Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Action in District 211

Yesterday, I visited the District Electoral Commission managing the compilation of votes for Constituency 211 in Ukraine's parliamentary election. The race has been tense and tight. At this moment, with 81% of the protocols completed, the Batkivshchyna candidate (Ter'okhin) leads the Party of Regions candidate (Lysov) by just over 1,800 votes. Because it is Wednesday, and the elections were held on Sunday, it would be reasonable to ask why the results are not yet finalized. My visit to the district provided me with valuable insight on this question.

When I arrived in the district around 1 pm, all was quiet. Observers are allowed to attend the meetings of the commission held in a small auditorium, so I sat in a front-row seat. I introduced myself to a polling station director who was awaiting the processing of his materials. Before polling station officers complete their work, it must be accepted by the District Electoral Commission. During our conversation, he had a visit from a frustrated colleague: the DEC* was rejecting their documents because the parties were not placed in the proper order on the protocols. He was especially annoyed because the DEC had been reviewing the materials for some time - why did it take them so long for this decision?

After he left to reconvene his polling station commission and re-write the documents (all protocols are hand-written), I struck up a conversation with a representative of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine. CVU is a well-established domestic NGO that monitors elections. He had been stationed at the DEC and told me that the initial processing was quite slow. The first polling station to turn in documents was a small hospital, and the DEC took several hours on its materials alone. When I asked him about other observations, he noted that he had received reports of vote buying in the outlying regions of Kyiv, but had no concrete evidence.

Mid-late afternoon, the action picked up. The DEC decided to re-convene its meeting to address several issues, including the disposition of materials from PEC 800029. The members of that commission were agitated, and I came upon a conversation they were having with other observers in the hallway before the meeting. They claimed that the DEC was attempting to alter their final results.

When the meeting began, a member of the DEC (I believe it was the deputy director) began to read a resolution that would call for recounts in around 29 polling stations. At this point, the meeting descended into chaos and protests. During the chaos, the PEC director climbed onto the stage, knocked off the top of the box containing her station's materials.

She and her colleagues loudly proclaimed that the DEC had illegally opened the boxes and were tampering with the contents. She eventually occupied a spot on the commission table and would later declare that she was going to begin a hunger strike.

As more chaos ensued, the militia arrived to clear the stage.

Eventually, the hall began chanting for the original protocols to be certified.

Apparently, one of the members of the DEC suffered a heart attack on the previous day and he returned from the hospital to participate in the voting. In addition, a member of parliament and the media arrived on the scene to participate or chronicle the goings-on. The candidate who is at the center of the controversy - Ter'okhin - also arrived, interacted with observers and the press, but was careful not to directly engage in the debate (as he indicated that it would be improper for him to personally interfere).

The DEC took a vote to rescind the decision to recount PEC 800029's results, but the vote to rescind failed. When I left the DEC around 7:30 pm, the PEC and DEC were locked in a standoff, with neither side willing to yield. Formally, the DEC voted to recount and the PEC, as well as others, were lodging complaints. As of this moment, the protocols for PEC 800029, and many others in DEC 211, are not yet uploaded to the CEC website.

What I witnessed was not theater, but a clash over the meaning of free and fair elections.

*I have used TEC and DEC in tweets and posts interchangeably. Territorial Electoral Commission is often used as a generic term for mid-level commissions. But, in Ukraine, the better acronym is DEC since the commissions are labeled District Electoral Commissions. Apologies for any confusion.

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