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Amid Chaos: How Will Eastern Ukrainians Manage To Vote?

Because of the unrest in eastern Ukraine, more than 2 million voters may not have access to polling stations in their electoral district. (file photo)
Because of the unrest in eastern Ukraine, more than 2 million voters may not have access to polling stations in their electoral district. (file photo)
KYIV -- Kidnappings, gunfights, and separatist unrest in the industrial east. So how will Ukraine be able to pull off a landmark presidential election in these conditions?

What is the biggest challenge in holding Ukraine's May 25 presidential election?

This Ukraine election is unusual in that none of the presidential candidates on the ballot is in positions of power. This means that none of them is able to manipulate the vote using the classic post-Soviet election trump card of the "administrative resource" (i.e. the ability of incumbent politicians to use their official positions to influence the outcome of elections).

Observers believe this makes for a very clean election, but that doesn't mean there aren't other problems. And the biggest challenge comes from pro-Russia separatists trying to disrupt voting in the east.

"There is no way to hold an election in a normal way," Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on May 19 of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. "Polling stations have been attacked, stamps stolen, some heads of commissions kidnapped. It's direct activity by bandits aimed at disrupting the election." Election Commission officials have reported being intimidated and their families threatened.

As of May 20, insurgents had seized or blockaded six district election commissions out of a total 22 in Donetsk Oblast, according to the Central Election Commission. Another five were in danger of seizure. Out of 12 in Luhansk, just under half had been blockaded with another three under threat. Without these commissions, there can't be any polling stations -- and therefore any voting.

Does this mean some people will likely not be able to vote?

Potentially, a large number of voters in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts will not be able to cast ballots. That is because the district they registered to vote in may not have a polling station.

Despite recent deadly clashes elsewhere in the east and along Ukraine’s southern flank, the election is only under threat in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.

Oleksandr Chernenko, director of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine that has been monitoring the elections closely, said that more than 2 million eligible voters may not be able to cast ballots since half of the polling stations may not open.

What is the likely impact of this?

Chernenko estimated a staggering five to seven percent of Ukraine's 35 million eligible voters may not be able to cast ballots. And yet this electoral black hole appears more a problem for the legitimacy of the election rather than a factor that will influence the outcome. "Of course, it is very bad if certain polling stations do not work, but judging by polls, it is unlikely to have an impact on the result," said Chernenko.

Confectionary magnate Petro Poroshenko has a comfortable lead in national polls with or without the east's participation. The two former Party of Regions presidential candidates most popular in the east -- Mikhaylo Dobkin and Serhiy Tihipko -- are not expected to pose any real challenge, with or without the east's involvement.

Moreover, there is no minimum requirement for turnout, but a low turnout would be a big political blow for Ukrainians hoping a nationwide ballot would finally confer nationwide legitimacy to the state after the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych.

"The matter of [voter] attendance is legally insignificant, although it's very sensitive politically," Ukrainian Central Elections Commission Chairman Mykhailo Okhendovskyy said at a press conference on May 15.

"We wouldn't like it very much if the president of Ukraine were elected by 30 or 40 percent of Ukrainian voters," he added.

Chernenko said low turnout in the east may be offset -- numerically, at least -- by unprecedented high turnout of 80 percent expected in some central and western electoral districts.

What about Crimea? There are no polling stations on the peninsula because it was annexed by Russia. Does that mean Ukrainian citizens from Crimea now cannot vote in the election?

They will be able to vote -- but it will take some effort and it looks like only several thousand will go to these lengths.

Normally, residents of Ukraine must cast their vote at polling stations in the district where they are officially registered. However, Ukraine’s parliament passed legislation allowing residents of Crimea to vote elsewhere when the peninsula was officially recognized as an “occupied” territory. Residents of Crimea are allowed to vote at polling stations on the mainland on May 25 if they registered to do so at least five days ahead of the elections (by May 19). This means several thousand will be able to vote in adjacent regions, or in Lviv and Kyiv where a few thousand internally displaced people are now living.

In fact, all Ukrainians can register to vote in a different polling station if they provide justification: for example, if you work permanently in one city but are registered to vote in another. But the process has been simplified for residents of Crimea: they simply have to prove they are residents of Crimea. RFE/RL's Ukraine Service reports that over 100,000 Ukrainians have changed their voting address -- a large part of them from Donbas and Crimea.

So what about the residents from Luhansk and Donetsk who didn't re-register?

Residents of these two provinces have received no special dispensation like those in Crimea. They were able to re-register to vote elsewhere (like all Ukrainians) by May 19, but they had to produce documentation (for instance showing they work elsewhere). Effectively, this means that residents of Donetsk and Luhansk whose polling stations are not functioning on May 25 will not be able to vote. Those who did provide documentation by May 19 will be able to vote in polling stations elsewhere.

A group of Crimea residents from Simferopol, Kerch and Alushta missed the May 19 deadline and are challenging it in court, according to Ukrainian media reports.

What have the authorities done to ensure that the election is held?

They have beefed up security for the transportation of ballot boxes. The Central Election Commission will be able to enlist the Ukraine Security Service to guard ballot boxes, instead of just two regular police officers, which had been the norm in past elections. Parliament has also passed a law requiring the Interior Ministry to set up guard posts around district election commissions no later than "eight days before the elections."

So what's in store for the day itself?

The authorities are on high alert and some agencies appear to expect trouble. The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said on May 20 that they had detained eight members of a criminal gang in Kyiv who were armed with seven automatic rifles and two kilograms of plastic explosives. They said they are being held on suspicion of intent to destabilize the elections.

The Border Guard Service has beefed up security on the borders with Russia and will increase security checks. The SBU also said that attacks were being planned against five election candidates. ​

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