Thursday, January 16, 2014

Counterpunch to Ukraine's #EuroMaidan

Ukraine's party-of-power, along with the Communist Party, delivered a counterpunch to the political opposition by adopting several provisions in the January 16 plenary session of the Verkhovna Rada via a show of hands. Some newly passed rules include the prohibition of auto convoys greater than five cars in size (designed to undermine the AutoMaidan effort), requirements for organizations receiving non-Ukrainian financial support to be registered as "foreign agents,"* limits to parliamentary deputy immunity, and modifications to punishments for various activities that could be applied to EuroMaidan protesters and their supporters.

Many (especially on Twitter and in the blogosphere) have raised questions about the validity of these votes both in terms of formal procedures and also general practices in democratic societies. As a caveat, I am not a legal professional, and the interpretation of laws and procedures is generally undertaken in the judicial branch. But, I have studied Ukraine's parliament as a political scientist, and have familiarized myself with aspects of legislative procedures in the past.

Article 37 of the Regulations of the Verkhovna Rada describes two methods of voting.** The primary form of casting a vote on matters being considered by the Rada is via the electronic voting system. The Reglament notes:

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2. Відкрите голосування здійснюється:
1) кожним народним депутатом особисто за допомогою електронної системи в такий спосіб, що унеможливлює голосування замість народного депутата іншою особою [Each People's Deputy personally uses the electronic system so that voting in place of another People's Deputy is not possible]. Результати голосування фіксуються поіменно, в тому числі з можливим роздрукуванням результатів голосування кожного народного депутата. На вимогу народних депутатів результати голосування можуть висвітлюватися на інформаційному табло електронної системи в залі засідань по депутатських фракціях (депутатських групах);

2) шляхом підняття руки (у разі відсутності технічної можливості голосування за допомогою електронної системи).
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However, point 2 also notes that "in the case that voting by the electronic system is not technically possible" voting by show of hands is permissible. What is meant by "technically possible"? It would seem that this circumstance refers to conditions in which the electronic system does not function properly. The transcript of the plenary session below indicates that the reason that the Rada voted by show of hands today, rather than by the electronic system, was that physical impediments did not permit access to the electronic voting system.

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11:17:05
За-225
Рішення не прийнято.
Шановні народні депутати! Я бачу, що зараз перешкоджають голосуванню шляхом і за допомогою електронної системи, тому вношу пропозицію про повернення до голосування. [I see that voting through the electronic system is impeded, so I propose that we return to vote] Якщо ця пропозиція не пройде, тоді будемо приймати рішення відповідно до статті 37 Регламенту Верховної Ради і голосування будемо проводити за допомогою підняття рук [If the proposal does not pass through, in accordance with Article 37 of the Reglament of the Verkhovna Rada, we will move to a vote by the show of hands]. Вношу пропозицію про повернення до голосування. Прошу народних депутатів голосувати.
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A minute later, the speaker notes that bills cannot be considered in "a normal manner" (see text below). Further, because the dais is blocked and members are prevented from using the electronic voting system, votes will proceed with a show of hands.

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11:18:03
За-224

ГОЛОВУЮЧИЙ. Позабирали карточки в народних депутатів.
Шановні народні депутати! Оскільки ми не маємо можливості розглядати зазначені законопроекти в нормальному режимі, депутати перешкоджають розгляду питання, блокують трибуну, перешкоджають роботі головуючого на  пленарному засіданні, а також голосуванню інших народних депутатів за допомогою електронної система "Рада", що є грубими порушенням вимог частини четвертої статті 47 та статей 51, 52, 53 Закону України "Про Регламент Верховної Ради України", ми будемо приймати рішення щодо цих законопроектів без обговорення. Хочу  зауважити, що всі ці законопроекти, які ми зараз будемо включати до  порядку денного сьогоднішнього засідання, розглянуті комітетами Верховної Ради у відповідності з вимогами статті 93 Регламенту Верховної Ради України. Прошу голову Лічильної комісії підготуватися до обрахунку голосів народних депутатів при голосування за допомогою  підняття рук.
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The "technical reasons" noted in Article 37 were interpreted to encompass physical access to the electronic voting system. Two critical questions emerge from the procedural decisions on the floor:

1) Is this a proper and legal interpretation of the regulations?
2) Is this the process by which democratic legislatures should make decisions?

The dais has been blocked before, and I am unaware of any effort to invoke protests in the hall as a technical impediment to electronic voting, requiring a show of hands to register votes. In other words, this would be a new interpretation of the regulations. If the courts were impartial, one could look toward the judicial branch for adjudication.

Absent a formal, legal interpretation, we can think about the ways in which democratic parliaments resolve disputes. Physically blocking the dais and access to the voting system is not a tactic taken in the spirit of compromise. But, the opposition would argue that it is the last line of defense against the "tyranny of the majority," especially a tyranny that they would argue is transforming Ukraine into an authoritarian society. While Americans often complain about the problems of filibuster and minority protections in Congress (especially the Senate) stifling action, Ukraine's parliament might benefit from these kinds of provisions. Instead, bare majorities are crafting laws with significant and negative implications for democracy and the rule of law. [As a side note, the quick publication of the roll call voting results without the use of the electronic voting system is suspicious - how did the Rada record individual member's votes?]

The procedural issues also raise a third question:
3) Are the provisions themselves consistent with a democratic system?

The decisions are designed to give the authorities leverage to shut down opposition protests and parties, and also target non-partisan organizations dedicated to rule of law. Party of Regions advocates note - rightly - that Viktor Yanukovych's 2010 election victory was democratic. Indeed, it was a rare case when observer organizations from the CIS, Europe, and the United States agreed that the process was credible, free, and fair. However, the victory did not absolve his administration of accountability for its actions and choices, nor did it give him a mandate to stifle the democratic processes that helped elevate him to the presidency. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens mobilized to express their dissatisfaction with the decision to not sign the EU Association Agreement, and their elected deputies are representing that view in the Rada.

President Yanukovych has the option of veto, which the OSCE recommends. [UPDATE: Just as I posted this entry, Ukrainska Pravda reported that President Yanukovych signed the bills passed today into law. SECOND UPDATE: Apparently, the bills are not yet signed. THIRD UPDATE: Now (1/17/14) they have been signed.] Criminalizing peaceful protest and free expression using questionable procedures would further escalate the regime's actions undermining the crumbling foundations of Ukraine's nascent democracy.


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* If enacted, it will be interesting to see how Russian support is addressed, since it too would render an organization a "foreign agent."

** Point 5 in the same article provides an ambiguous way out, noting that the Rada may adopt different procedures if "the type and method of voting is not set by law and the Reglament." 5. Верховна Рада може прийняти процедурне рішення щодо визначення виду і способу голосування з питання, що розглядається, якщо вид і спосіб голосування не встановлені законом і цим Регламентом.

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