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Elections In Ukraine: A Challenging, But Important, Vote

In Kyiv, a woman stands in front of a campaign poster with a portrait of Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
In Kyiv, a woman stands in front of a campaign poster with a portrait of Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

Imagine trying to hold an election at the most critical juncture in your country's modern history -- a vote that is vital for your nation's security and place in the world. Imagine trying to hold the election amid threats from within and without, a teetering economy, an atmosphere of tense uncertainty, and under the watchful eye of the world. Now imagine trying to do it cleanly. Twice. Imagine Ukraine.

I was there the last time, in May, when Ukrainians went to the polls to choose a new head of state. In my capacity as an OSCE parliamentarian, I had visited Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhzhya oblasts in the east on a preelection visit and was deployed to monitor the vote in Odesa on election day. Under extraordinary circumstances, Ukraine's institutions and voters rose to the occasion. They gave Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko a strong mandate to begin enacting critical reforms. Those efforts, of course, are incomplete, and justified or not, many fault the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament, for sluggishness and inertia when the moment demands decisive action.

That frustration, insomuch as it reflects a hunger to realize the ideals of Maidan, is an extremely healthy sign for the country. The expectation among the country's citizens and international partners alike is that the new Rada will work expeditiously to tackle corruption and modernize all sectors of the state while safeguarding civil liberties in all parts of the country. They must also investigate the deaths and casualties that have resulted from this conflict. But first, there has to be a vote -- and it won't be any less challenging than the last one.

That's why I am back in Ukraine. This time I am serving as OSCE special coordinator, appointed by the OSCE chairman-in-office, to lead nearly 700 short-term observers who will disperse across the country on October 26. Many are like me -- OSCE parliamentarians -- whose voice during the election period and long after can be critical in helping the new Rada fulfill the enormous expectations it faces.

I just completed a weeklong preelection visit, where I met with governmental officials, the Central Election Commission, district-level commissions, candidates, OSCE monitors, and others. I was in Kyiv and Kharkiv before traveling to the Luhansk Oblast, where I met with local election officials. There, in Luhansk, the magnitude of this challenge was most apparent, with preparations at times overshadowed by fundamental security questions and the fear that election workers and voters alike must overcome. But my overall take-away from the trip was this: Despite very real security concerns, including several highly disturbing threats to polling stations and candidates, as well as limited resources and pending legislative changes, preparations for this vote have progressed well. The central and district election commissions are working hard to make this a success. What all of this demonstrates is determination for full-fledged democracy, and in a crisis moment. That is inspiring.

Now, having observed votes from Belarus to the United States, I can tell you that there's no such thing as a "perfect election." Each is held under unique circumstances, with more or fewer shortcomings. The particularly challenging context for this election has led some, including top Russian officials, to question how it can be held. But it is precisely the challenging context that makes this election all the more important. With the stark realities of this moment, the country can either forge ahead and hopefully give a strong mandate to a new legislature -- one that could help Ukraine better tackle its problems, both internal and those concerning Russia -- or give in to the circumstances, delaying change until some unknown future point. To a degree, the latter would mean letting the country's enemies win.

It is, of course, highly regrettable that so many people in Ukraine's east, as well as in occupied Crimea, cannot exercise their right to vote. As such, there will be vacant seats in the new Rada that will be filled by representatives of these areas when possible. But the deputies who do get elected on October 26 must also pay special attention to the needs of those citizens who missed out on election day. Their rights must not become the collateral of the conflict, or else the flames of that conflict will only be fueled. There are also many Ukrainian citizens who have been forced to flee their homes as a result of what has taken place. Their voices, too, matter a great deal. I also welcome the efforts of the Ukrainian authorities to establish voting facilities in several major centers across Russia to help accommodate the 2 million-3 million Ukrainian citizens in that country. I can assure Ukrainians that OSCE parliamentarians will make every effort to be there, observing the vote.

When election day is over and October 27 comes, I will present the preliminary findings of our observers. Helping Ukraine measure its elections and actions against OSCE commitments is one key form of support that we can provide. The OSCE will continue to support Ukraine, well beyond this election season, and Ukraine will surely need the international community's backing. But more than our support, it will need a citizenry that is engaged, holds its officials accountable, is sensitive to the rights of all, fights complacency and corruption, and continues to prove resilient. In any well-functioning democracy, those are areas in which there is simply no other choice.

Kent Harstedt is OSCE special coordinator and leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission for Ukraine's parliamentary elections. A member of the Swedish parliament, he serves as a vice president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.