Ukraine Elections: A Path to Legitimacy?
By Inna Pidluska & Viorel Ursu
The Ukrainian presidential elections being held on May 25 come at a critical moment in the country’s history. If the international community and the Ukrainian people can acknowledge that the country has held a free and fair election, Ukraine will have taken an important step toward reinforcing government legitimacy in the country. Despite a number of significant obstacles to realizing this goal, we are confident that it can be achieved.
Ukraine has been without an elected president since Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia at the end of February and was replaced by an acting president appointed by parliament. The events of the Maidan that began in November 2013 and Yanukovych’s withdrawal from presidential duties outpaced the terms of the Constitution. The next presidential election would normally have been held at the beginning of 2015, but these were anything but normal circumstances, and parliament called the election we are awaiting today. If no candidate achieves an absolute majority on May 25, a run-off will be held between the top two finishers on June 15.
This is an extraordinary election in many ways. In some sections of the country voting will either be impossible or very difficult. There will be no election in the occupied territory of the Crimea. Two days before the poll, the Central Election Committee of Ukraine reported that 18 of the 34 election commissions in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine have been captured by separatists. Computers and voting records and been removed and these election commissions are effectively closed.
Where polls are open here, there is a high likelihood of violence as separatists attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the election and wrest the headlines away from the successful functioning of the democratic process. In view of the Russian authorities, the path to legitimacy for the Ukrainian government lies in talking to the separatists and not in an election. They are likely to point to violence at any election site, whatever the cause, as evidence.
Despite separatist interference, a high turnout is expected. In a national opinion poll held between May 14 and 18 that excluded the Crimea, 79 percent of Ukrainians said they will either definitely or probably vote. A high turnout will confer tremendous credibility to the result demonstrating that the people believe in the democratic process. Many civil society groups are working to mobilize the vote, especially amongst young voters.
The police will be used to protect voters in the east of the country, and there are plans to transport voters to safer polling places by bus. Before the election, voters could register in a precinct other than where they lived, and not just for safety reasons, but according to OSCE/ODHIR (the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) only 15,510 had done so through May 14. A few days before the poll, it was reckoned that 93 percent of the country’s polling stations will be open on election day.
It is essential that the election be perceived to be free and fair both at home an abroad. To that end, an unprecedented number of international monitors will be on station for the election. The country’s electoral commission has registered 2800 international observers; OSCE/ODHIR is sending 1000—900 short-term and 100 long-term monitors. The Committee of Voters of Ukraine is also monitoring the election, and its assessment will go a long way toward legitimizing the poll within Ukraine itself, especially as a poll shows that 32 percent of Ukrainians believe the results may be distorted and 11 percent definitely falsified.
The campaign has also been closely monitored. Even if it has lacked a substantive debate on the economy, there has been open access to the media. The national TV channel televised debates for the three of the candidates at a time (there are 21 candidates in all) which were widely viewed. Media monitors have noted some bias on the country’s commercial stations which stand as the main sources of information for 70 percent of the population, but that judgment applies to more than just the election.
The stakes for Ukraine on May 25 are extremely high. The Maidan asked for a change in governance of the country and the election of a new president will be the first step. Early parliamentary elections might further cement the government’s legitimacy.
After Yanukovych left the country, parliament voted to change the constitution to reduce the power of the presidency. Essentially, they were returning to the 2004 model. Parliament now forms the government, with the exception of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Defense. The election of a new President will not necessitate the formation of a new government, and governmental stability might be beneficial at such a challenging time.
Parliament and the electoral commission is currently working on a fresh revision of the constitution that is expected to further strengthen the power of parliament. The president still has a vital role to play, and will be able to be a broker between political factions and help in the reconciliation between Eastern and Western regions of the country.
Even though a parliamentary election is not scheduled until 2016, an earlier election would be expedient. Already the ruling coalition is having difficulty passing legislation. About a quarter of members do not take their seats. More importantly, a new parliament was part of the Maidan’s demands. When it could have acted decisively between November 2013 and early February 2014, parliament failed to do so and operated with approval ratings in the single digits. The conditions under which this parliament was elected in 2012 no longer obtain—these are different times that need a different elected body.
The charge is leveled that none of the three frontrunners for president is a new face. All three, the current favorite Petro Poroshenko, plus Yulia Tymoshenko and Serhiy Tihipko, are all veterans of government and are all oligarchs. This was, however, a snap election that gave little time for new candidates to emerge. Once elected, the president will have to prove to the Maidan and the people at large that he or she will live up to their expectations. Ukraine demands a government that is transparent, accountable and free of the corruption that has bedeviled its predecessors. The new president will bear the full weight of these expectations and must respond, not just with words but with actions.
The election must also be seen to pass the same level of scrutiny because it stands as the first building block in restoring Ukraine’s political legitimacy. Our hope is for a peaceful election in which citizens who want to vote are able to vote. Our fear is that this will be compromised.
A high turnout across the country is crucial. We also hope that observers can report a free and fair election and that we achieve the broad international recognition that is essential for our future. We also hope for a decisive vote on Sunday because the earlier we have a legitimate president, the better it is for the country. Every additional day of political ambiguity is a risk that Ukraine cannot afford to bear.
Inna Pidluska is deputy executive director of the International Renaissance Foundation.
Viorel Ursu is director of advocacy and grant making for the Open Society Eurasia Program.