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Friday, October 29, 2010

Is The Fix In? (Ukraine local elections)

Dozens of people hold an “open your eyes” demonstration in Odesa on Oct. 17 to protest the poor choice of political candidates facing Ukrainian voters nationwide in the Oct. 31 local elections. UNIAN

Peter Byrne
October 29, 2010
Kyiv Post

Local elections are notoriously difficult to monitor for honesty and fairness. Ukraine, with a spotty history of democratic elections, will have 15,000 such contests across the nation on Oct. 31. Political opponents are crying foul as the pro-presidential Party of Regions appears poised to strengthen its near-monopolistic grip on political power.

Some 15,000 local elections will take place on Oct. 31, as voters throughout the nation choose mayors of big cities and members of councils who govern people living everywhere from heavily populated oblasts to sparsely settled villages.

While the sheer volume of contests means that the winners may not be known for days, key election watchers are confident of two outcomes: the pro-presidential Party of Regions will triumph; democracy will not.

“These local elections represent a step backwards in terms of holding democratic elections in Ukraine,” said Oleksandr Chernenko, executive director of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, a non-profit election monitoring group that receives Western financial backing. “Public trust that the election process will be free and fair is waning.”

The fairness of the contest is being closely watched, internationally and nationally, for a couple of key reasons.

One reason is growing alarm over President Viktor Yanukovych’s monopolization of political power – through heavy-handed and legally suspect methods – since taking office on Feb. 25. Moreover, few have forgotten that Yanukovych has a dismal track record in support of democratic elections, dating back to his tenure as Donetsk Oblast governor and through his two stints as prime minister and as a presidential candidate in 2004 before finally winning the top office on Feb. 7.

Campaigning started early for the Oct. 31 election. On Kyiv’s main street of Khreshchatyk on Aug. 27, people pass by billboards for Deputy Prime Minister Sergiy Tigipko’s Strong Ukraine party. (Yaroslav Debelyi)

The second reason is that local elections have historically been held at the same time as parliamentary elections and have been overshadowed by the national contests.

Given that local contests are generally considered to be less honest than the presidential and parliamentarian ones, the shortcomings of the Oct. 31 races could become much clearer to the public.

Already, the pre-election process has been riddled with scandal and problems.

These contests were, in fact, supposed to be held in May. But they were postponed by parliament, ostensibly for budget reasons, with the acquiescence even of opposition political factions. The Party of Regions-dominated parliament then ramrodded passage of a new, undemocratic election law that curtailed eligible opposition in the contests.

The Yanukovych-led party backed down to intense criticism and adopted another version of the election law seen as more democratic, but still riddled with problems.

Olga Aivazovska, head of OPORA, one of the largest groups of election monitors, also said the Oct. 31 local elections represent “a big step backwards” for Ukrainian democracy.

“The polls are being conducted according to a flawed law adopted by a pro-presidential parliamentary majority with the aim of consolidating political power. The organization of the campaign, compared to previous local elections, has been poor and is likely to get worse after ballots are cast on Oct. 31,” Aivazovska said on Oct. 26, after meeting with Yanukovych in Kyiv along with other election observers.

Even if the elections are clean, confusion still could prevail because of the new law. Among the changes is a shift away from a pure, first-past-the-post plurality system to a mixed system that includes election of officials from political party lists.

During the election campaign, numerous allegations of dirty campaign tactics, heavy-handed government political interference and the mysterious printing of “extra” ballots have surfaced. The allegations are only likely to intensify in the final weekend of the campaign and after the Oct. 31 vote.

“There have been a number of scandals during the campaign, including the decision not to register certain candidates to run in some races, despite court orders to the contrary,” Chernenko of Committee of Voters of Ukraine said.

Large numbers of extra ballots are reported to have been printed in at least two oblasts, Kharkiv and Ivano Frankivsk, raising fears of ballot stuffing. In the Kharkiv case, officials fueled suspicions by offering contradictory explanations. The Interior Ministry said the disputed 13,000 ballots were printed to test the quality of the print run and would be destroyed, while a prosecutor in Kharkiv said the supply was part of a ballot reserve. In Ivano-Frankivsk, the number of false or suspicious ballots numbered 200,000, authorities said.

“The lack of transparency has been the biggest problem with this campaign,” according to Viktoriya Shevchuk, who coordinates eight election monitors for the Opora election in Kharkiv Oblast, noting the reluctance of territorial election officials to say which firm they hired to print ballots.

Opposition leader and ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, defeated by Yanukovych in the presidential race on Feb. 7, said that her forces will not recognize the results in Kyiv, Lviv or Ternopil oblasts because her party members have been unfairly shut out of those contests.

Tymoshenko also hastened to remind voters of Yanukovych’s history of disdain for democratic elections, including the 2004 presidential election rigged for Yanukovych but overturned by the street protests of the democratic Orange Revolution.

“Throughout his long political career, which began with his appointment as governor of Donetsk in 1997, he hasn’t run a single honest campaign and has consistently rigged all the elections in his life – the 2004 presidential elections, the local elections, the 2010 presidential elections, and he’s finishing with these 2010 local elections,” Tymoshenko said. “I believe that Viktor Yanukovych is politically and criminally responsible for plans under way to falsify the elections. He commissioned the fraud and is the main controller of how these elections are run – properly or improperly.”

Representatives from other nations say they are watching.

“We are paying very close attention to the situation around the local elections in Ukraine,” U.S. Ambassador John F. Tefft told journalists on Oct. 26. Tefft said U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden called President Viktor Yanukovych on Oct. 14. “During the conversation both leaders underlined the importance of freedom of choice for each Ukrainian and the necessity of holding a clean election campaign,” Tefft said.

However, Yanukovych said neither he nor his administration would be an impediment to an honest vote.

During his meeting with election monitoring groups in Kyiv on Oct. 26, Yanukovych suggested the political opposition may be to blame if anything goes wrong. “The only thing that worries me with these elections are provocations … There won’t be any problems if there are no squads of specially trained provocateurs. I am sure there will be no biased conclusions made by international election observers,” the president said.

Days earlier, the president called government interference by public officials unacceptable.“It is in fact violation of the electoral legislation,” Yanukovych said on Oct. 22. “Whatever the law, it must be observed.This applies to all the participants of the electoral process.”

According to Ukraine’s Central Election Commission, 490 foreign observers will monitor this election along with 1,913 domestic ones.

This is the assessment of Chernenko of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine on different aspects of the pre-election campaign and voting process:

Voter registration/Voter lists: “There could be problems on Oct. 31, partly because voter lists on Election Day can only be changed by means of a court decision.”

Organization: “There have been problems because of changes to the election law, the short campaign and the numerous ballots which need to be printed."

Biased election commissions: “Before the election law was adopted, we warned that the proportional system for forming territorial election commissions would result in pro-presidential parties having more commissioners than opposition parties. Territorial election commissions, biased in favor of pro-presidential candidates, in turn, created biased municipal and village election commissions.”

Government pressure: “Authorities from the executive branch have meddled in the election process more in some regions than in others, but we have not seen any concerted effort nationwide to influence voters en masse. If we talk about mayoral candidates, many of them are from Party of the Regions, but there are plenty of candidates from other parties. So we see competition.”

Buying votes: “There are always attempts to win votes by providing food or buying votes, and this election is no exception. The prices for votes vary, depending on the region and race, ranging from Hr 50-150. ”

Turnout: “I expect 60 percent.”

Falsification: “I don’t know what the level of falsification will be until after Election Day. These are local elections, and will vary from locality to locality. There will certainly be attempts to falsify some of the races.”

Expected winners: “In the eastern and southern regions, the Party of Regions will hold their own or maybe lose some ground. The party will probably improve its position in western regions of the country. The most competitive and contentious races will take place in Ukraine’s central regions, including Kyiv region, where the Party of Regions will probably take the majority of seats in some city councils. As for political competition on the local level, these elections will be a small step backwards, but not a permanent setback.”

Exit polls: “Political parties themselves will conduct their own exit polls. Some will be accurate, others will not be. Exit polls will probably be conducted in the most contested races.”

Polls close at 10 p.m.: “According to the new law, polling stations will be open until 10 p.m. It will probably take most commissions until Nov. 1 to count the ballots. Results may not be known or posted until Nov. 4-5."

Post-election appeals: “The country’s administrative court system will have their hands full sorting out election campaign complaints. The lower the court, the more biased the verdict. Appealing lower court decisions to regional administrative courts remains a bureaucratic and time-consuming process.”

Races to watch: “Kyiv Oblast is one of them for a number of reasons: Lots of money; closer to the capital, where many politicians live; many politicians are running for office in the Kyiv Oblast and Kyiv city council; the number of candidates is greater in Kyiv region than in other Ukrainian regions. The defection of previous leaders of the Kyiv [and Lviv] branches of Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna Party prevented scores of loyal members from running for seats on the oblast and local councils.”

What powers do local elected officials have in Ukraine?

Deputies elected to oblast councils decide issues in their regions, including how to spend state budget money on construction of new schools, roads, health and cultural programs, etc. They also decide who gets what building permits in their regions and have tremendous powers over the leasing and sale of land.

Deputies elected to town and village councils are in charge of administering utilities and other communal services, such as the ZHEK agency and setting fees. They also provide street lights and public transportation. Depending on the village, municipality and oblast, assets belonging to the locality can be considerable. Especially valuable are land resources in cities and towns close to Kyiv and oblast capital cities.

Elected mayors exercise considerable control over city property and development. Elected for four-year terms, their authority extends to setting the agenda for local councils. Mayors are in charge of managing communal property and providing social services. They are prohibited from engaging in commercial activities.

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