Findings and conclusions: Parliamentary elections in Ukraine
During the European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE)’s round table discussion on the conduct and the findings of the Parliamentary elections in Ukraine, many participants spoke of these elections being a watershed moment in Ukrainian history. This was an election of ‘firsts’ since this was the first summer election to be held in Ukraine and the “Servant of the People” party is the first party to have achieved such a landslide victory in independent Ukraine. This is seen as a transformative moment, where the structure of political parties and the political system in Ukraine is undergoing a process of reconfiguration.
Aspects of the conduct of the election also represented a ‘first’, in that malpractices present in previous elections were once again observed in these elections, however the result indicates that voters did not in fact let themselves be persuaded by the usual schemes employed by candidates to attract voters and decidedly voted for a drastic change of politics in the country.
The most common issues during these elections related to campaign financing and the biased media networks that promoted election campaigns of certain candidates. These malpractices occurred more frequently in the majoritarian districts, which was observed by nearly all observer organizations. The former issue remains to be problematic, as the legislation regulating campaign financing is full of loopholes which allows for shadow financing of candidates and vote buying schemes; the latter issue of the concentrated ownership of the media is a long existing problem in Ukraine, which again manifested itself in these elections in the very biased coverage of the election process with many instances of hidden political advertising.
The discussion regarding the media environment also caused many speakers to address the issue of lacking voter education in these elections, since there were not many open public debates in which voters could familiarize themselves with political programs of candidates. This is due to the fact that public media outlets are severely underfunded by 70%, as stated by one speaker, and therefore cannot compete with the private media. This affects voters’ access to information in public media and influences the content voters see in the media, which in the more wide-reaching private media is heavily biased. Therefore, “the voter’s choice was made not as a conscious citizen,” stated one participant. The very short election campaign further aggravated this situation, as voters were not given sufficient time to inform themselves through useful tools such as the Committee of Voters of Ukraine (CVU)’s vote-match app which has 118 000 user so far, allowing voters to compare their opinions with the positions of political parties that ran in the Parliamentary elections. It is hoped that in future this app will be able to reach significantly more voters ahead of elections.
Speakers also stated that the mode of violations during the past elections (during the Presidential and the Parliamentary elections) have changed in that vote buying schemes have become more complex, such as through the widespread hosting of events for voters to attract their vote or the handing out of presents without monetary value, which in turn have become more difficult to investigate. Vote buying was also more present ahead of E-day rather than on the day of the election itself.
The importance of social media as a means to win votes also became very apparent during these elections, as one candidate managed to win significant number of votes by predominantly running an online campaign. Many participants indicated that future observations must pay particular attention to online election campaigns, as these appear to have a great influence on voters.
The appearance of clone candidates was also observed in several regions in Ukraine, where candidates either ran using the branding of another party, mostly the “Servant of the People” party, to take advantage of their wave of popularity or candidates were registered with similar names to other candidates to try and confuse voters and split their vote.
Singular cases of unlawful political agitation were also recorded where the branding of a particular party was worn by election commission members, which could be seen as an attempt to campaign for a specific party on E-day, or party activists handed out material outside of polling stations that could be considered campaign material. Illegal methods such as transporting of citizens to polling stations, the use of indirect voter bribes, and attempts to take ballots outside the polling stations were also observed. These were however also of a singular nature.
Observers also identified several instances in which the Day of Silence was not respected throughout Ukraine, which caused some speakers to question whether it is still appropriate to have such a day, since this is permanently broken in the online sphere where election campaigning continues on this day. One participant explained that it is useful to have such a day in which voters are not inundated with political advertising and are able to reflect upon their choices before E-day and that there therefore should be stronger penalization of this violation.
A further significant issue highlighted by some participants was the presence of Russian hybrid aggression against Ukraine during these elections and that the Russian occupation of Crimea and Russian control in the Donbass have hindered the election of parliamentarians from these regions into the Verkhovna Rada.
The various violations that did occur, however, were not of a systemic nature and in general observation organizations found that “fundamental rights and freedoms were overall respected and the campaign was competitive”, as summarized by one speaker. One speaker praised the conduct of the election day to have “run smoothly, professionally, and that it was female orientated” while the last describes the large number of female election commission members. Special compliments were also given to the Central Election Commission (CEC) for holding a “competent and technically very efficient election” and to law enforcement authorities for responding to violations and ensuring a safe E-day.
The CEC did report that it had problems in its cooperation with courts and security services, as they received unclear information from them or decisions made by these institutions went against the recommendations of the CEC, for example regarding the registration of certain candidates which the CEC deemed to not have met the necessary requirements to run in these elections. On E-day there were claims that the CEC failed to respond to cases of violations, which one speaker explained were in reality beyond the scope of competencies or the capacities of the CEC to investigate. Local newspapers also complained about the CEC’s actions of not publishing changes made regarding members in the election commission, which would have been too costly for the CEC to do according to one participant.
Further positive trends were seen in relation to the secrecy of the vote, which was an issue in the first round of the Presidential elections as there were several instances of voters and election commission members publicly showing filled-in ballots. The number of these instances dropped drastically, from 4.8% of polling stations in the first round of the Presidential elections to 0.8% during the Parliamentary elections. This is thanks to awareness raising campaigns following the first round of the Presidential elections.
Speakers also spoke of a positive development in the public’s opinion regarding the fairness of the elections, which has, according to opinion polls, improved by 42%, from 46% to 88% between December 2018 and May 2019.
Regarding the draft law for a new electoral code, observers claimed that it is still unclear whether the President of Ukraine will sign the code. Many issues were identified within this draft law, but some speakers stated that it is important for the law to proceed to the next step and be discussed in parliament to not further delay this process, as the draft law, as it stands now, stipulates for the new electoral code to only come into effect in 2028 if there are no early elections. The most important issues that must be addressed in the draft law are:
- Limits for political campaign financing
- A truly proportional electoral system with open party lists
- Simplified procedures for Ukrainian citizens voting abroad
- Maximum transparency of election funds, with special attention being paid to online expenditures
Further recommendations by speakers regarding the election process were:
- Follow the development of other incremental reforms, not just the new electoral code
- Have more public debates to create a more informed citizenry
- Automated procedures in the CEC to reduce its complicated bureaucracy and to avoid human errors being made, for example in the collection and submission of PEC protocols
- The need for effective penalization of vote buying schemes and procedures for its implementation
- Continued strong civil society engagement in the electoral reform process to boost the quality of elections and improve voter education
Some participants also emphasized that the implementation of these recommendations remains to be a very urgent and current issue as it is expected that the local elections could also be brought forward due to political reasons.