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Ukraine: New Polls Hold No Promise Of Change

Ukrainians can expect the discord to continue (AFP) September 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- If the mood in the days ahead of Ukraine's parliamentary vote is any indication, voters have little reason to expect a reversal from the political discord that led to the call for early elections in the first place.

As Ukraine's major political parties busy themselves accusing one another of intending to falsify the September 30 vote, fears have increased that the postelection period could be mired in protests and litigations.

The Socialist Party has already announced that it will challenge the validity of the vote in court whatever the results, and election monitors have warned that some 1 million voters may find it difficult or even impossible to cast their ballots on election day.

Centering On The Square

Earlier this week supporters of the Party of Regions started pitching tents on Kyiv's Independence Square (Maydan) as part of their self-proclaimed effort to ensure an honest vote.

In November and December 2004, the square served as the main venue for protests against the falsification of the presidential vote in favor of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Now Yanukovych's supporters are turning the tables by claiming that his rival, President Viktor Yushchenko, intends to resort to falsifications in order to prevent the Yanukovych-led Party of Regions from scoring a "crushing" victory.

On September 20, the Party of Regions issued a statement accusing its opponents of preparing "provocations" and threatening to boycott the elections.

According to the statement, opponents of the Party of Regions intend to "sabotage" the work of constituency election commissions in the party's traditional strongholds of eastern and southern Ukraine. By refusing to sign constituency voting reports, the statement claims, the opposition seeks to declare voting in those regions invalid and strip the Party of Regions of a hefty number of votes.

The opposition Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense and Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc promptly cited the Party of Regions' accusations as proof that Yanukovych and his supporters plan to contest election results they are certain to find unfavorable.

Exchanging vote-falsification accusations is an essential course on the Ukrainian electioneering menu, but Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz's declaration that his party will question the elections in court regardless of their results is a new ingredient.

"We will appeal to the courts. This is necessary in connection with the number of violations that occurred during the previous elections and that are committed now," Moroz said at an election meeting earlier this week. He did not elaborate. Some of his party colleagues explained that the Socialists question not only the fairness of the election campaign but also the legitimacy of Yushchenko's decrees calling for preterm polls.

Democracy By Decree

In April, Yushchenko issued two decrees on early elections, citing as grounds the ruling coalition's acceptance of defectors from other factions. Coalition lawmakers appealed against the decrees in the Constitutional Court and Yushchenko subsequently retracted them.

The September 30 polls were decreed by President Yushchenko in June and confirmed by another decree in August. These two decrees became possible thanks to a political deal in late May between Yushchenko, Yanukovych, and Moroz. Nevertheless, the June decree was also challenged by coalition lawmakers in the Constitutional Court, which has so far made no ruling on it.

Under the deal, more than 150 opposition deputies gave up their mandates in the Verkhovna Rada, reducing its numerical strength to below 300 deputies and thus making it illegitimate. But Moroz insisted that in quitting the legislature, the opposition deputies violated legal norms and procedures, thus casting doubt on the legality of the preterm polls. Moroz then continued to organize parliamentary sittings after the opposition's withdrawal, despite the fact that Yushchenko and the opposition deemed them illegal.

Some observers of the Ukrainian political scene predict that Moroz, whose party has little chance of overcoming the 3 percent voting threshold, will fight until the bitter end in order to prevent the installation of a new legislature -- or at least to delay this as long as possible.

And some observers assert that Moroz may be not without supporters in his fight, especially if at least one of the three election frontrunners -- the Party of Regions, the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc, and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc -- post election results that fall below expectations or aspirations.

Pessimists even assume that if election complaints fail to prevent the legalization of a new Verkhovna Rada, it can nevertheless be dissolved by the same maneuver as the current one -- a party dissatisfied with a postelection government might just ask its legislators to quit. According to opinion polls, the Party of Regions and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc both stand a chance of winning enough seats to make them singularly capable of making parliament illegitimate by withdrawing deputies.

Hurry Up And Wait

How long might it take for Ukrainian courts to deal with potential election complaints? Serhiy Kyvalov, who was the head of the infamous Central Election Commission that wanted to award the presidential victory in 2004 to Yanukovych, explained publicly earlier this week that such a process of postelection litigations could take as long as 55 days. Thus, official election results may be announced no sooner than in the last week of November.

On top of all that, according to the Committee of Voters of Ukraine (KVU), an NGO monitoring Ukrainian elections, problems with the current electoral law -- which was hastily amended in June -- could lead to nearly a million Ukrainians losing the right to vote.

Under the law, border guards must compile a list of those who have left the country since August 2 and have not returned. The border authorities transmit the names to local election commissions by September 27, which subsequently strike them from the list of eligible voters.

This scheme is questionable for at least two reasons. According to the KVU, an estimated 400,000 voters returning to Ukraine within three days of the election may be disenfranchised. Second, there is no central registry where departures from Ukrainian border checkpoints are recorded. Thus, the provision intended to eliminate voting by absent voters opens the way for new manipulations.

President Yushchenko questioned this provision in the Constitutional Court, which has so far not issued any ruling. What if a court decision qualifying this provision as unconstitutional comes after September 30? Will the elections be repeated?

Misguided Effort

The amended electoral law bans absentee voting. Again, the provision, which was originally intended to reduce vote falsifications, potentially disenfranchises an estimated 500,000 voters, including students and domestic migrant workers, who are away from their home constituencies.

The electoral law also toughens the rules for voting at home, which is believed to have been a major source of vote falsifications in the 2004 presidential polls. But it does not eliminate the possibility of falsification in such voting completely.

With more than 33,000 polling stations opened on September 30, mere handfuls of ballots stuffed in mobile ballot boxes -- a move that would be very difficult to detect -- could decide the outcome. According to some election experts, the race is expected to be very tight, and just 300,000-400,000 votes may decide who will win enough of the few seats required to form a parliamentary majority.

Thus, the postelection period, instead of the restoration of political harmony that is so craved by President Yushchenko, may bring more political turmoil and an outburst of legal wrangling. It is clear that in coming months both the Ukrainian political elites and ordinary voters are facing a very demanding test of their maturity and responsibility.




By Olga Buriak,
Director, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

Discussions in Kyiv were much what you would expect right before an election. What will the new government look like? Who will end up in a coalition? Who will unite with whom? One possible theory making the rounds was that President Viktor Yushchenko and Ukraine's richest man, Rynat Akhmetov, have already struck a deal. Their parties -- the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense party and the ruling Party of Regions, respectively -- will put their differences behind them and form a coalition, naming a compromise candidate, current Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, as prime minister.
That leaves Yulia Tymoshenko in the opposition and perfectly primed for a presidential run in 2009. Current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is the nominal leader of the Party of Regions, but his public standing is relatively weak, and there's reason to suspect he may soon stage an exit from the political scene.
But what's been most striking about this election is that it's not just the analysts and the political elite who are busy speculating about the outcome of the ballot. It's also the average Ukrainian citizen. The profile of the standard voter has changed a lot in the past two years, and it's reflected in the way the campaigns have been conducted.
Before the parliamentary vote in March 2006, the campaign was clearly directed at the country's upper and middle class -- intellectuals, academics, and other influentials with a fairly sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the way Ukrainian politics work. Those were the people who turned out to vote.
But everything that's happened since -- the ongoing fight over forming a coalition, the months without a government, and most recently the president's decision to dissolve parliament -- has driven those people away. They have grown completely disenchanted with politics. Recent polls in Ukraine show that public trust in the parliament and president are very low -- hovering around 10 percent. People have much greater faith in the church, the army, and the media.
It appeared very likely that on September 30, this rank of "influential" Ukrainians was going to stay away from the polls, or vote "against all" in protest.
The parties were aware of this, and shifted their campaigns to target the average Ukrainian voter -- working-class, less prosperous. The result has been a competition of promises. If one party comes out with a pledge to boost social welfare spending for mothers and children, another party comes out with a proposal that's twice as big.
Given the current budgetary situation in Ukraine, it's an irresponsible strategy, to say the least. So RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service adapted its programming accordingly. Last time, around we focused on the candidates. This time around, we were focusing on the issues -- to be specific, 20 issues important to Ukraine that we thought voters should know about. Every day we have examined an issue that's dividing Ukraine, or things that are missing in Ukraine.
Some of the topics we've covered include the economy, the military, language issues, the legacy of communism, and membership of the European Union and NATO. And our election-night coverage will focus not on politicians, but on ordinary Ukrainians, at home and abroad. We want this year's vote to be about the issues, not the personalities.

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