an agreement between the Opposition Bloc and Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc. The main opposition party did not send a strong candidate to Kherson.

This was also the constituency where the notorious politician Illia Kiva was campaigning.  His campaign was organized by people associated with Ivan Vinnyk, a parliamentary deputy in Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc. Journalists asked him why he supported Kiva, especially given the fact that the candidate from his party was also campaigning there:

“Everything is very simple. I was running in Nova Kakhovka [a city of the Kherson Oblast] and I know that region. Just look whom the Opposition Bloc sent. I know that there is an agreement between my home party Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc and the Opposition Bloc. According this agreement, as soon as Putilov becomes a deputy, the Oblast will in fact be given to the Opposition Bloc. A separatist, an associate of Novinsky [another Ukrainian oligarch and an MP] Vasiliy Fedin will become the head of the Oblast Council. According to this script, we can expect the ‘green men’ the next week,” said Vinnyk.

By “green men” he is referring to Russian special forces or Russian irregulars who took over Crimea and parts of Donbas in 2014 under the guise of “separatists.”

The deputy explained that his main aim was to help Kiva and spoil the results for Putilov:

“I do not have anything against Putilov becoming a deputy in Verkhovna Rada [Parliament], but I am against giving the oblast to the Opposition Bloc. By the way, at the very beginning I offered to help Putilov as well, but they said that they would buy everything anyway,” said Vinnyk.

The candidate Yuriy Odarchenko from the party of Yuliya Tymoshenko, Batkivschyna (Fatherland), who eventually won in the Kherson constituency, accused the local Poroshenko’s party deputies of forming an alliance with the Oppositional Bloc in the Oblast Council at the end of 2015 during the local elections. The deputies denied the accusations. The Opposition Bloc in their turn reacted by accusing Batkivschyna and Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc of divvying up the seats.

During that time Odarchenko expressed his opinion about Putilov:

The year is 2013. Ukraine is fighting for its right to be in Europe, and to throw off the dictator Yanukovych. The parties which stand against him are persecuted. But what is going on? The deputy and entrepreneur Putilov receives from the budget an enormous tax rebate, even for Ukraine! What is this all about? Collaboration with the Opposition Bloc, which was then called the Party of Regions, already took place back then,” said Odarchenko.

As this example shows, the story does not end after an election. And the supposed agreements of the Poroshenko’s Bloc and the Opposition Bloc are saying that the fight for Kherson Oblast is ongoing.

Old guard still controls elections

In one of the districts of Chernihiv people with electoral lists were locked in a car. They were suspected of giving bribes to voters. Photo:

In other constituencies, the elections also were conducted with numerous violations. The winners are:

  • Dnipro, constituency #27 – Tetyana Rychkova, a volunteer and an adviser of the Minister of Defence;
  • Chernigiv, #206 – Maksym Mykytas, a self nominated candidate, the president of the corporation UkrBud.
  • Volyn Oblast, #23 – Iryna Konstankevych, the candidate from UKROP.
  • Ivano Frankivsk Oblast, #85 – Viktor Shevchenko, the candidate from UKROP.
  • Poltava Oblast, #151 – Ruslan Bohdan, the candidate from the Batkivschyna party.

Some experts say this elections is a rehearsal for an early Parliamentary election in Ukraine. The idea of early elections has been in the air for quite some time.

In any case, before any new election, there will probably be some changes in the election infrastructure – at least a new Central Election Commission (CEC). The current members of the CEC are working at the very end of their legal terms.

Before the Early Presidential Election 2014, the Verkhovna Rada passed amendments to the law on the CEC. The old edition of the law stated that the term of office for members of CEC must end after 7 years. In the new edition of the law they are permitted to work until a new CEC is appointed. Back in 2014, this change was reasonable because of the urgent need to elect a new president. Also it provided legal security in case somebody disputed the election results. However the CEC members have continued working past the crisis.

Just before the second anniversary of his presidency (7 June 2016), Petro Poroshenko finally dismissed the old CEC. Later he even introduced a new CEC list to parliament, however the personalities on it were viewed as controversial and sparked discussion. While the discussions and organizational process of replacing the CEC were delayed, the recent by-elections in the 7 constituencies also stayed under the control of the old guard.

Majoritarian election system has immense drawbacks

Because of the war and the Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory, the Ukrainian Parliament now only seats 423 out of 450 total deputies Photo:

During the last Ukrainian Parliamentary Election in 2014, a mixed voting system was used. This means that a half from the total number of MPs (450) have to be  elected from to the electoral lists of the political parties and half using a majoritarian system in a single-mandate constituencies. However, because of the war and the ongoing Russian occupation, elections have not been conducted in 15 constituencies in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts and in the 12 constituencies of Crimea.

See where exactly on the map for local elections: Local elections will not take place in 51% of Donbas communities

So in 2014 the Verkhovna Rada has only 423 MPs out of 450.

In the recent special election, voters were choosing deputies in single mandate constituencies according to the majoritarian system, which nowadays has fewer and fewer supporters.

The majoritarian system gives local candidates immense influence over the voters. Just before an election, playgrounds are reconstructed, most often with the name of a candidate on it. Sometimes candidates engage in the humiliating practice of handing out  buckwheat in exchange for promises of support.

Andriy Magera, the deputy head of the CEC, is confident that there should be a proportional electoral system in Ukraine with open regional lists. According to him, a full Parliament can be elected only with this kind of system.

An analyst from the OPORA Civic Network Oleksandr Kluzhev thinks that the priority should be not the electoral reform, but a reform of law enforcement. He believes the corrupt law enforcement structures that surround elections are the main obstacle to actual fair elections.

“Opportunities to get ‘black money’ has hindered public participation in elections. It is necessary to talk about the reform of law enforcement, not election reform. This is not a procedural nuance, because only law enforcement agencies can counteract the techniques that directly impact the equal access of citizens to the electoral process,” says Kluzhev.

People expected election reform after Maidan. However, this is one area that has seen no real change, and the same system that allowed the Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions to wheedle its way into power in 2012 is still in place. However, Ukrainian civil society needs to pay especial attention to any future reforms, as corrupt Ukrainian politicians seem to be able to influence the “reforms” and adjust their corrupt networks to new processes.

Edited by: Andrew Fink
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