Friday, September 14, 2012

Observations about Ukraine's Upcoming Elections, Part 1

With just over six weeks remaining until Ukraine's October 28 parliamentary elections, the key issues around which politicians and parties are mobilizing voters have become clearer, as has the playing field. I will be composing a formal Election Note for The Monkey Cage and Electoral Studies, but following are some observations about the key issues in this election cycle that I will fold into the final version.

1) Prosecution of leading opposition figures. Prominent politicians, most notably former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko and former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, remain imprisoned for alleged abuses of power while in office. The united opposition's attempt to nominate both individuals as top candidates on the party list was denied. The pro-government European Center for a Modern Ukraine issued an interpretation of the ruling, noting that Tymoshenko and Lutsenko could not be given ballot access because they could not serve in parliament. Despite their absence from the ballot, Tymoshenko, Lutsenko, and other imprisoned opposition figures remain important players in the campaign, with Tymoshenko's status regularly featured in the press.

2) Party mergers. Some parties have undergone rebranding due to new election rules and changes in political conditions, and several parties have merged for the election. The pro-regime Party of Regions incorporated the Strong Ukraine party, led by former presidential contender and member of government Serhiy Tihipko. The Bloc of Yuliya Tymoshenko, which emerged from the 2007 election as the leading opposition party challenging the party-of-power, reclaimed its party name: Batkyvshchyna (Fatherland) and merged with the Front of Change (led by former Rada speaker Arseniy Yatseniuk). The party has composed a joint list and has coordinated constituency nominations in the districts. The united opposition also incorporated small parties into its campaign, including Reforms and Order, People’s Self-Defense, For Ukraine, and People’s Movement. Other prominent organizations, such as boxer Vitaliy Klitschko’s UDAR and Oleh Tyahnibok’s right-wing Svoboda Party are contesting separately on party lists, but Svoboda agreed to coordinate SMD nominations with the united opposition. Twenty-two parties are contesting the party list ballot, with the Party of Regions, Batkyvshchyna, UDAR, and Communist Party as the leading contenders to pass the 5% threshold according to late August polls. The failure of the opposition to fully consolidate could be problematic, especially if coordination failures undermine constituency candidates.

3) Language Law. Amid controversy about procedural compliance with legislative rules, the Rada passed a new language law allowing local governments to elevate the status of the Russian language. Predictably, some local governments have moved forward (e.g., Donetsk, Luhansk), and others have resisted (e.g., L'viv). Language has been a hot-button topic, closely associated with general issues of identity that include the interpretation of Ukraine's history and perceptions about how Ukraine should interact with Western institutions like the EU and NATO. Presumably, Party of Regions strategists expected this law to mobilize voters in the party's traditional areas of strength. However, this approach could backfire as the language law could also serve as a mobilization tool for proponents of traditional Ukrainian identity who are threatened by the potential for this rule to undermine the status of Ukrainian.

4) Pressure on independent media. Opponents have accused President Yanukovych's administration of targeting critics and the tax evasion case of TVi, an independent television channel, is noted as an example. TVi failed to successfully defend itself in a court case, although it claimed to have made a legal deal with tax authorities to address arrears. During the 2004 Orange Revolution, independent media - especially Channel 5 - played a key role in providing the public with a view that differed from the regime's position. Channel 5 and TVi experienced pressure from the authorities soon after President Yanukovych took office in 2010. The most recent case against TVi is perceived as an effort to quell anti-regime publicity in an environment where most national channels broadcast favorable coverage.

5) Election Administration. The re-adoption of a mixed electoral system largely consistent with the rules used in 1998 and 2002 was initially supported by deputies across Ukraine's political divides. However, subsequent court rulings and administrative decisions have provoked "buyer's remorse" among many opposition members. The elimination of dual candidacy - consistent with an earlier court ruling removing them from the 2002 elections - along with rulings about out-of country voting, the delineation of constituencies, and most recently the method of selecting local commission members, has heightened concerns about the potential impact of administrative decisions on the conduct of the vote and potentially its outcome. Like its neighbor Russia, Ukraine is also installing webcams to broadcast polling station procedures during election day. The images will be scrutinized by the media and observers, but footage of the vote count will not be streamed live.

6) Manipulation and Fraud. Ukrainian citizens are skeptical of the upcoming elections, if results from an August poll by DW-Trend adequately represent public views. In the poll, 73% of respondents expressed skepticism that elections would be free and fair. Citizen organizations are actively monitoring the campaign and reporting alleged violations from vote buying and use of administrative resources to violence. Maidan Monitoring has an especially detailed site, including ongoing reports from the field. The long-standing Committee of Voters has also been active in monitoring and commenting on the election campaign. Accusations of fraud will increase in intensity and scope as the election approaches. In addition to alleged vote theft, regime opponents have identified pressure on the media (see above) and disproportionate coverage of the Party of Regions as additional evidence of regime efforts to undermine a level playing field.

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