On October 29, 2020, EPDE hosted a post-election expert Round Table to discuss the outcomes of the local elections held on October 25 in Ukraine. Representatives of domestic and international election observation missions together with international election experts summarized main findings and discussed take-aways of these elections for the second round of local elections to be held in November 2020, as well as for further electoral reform.
The consensus of domestic and international election observers is that the election was calm and mostly transparent and well-organized. It was noted that there is a lot at stake in these elections, since there are new powers and resources available at the local level following decentralization reforms. These new reforms, the adoption of a new Election Code, and the ongoing COVID19 situation made it particularly challenging for the election commissions to organize these elections. In light of this, experts and election observers commended the election commission for organizing a smooth election process.
Short-, mid-, and long-term issues and recommendations were discussed during the round table discussion.
Some election observers stated that measures to mitigate the COVID19 situation should have been taken much sooner to develop a universal approach for polling stations and commissions across Ukraine. An important issue before the election related to the funding and procurement of anti-COVID measures and equipment for voters and commissioners in polling stations to ensure that the election is conducted safely. This was not done centrally but left up to local authorities to manage. Regional election commissions were criticized by some experts for miscalculating funds needed to provide sufficient anti-COVID measures during the poll, e.g. in Kyiv there was twice as less money allocated for this purpose as in Zaporizhia and Mykolaiv while having double as many voters registered in the capital than in those regions.
Voter turnout was 10% lower this year compared to local elections in 2015, reported observers, which experts suggested could be related to voter insecurity over the COVID19 situation. According to the group Rating: 20% of those who did not vote in the election stated the main reason as health, 10% directly said it was because of the coronavirus epidemic.
The decision to not hold elections in 18 communities in Donetsk and Luhansk regions was also questioned by experts, who stated that the legal criteria used to justify this decision was too vague and required further legal justification.
According to some experts, the new design and format of the ballot may not encourage voters to fold it before placing it in the ballot box. Since the ballot boxes used in Ukraine are transparent, voting preferences on such unfolded ballots in the box may be visible to voters and thus influence their choice.
Training of commission members was noted as a recurring issue, as there is a high turnover of commission members. Due to the newly implemented Election Code, this was even more of an issue in these elections. Some experts highlighted the issue of strong politization of the TECs which became apparent in some of the decisions taken by TECs, who did not employ a unified approach in compliance with election law when registering candidates or party lists, for example.
Experts observed that 45% of candidates who ran in this election were women, which is a positive step in realizing gender quotas. However, experts also voiced a concern that these candidates have been and might still be pressured to drop out of the race.
Election observers reported that before the election day, they forecast that there would be a lot of confusion over how to fill in the ballot since there was little information made available to voters from the central or territorial election commissions (CEC and TECs). The extent of this and spoilt ballots was, in the end, not as massive as predicted. However, the issue of a lack of easily accessible information for voters by election commissions about the election, and candidates and their campaigns, remains. In this regard, the work of civil society in Ukraine, as well as international organizations, was highly commended by representatives of election management bodies, since they contributed greatly to developing new formats for voter education.
With the new election law political parties were made more powerful as these set the lists of candidates under the newly introduced proportional system. Some experts underlined that the development of the party structures in the regions and the increased number of regional parties often stand in conflict with the new administrative division of the country after the decentralization reform.
Still some of the existing political parties are more political projects than real member-based and regionally rooted organizations. There is therefore a certain dichotomy in the reform empowering political parties that do not yet have the proper structures and mechanisms to cope with this responsibility. Some experts recommended to enable self-nomination of independent candidates also for cities with more than 10.000 inhabitants as the current legislation foresees.
The legal framework was substantially revised, which included several provisions in line with international standards and norms, which was commended by international experts. However, a number of priority recommendations of ODIHR-OSCE are yet to be implemented.
An important lacking regulation was noted regarding campaign funding, especially for online activities of candidates, as online campaigning is completely unregulated and spending here is not reported in election fund declarations. During official campaigning, candidates spent 70 mio. Hryvna on Facebook alone.
The fact that the Election Code was revised so shortly before these elections was also criticized by observers and experts as contradicting international standards. More time is needed when amending the legislation to allow for public consultation.
International experts commended the implementation of simplified procedures for voters to change their electoral address as a substantial achievement of the recent electoral reform and even suggested that this should be rolled out for other registration procedures as well. Observers, however, also criticized this as there were instances of “electoral tourism” recorded where voters were bribed to vote in particular districts in support of particular candidates. Law enforcement has responded to some reported cases of manipulations and criminal proceedings have even already begun in some cases. Experts called for this system to not be abolished despite cases of abuse, and that further measures should be taken to ensure that the system cannot be easily hijacked.
Another issue reported by the election observers were conflicting provisions in the election versus criminal code which result from the parallel process of amendments to both codes. This is relevant especially in cases of voter bribing.
Interference in elections
Election observers commented that there were two notable instances of interference into the election process, one by the Hungarian Foreign Minister who campaigned openly for a particular pro-Hungarian candidate in Zakarpattia , which is prohibited by Ukrainian law; and cyber interference originating in the Russian Federation.