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Ukraine: Candidates Fear Fraud In Presidential Election

  • Lily Hyde

As Ukraine's presidential election nears, rivals of incumbent President Leonid Kuchma say they fear election fraud. Most of the candidates do not trust the government's election committee, and instead are calling for an independent system of counting the votes. RFE/RL's correspondent in Kyiv, Lily Hyde, looks at the widespread fear of election violations.

Kyiv, 1 October 1999 (RFE/RL) - The votes in next month's Ukrainian presidential election will be counted carefully -- and possibly by more than one body. A troubled election history has made many Ukrainians concerned about possible fraud, and has led to calls for an independent check on the vote tally. Many presidential candidates say they suspect that the official election committees may manipulate the results to favor incumbent President Leonid Kuchma.

The candidates vying to replace Kuchma have accused him of multiple campaign violations. They say the president has used state funds for his campaign and has blocked other candidates' access to the media. Citing these violations, a parliamentary commission overseeing the election campaign is trying to have Kuchma banned from the October 31 election.

That move is widely regarded as symbolic because there is no provision in Ukrainian election law to bar a candidate who has already been registered.

But the parliamentary commission has another proposal to limit Kuchma's influence on the election. Commission head Oleksandr Yeliashkevych has proposed that his commission oversee an alternate system of counting the votes, to guard against fraud by the Central Election Committee (CEC). Last week, 11 of the 15 presidential candidates pledged to support Yeliashkevych's independent vote count.

Yeliashkevych says the alternate count will be based on the tallies from the polling stations.

"The results we will announce will be unofficial but they will be based on the official documents. And if -- I don't want to believe it will happen, but if -- the CEC announces data that sufficiently differ from the results of our count, then participants in the election will have to go to court and ask, 'What happened? Why is there such a big difference?' "

Igor Popov is the head of the nongovernmental Committee of Ukrainian Voters. He says it was the experience of the 1998 parliamentary elections that caused the current concern about fraud.

"The last elections showed that the most vulnerable stage in the election process is the vote counting. Several parties claimed that the counting of votes was incorrect and (that therefore) they didn't get into parliament."

In that 1998 parliamentary race, regional election committees came under criticism for incorrect counting. Under the Ukrainian system, polling stations send their tallies to regional centers, which add them up and transmit them to the Central Election Committee. But the regional centers, many of which were headed by Kuchma appointees, apparently did not always add the results properly. Many ballots were altered or missing, and in at least one district, the regional center's results differed drastically from the polling stations' tallies.

The parliamentary commission headed by Yeliashkevych wants to bypass the regional committees altogether. Yeliashkevych intends to check the vote counts directly at the polling stations, before the counts are transmitted to the regional committees. Yeliashkevych will appear live on television as the alternate counts come in.

"I think a parallel vote count will be a good preventative measure, so there won't be any temptation for members of the election committees to change the actual results of the elections. What we will be doing will seriously deter those who don't want to abide by the law on presidential elections but want to replace the will of the people with their own will."

For this system to work, however, the election law must be changed -- and that requires the president's approval. Kuchma has already drafted a veto of the proposed legal change, but Yeliashkevych hopes parliament will override the veto.

Meanwhile, Popov's Committee of Ukrainian Voters will produce another unofficial count, based on exit polls and polling station results. And at least one of the candidates has proposed still a third independent count.

A delegation from the Council of Europe will arrive next week to monitor the election campaign as well as the balloting. ss