OPORA's analysis of public activities of political parties and potential candidates in August indicates a full-fledged launch of the pre-election campaign, which is unregulated by any electoral legal framework at this stage.
The public activity with elements of electoral campaigning was manifested by 70 political parties. At the same time, 41 political parties from the list were active within one oblast only, while 6 of them were active in two oblasts. Several regions in parallel (3 to 5 oblasts) have been covered by campaigns of 9 political parties, such as the Radical Party of Oleh Liashko, UDAR, Shariy Party, “Democratic Axe,” Ukrainian Galician Party, National Corps, Power of the People, People’s Movement of Ukraine, and the “Popular Control” Civic Movement. About 30% of Ukraine’s regions experienced four parties: AU “Svoboda,” “Holos,” “Nash Kray,” and the the “Syla i Chest.” As to the campaigning scale, the “Proposition” party and the “Opposition Platform – For Life” covered a large part of Ukraine. The full-fledged national campaign in most oblasts is run at this stage by five political parties: “Servant of the People,” “For the Future,” “European Solidarity,” the “Batkivshchyna” AU, and the “Palchevskyi Victory.”
A key form of early campaigning during this period was the political advertising on the outdoor media. Observers have recorded its massive placements in oblast capitals and in other big cities since May, 2020. Another popular format of the early campaigning was direct engagement of potential candidates with voters. It included events of the so called “pre-electoral charity.”
OPORA observers recorded a moderate frequency of cases with elements of either financial incentives for voters, or the “electoral charity.” The forms of de facto campaigning were more often used by potential self-nominated candidates rather than by representatives of political parties. Some potential candidates engaged charitable foundations into their advertisements. It was customary to have the charitable funds related to political leaders massively represented in Volyn oblast.Chair of the Board of the Civil Network OPORA Olga Aivazovska stated: "These elections are unique in many senses. First of all, they will be organized under the framework establishing a new electoral system, new procedures, and new restrictions for election organization, for campaigning rules, etc. Secondly, they are organized amidst the pandemic of COVID-19. Thus, they pose new challenges for election process organizers, for its participants, and for actors. They present certain risks and requirements to sufficiently mobilize all sectors of society, to enable safe elections for all participants. Another innovation is in the setting arising from the completed decentralization process. Unluckily, it coincided with the period of organization of this election campaign.” She also noted that the active electoral race has already started, while its elements can already be found on the level of the parliament, and in the regions. “The campaigning has already been launched, but in legal terms, it can be treated only as political advertising. Tomorrow, we are starting the official stage of electoral process. Therefore, any legal restrictions or requirements on elections, any changes or novations to the Criminal Code of Ukraine and the Code of Ukraine on Administrative Offense will be pertaining to all organizers and potential participants of election process, as well as to voters. That is why, we hereby urge all electoral actors to be highly attentive, since there are many novations. For example, if we talk about the impact factor such as voter bribery (still a standard form of -pre-election rivalry), the new legal requirements are also set for charitable organizations and funds as to handing out material valuables, including also food products, tobacco and alcohol products. Moreover, since the parliament failed to introduce amendments to the Electoral Code, any polygraphic, souvenir products, even the products branded with political party identica, which cost exceeds UAH 1.02, may be interpreted as bribery. That is why, even the elements of campaigning such as caps, scarves, or T-shirts that could be distributed to voters, might not have a linear impact on voter choices, but under the electoral law, they may be qualified as bribery. As a result, it would lead to irreversible repercussions for participants of this campaigning,” said she.
Preparing the elections in the context of the pandemic was conducive to cases when potential candidates offered to voters and health care facilities the medical products, equipment or services (local organizations of the “European Solidarity” party, the “Batkivshchyna” AU, “Opposition Platform – For Life,” and some other political parties). A common popular area of “charitable” activities of the future electoral actors included also sport and entertaining events.
From February, 2020, there has been a steady increase in the Facebook social media with more active use of political ads. To compare, in February, as little as 6,417 ads were posted, while in August, the number was over 20,000 ads. Along with the number of ads, there has been a four-fold increase in expenditures of political parties for ads in social media. In august, the amount exceeded USD 400,000.
Among the political parties, the highest amounts in the pre-electoral period were invested by the Ukrainian Galician Party. They spent USD 28,887for political ads. All advertising of the party targeted the users from three Ukrainian regions only, such as Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Ternopil oblasts. The political party “For the Future” spent for political advertising the amount of USD 28,777, whereas about 80% of the party costs were incurred in August.
The top three parties as to the amounts spent for social media ads also included the “European Solidarity.” They invested into political ads the USD 23,916. The top 10 parties in terms of expenditures for political ads in social media included the following: “Shariy Party,” “Servant of the People,” “Proposition,” “Palchevskyi Victory,” “Nash Kray,” and the “Holos.”
In August, 2020, OPORA observers documented cases with elements of engaging the staff from local authorities into events that de facto ran to support political parties, their local branches, or the potential candidates.
The cases include the active public promotion of the Hennadiy Kernes Bloc “Kharkiv Successful” during official events of the city council, of the city’s district administrations, and of municipal companies. There is a possible engagement of the staff from the fire rescue brigade and their respective machinery to place the advertisements of the “Servant of the People” party in the township of Kazanka, Mykolayiv oblast. There is the engagement of the head of staff of Busk district state administration of Lviv oblast, Yevhen Kychurchak, into distribution of social packages from a potential candidate at local elections from the “Servant of the People” party Orest Kavetskyi; presence of representatives and candidates of local party organizations of the “Servant of the People” at official events and during work trips of Maksym Kozytskyi, the head of Lviv regional state administration; the use of symbols of the “Proposition” political party by Oleksandr Senkevych, city mayor of Mykolayiv, during his public progress report; at least half of the delegates of the party convention of the “Ihor Sapozhka Team “Yednist” headed by the Brovary city mayor Ihor Sapozhka, were the staff of the city council executive committee.
According to Oleksandr Kliuzhev, an analyst at the Civil Network OPORA, a key challenge in ensuring suffrage for citizens at this election, is the situation with non-conducting the first local elections in 18 hromadas in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. “The decision made by the Central Election Commission on the basis of conclusions from the civil-military administrations affects 475,000 voters from these 18 hromadas. In fact, they include the largest cities of the government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts where the electoral process is not going to start, and will not take place. In our opinion, there are major issues in the decision that includes elements of infringing citizens’ constitutional rights (the voting right and the right for local self-governance). They are: 1) non-collegial decision-making process and conclusion drafting by civil-military administrations; 2) no clear legal algorithm to resume voting rights for citizens and the right for local self-governance; in fact, the hromadas are not only ignorant about the grounds for making the decision not to have the elections, but they also fail to understand the prospects for resuming the normal functioning of the hromadas; 3) the experience of holding previous elections is not taken into account, and the problem of elections fails to be synchronized with other areas of people’s lives,” highlights he.
OPORA observers had a separate evaluation focus on performance of heads of oblast and district state administrations, in the context of the impending election campaign. As a rule, heads of local state administrations used to avoid their direct engagement into political and party processes, except for cases of attending the presentations of the Strategies for regional development, jointly with the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyi. According to the provisional data, the presentations were the events of the “Servant of the People” party.
Moreover, in the run-up to the local elections, the “Servant of the People” political party, its local organizations, people’s deputies from the political party are proactive in covering the facts and using in their own de-facto campaigning materials the data on the course of state infrastructure projects under the general name of “Large Construction.” The project envisages large-scale repairs for the roads of national standing, construction of bridges and social, medical, and educational facilities. The President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyi has been consistently attracting social attention to these national projects, as he himself has been offering his direct support, as a political figure, to the “Servant of the People” party.
According to the best international practices to prevent the abuse of administrative resources, public promotion of national projects by political parties may be qualified as abuse of financial (budgetary) resources for electoral purposes.
One of the key features of the unofficial electoral process was the activity of the President Volodymyr Zelenskyi. In particular, during his regional visits, he attended events with the presentations of future candidates from the “Servant of the People” party and the presentations of the Strategies of Regional Development. Since there are no legal requirements on political neutrality of the President of Ukraine, it is extremely important to tackle the problem and efficiently distinguish between the government resources and the party interests when organizing such events. A key parameter for the conformity assessment of the party-related events of the President of Ukraine is the participation of civil servants and local self-government officials in their organization. Unlike the head of state, they are committed to consistently follow the political neutrality principles in their current activities during the period between the elections and in the election period. At the same time, the Electoral Code secures equal and unbiased attitude of the public authorities, local self-government bodies, of state and municipal companies, facilities, institutions, and organizations, their public officials and servants towards the electoral subjects.
In addition, OPORA also applied to the Office of the President of Ukraine, the “Servant of the People” party, and to local state administrations and requested to offer the complete information about organizers and the sources of funding for party-related events where Volodymyr Zelenskyi attended.
According to Oleksandr Neberykut, analyst at the Civil Network OPORA, Central Election Commission has been a key actor until now. In fact, during the election process, major responsibility will fall on the territorial commissions. “However, it appears that some excessive expectations are set for the Central Election Commission within its direct authority and powers it is supposed to exercise. In particular, the expectations are related to the security and epidemiological situation. It requires from the CEC certain proposals and decisions about the organization of certain electoral procedures in the situation of pandemic. In fact, the Commission shall prioritize the protection of voting rights, whereas there are other bodies authorized to take care of security. At the same time, there shall be certain balance, and the only guarantor for voters’ interests shall be the Central Election Commission. That is why high expectations are set for it, that the security challenges shall not outweigh the need to protect voting rights. Similarly, there are many expectaions for the CEC about certain regulation of shortcomings of the electoral law, or any legal inconsistencies. In the recent month, the Commission has been actively communicating with other agencies, more than during the previous election campaigns, since some procedures were not feasible if you literally follow legal provisions. Therefore, we may state that the Central Election Commission successfully managed the communication. At the same time, the pressure it experienced or may experience is unacceptable in the situation when the Commission needs to meet the excessive expectations, even more so, in the context of imperfect law,” he emphasizes.