KYIV -- International observers say local elections in Ukraine, in which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the Servant Of The People party appear to have suffered a blow, were "well-organized and transparent,” but cite concerns such as “widespread” allegations of vote-buying and lack of objectivity in the domestic media.
"In the limited number of polling stations visited, the voting process was generally calm, well-organized and transparent," observers from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) said in a statement on October 26, adding that "party observers interfered with or participated in the [vote] counting process in several cases.”
The mission with 66 observers across Ukraine said candidates "were able to campaign freely,” but “cases of abuse of state resources and of office” to unfairly promote certain candidates, as well as “widespread allegations of vote-buying” were of concern.
Voters were also hindered from making an informed choice on which candidates to vote for due to a lack of “unbiased and balanced coverage” in the media and “a high volume of unmarked promotional materials in broadcast media,” the observers said.
The elections were considered historic because they were the first held under a new electoral code that decentralizes power from Kyiv to local governing bodies.
Exit polls conducted by several groups from the October 25 elections showed that Zelenskiy's pro-Moscow and pro-Western rivals leading in the capital, Kyiv, and the majority of major cities across the country.
The Servant Of The People party, which backs Zelenskiy, lost seven of nine major Ukrainian cities, including his hometown and Kyiv, where Mayor Vitali Klitschko, leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance For Reform party, leads in the poll with almost 50 percent of the votes, according to the exit polls.
If they hold, the results would be a sharp blow to Zelenskiy, whose popularity has suffered in the year and a half since he came unexpectedly to power.
"[It] is a catastrophe for a party which won 56 percent of seats in the national parliament just over a year ago. This is terrible indeed -- and undermines their position in the Rada (parliament)," said Alex Kokcharov, a country risk analyst who follows Ukraine.
Recent public opinion polls show that about 70 percent of Ukrainians believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, while Zelenskiy’s personal approval rating has dipped below 50 percent.
Exit polls showed that incumbent mayors of the major cities holding elections – Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipro, and Lviv – should retain their seats, although some races could go to a second round of voting. None of these incumbents is a member of Servant Of The People, and all of them oppose Zelenskiy.
The OPORA civic group, which had observers in all regions of Ukraine, said on October 26 that, in general, the elections had been held without violations and in accordance with the election law.
The Central Election Commission (TsVK) said that the most widespread violation was the continuation of campaigning on election day. The violations were not severe enough to significantly distort the results, the TsVK said.
According to the TsVK, the turnout was 37 percent. Final results of the local elections in Ukraine will be summed up in three to five days.
On October 26, Zelenskiy issued a statement congratulating Ukrainians for holding the elections.
"We state that the election campaign, the voting process, and the election process, in general, met the highest democratic standards and current legislation. All political forces -- participants in the election process, as well as candidates -- had a full range of opportunities to communicate their position to voters," Zelenskiy's statement said, adding that "the key achievement today is that Ukrainians have elected their representatives to local governments."
Ukraine's electoral reforms have been lauded as a significant step away from the top-down administration the country inherited from the Soviet Union, a system that has remained largely unchanged over almost three decades of independence.
Voting was not held in the Black Sea region of Crimea, which was forcibly annexed by Russia in 2014, and in parts of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions where Russia-backed separatist formations are fighting against Kyiv.
In his October 26 statement, Zelenskiy vowed to "return the constitutional order to all the districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions" and Crimea.