Friday, February 21, 2014

Early Thoughts on Possible Snap Elections in Ukraine #EuroMaidan

Today's tentative deal between the opposition and regime paves the way for early presidential elections. While it is unclear if the citizens protesting in the streets will accept an arrangement that leaves President Yanukovych in office, it is worth noting critical issues that the opposition and ruling party will face if elections move forward.

Election Legislation. The negotiations have focused on the constitution, with the promise of returning to the settlement from 2004 that reduced the powers of the presidency (the provisions took effect in 2006). However, election legislation, especially rules for election administration, may be problematic. The 2012 parliamentary election introduced a modification to the system for populating electoral commissions, permitting "technical" parties to capture seats on the commissions (my colleagues at CIFRA Group have conducted excellent work on this issue: While "technical" parties vary in terms of their activities and effects, they are essentially registered groups that are not legitimate contenders for seats. Rather, they support major parties by peeling off votes from their competitors or influencing election administration decisions.* In 2010's presidential election, the second round populated the commissions with representatives of the two remaining competitors rather than permitting technical candidate representatives to remain on the commissions. Ensuring that technical candidates do not improperly influence administration, and crafting legislation to enhance transparency, will be an important step to reduce the likelihood of improper influences on election management.

Election Observation. As Fredrik Sjoberg and I point out in a recent working paper, the tactics of fraud have varied in Ukraine. Traditional election observation efforts conducted by international and domestic organizations focus on "vote manipulation," especially perpetrated in the polling stations. However, "voter manipulation," perpetrated outside the polling stations, is a major concern. Traditional methods of observation may not capture these activities. Crowdsourcing efforts, like those conducted by Maidan Monitoring and ElectUA in the 2012 parliamentary election, may be better suited to identifying activities like vote buying and intimidation. More active incorporation of these efforts by monitoring organizations will be an important check on the integrity of the process.

The Contenders. Both opposition and regime supporters will face challenging calculations when considering who should run for the presidency. Ukraine's majority-runoff system favors the proliferation of candidates in the first round. This feature is especially problematic for the opposition. The opposition appears unified now, as it did in 2004. But, this unity is propelled by their common disdain for President Yanukovych. Immediately following President Yushchenko's victory in 2004, the coalition of "Orange" forces showed signs of dissent, enhanced by the dismissal of Yuliya Tymoshenko as prime minister and the defection of the Socialist Party to the Party of Regions/Communist coalition. Not only do the personal aspirations of opposition leaders vary, but their policy objectives differ. Most notably, the Svoboda Party has strong rhetorical and policy aspirations to build a Ukraine for Ukrainians, defined in a manner that may not appeal to a majority of the population. If the leaders of the opposition do not keep their promise of running a consensus candidate, these differences could become enhanced and undermine their effectiveness.

The Party of Regions also faces nomination challenges. Presumably, Viktor Yanukovych will contest (under the conditions we see today). He may face challenges from others, such as Serhiy Tihipko, who are more moderate and palatable representatives of Eastern/Southern interests. In 2010, Tihipko demonstrated wider regional appeal in the first round and he could potentially emerge as a favored contender.

In short, the two-round system could enhance divisions in the opposition and ruling parties.** The first round would be a furious contest to survive into the second round that could damage longer-term cooperation. The matchup in the second round could also tip the election in unexpected ways.

Many other issues are likely to intervene between now and the possible election in late 2014 that will affect who contends and how the process is conducted. If the negotiated settlement is sufficient to calm the streets in the short term, it is almost certain that other complications and conflict will emerge over the coming weeks and months.

*I witnessed the effects of "technical" candidates first hand in the 2004 presidential election. During the overnight vote count in my polling station in Kherson, the commission had to make decisions about the validity of ballots with extra marks. By law, voters were supposed to mark the box next to their preferred candidate. However, some voters both marked the box and crossed off the name of the competitor (likely prompted by earlier Ukrainian election rules that used negative balloting where citizens voted by crossing off candidates they did not support). The commission considered around 30 of these ballots. When the ballot favored Viktor Yanukovych, the commission voted to label it valid. When the ballot favored Viktor Yushchenko, the commission voted to label it invalid. The votes of non-competitive candidates from the first round swayed the commission.

**This assessment assumes that Yuliya Tymoshenko is not released from prison. If she is freed, she will have a tremendous impact on the landscape.

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