Free but Not Fair

Oct 31st, 2012 | By | Category: Election 2012, News, Ukraine

We had the opportunity to serve as international observers at last Sunday’s elections to the legislature of Ukraine, specifically in two of the more troublesome regions of Ukraine: Kharkhiv and Donetsk. Also, we observed in Kyiv on the district level on the following two days. Our reactions were mixed, but mostly positive. It is our considered opinion that Ukraine made some significant progress since last year’s local elections as well as the presidential tally of 2010.

Perhaps, the reason for this generally positive review is that the electorate in Ukraine over the years has matured to a level of sophistication that exceeds many of the traditionally democratic societies. In fact, the maturation process has been arduous because of the numerous impediments set by the ruling and financial elite intent on acquiring or retaining power. The electorate includes not only the some thirty million voters, but the voter-officials who were charged with the duties of carrying out the process on the local precinct and district levels.

In places witnessed by us, it seems those local officials have been trained and hardened by negative experiences to such an extent that they approached their latest duties with a strong will and remarkable dedication to prevent any hint of fraud. Furthermore, the wide party affiliation that comprised the local and district commission members bordering on the ridiculous—in one Kharkiv precinct a Women’s Solidarity Party representative served as secretary while in another, the Anarchist party representative chaired the local committee—ensured that myriad interests were represented. Commission members followed the law painstakingly even though sometime their understanding of the law was misapplied. In the past they were hostile to international observes. This time they welcomed them.

Attempts to defraud, manipulate and influence are inevitable in any election where the prize is significant. In Ukraine, legislative membership, aside from altruism, carries much personal benefit including but not limited to immunity from criminal prosecution. Certainly Ukraine’s latest round had its share of such attempts. However, the preponderance took place in the time up to the elections during the campaign phase. Unequal access to media is a common complaint in democratic societies and Ukraine was certainly worse than western democracies. After all the ruling party controls and influences the media in Ukraine through various channels not limited to financial control and intimidation. Abuse of administrative resources was another troublesome area. Officials in governmental control often lavished financial benefits upon their society which inured to their own personal welfare or that of their party colleagues.

However, Election Day was not marred by egregious fraud. Sure there were attempts to stuff the ballot utilizing the “at home” ballot, but in most instances the precinct commissions caught on in advance. Some unregistered voters attempted to procure a ballot and vote, but were turned away in most instances. The polling precincts were sometimes a little too inconspicuous, with entrances on the side and no Ukrainian flag. Nevertheless, voter participation was a healthy 58%, not the typical 90% common to authoritarian societies, but more than the less than 50% which has become the norm in healthy, but lazy democracies.

Who won and lost is not the issue. Certainly Yanukovich and his party together with their allies did not achieve what they had hoped. On the other hand, the democratic opposition can consider this election more than a moral victory. Still much depends on allegiances and the non-affiliated deputies whose favor will be the subject of improper and outrageous bidding. We all know how easily those are bought and sold in Ukraine.

The big winner here is Ukrainian democracy and the Ukrainian people. Surprisingly, many of the other western observers assessed the process in uncertain terms, but falling short of the model. We suspect that for people from Chicago or even New York, like ourselves, the model is not without its own blemishes. Chicago, until very recently urged its electorate to vote early and often. In New York, the model was less outrageous—a mayor, who was termed out, simply changed the NYC Constitution without referendum and then proceeded to buy the electorate with overwhelming money. Campaign finance reform is a reasonable democratic safeguard needed not only in Ukraine.

The international community needs to look at Ukraine objectively. Sure, Ukraine’s President is a thug. But at least in this one instance, he stepped back and allowed what Putin and the like would never permit. The democratic international community should continue to monitor Ukraine on human rights, and insist on the release of opposition leaders. However, failing to acknowledge that the most recent election in Ukraine was substantially free, although not entirely fair, compromises the West’s credibility.

October 31, 2012

Askold S. Lozynskyj
Adrian I. Dlaboha

The writers served as international election observers from the Ukrainian World Congress/Ukrainian Congress Committee of America mission.

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