Election Commission chair cites possible adverse effects of Supreme Court's rulings
by Roman Woronowycz
Kyiv Press Bureau
KYIV - Ukraine's Central Election Commission chairman said on August 18 that court rulings in the last week that forced it to register presidential candidates it had originally rejected could lead to the October elections being ruled invalid.
Mykola Riabets, the beleaguered CEC chairman, has gone on the offensive as he fights to maintain the commission's authority over the presidential elections, while resisting calls for his resignation from several of the newly registered candidates.
He said that, by forcing the CEC to register six candidates that it had earlier decided had not met minimum requirements, the Supreme Court had established a legally questionable field of candidates.
"After the elections, which we know only one candidate can win, all the other candidates could file lawsuits stating that the circumstances of the outcome were compromised by the illegal registration of some," suggested the CEC.
His assertion was rebuffed by National Deputy Oleksander Eliashkevych, head of the Verkhovna Rada's temporary Committee on Free and Fair Elections. Mr. Eliashkevych said the election law does not mention any circumstance under which the presidential elections could be declared invalid.
The current troubles of Mr. Riabets and his CEC began after six of the 15 presidential nominees were turned away by the commission for failing to present 1 million verifiable signatures. The six candidates then appealed to Ukraine's Supreme Court to change the CEC decision.
In all six instances the Supreme Court decided in favor of the nominees, while asserting that the CEC had failed to adhere to portions of the law on presidential elections that states that signed petitions must be reviewed and counted within a five-day period and, if found lacking, the candidates must have an additional two days to come up with the required balance. The law states that each potential candidate should have collected a minimum of 1 million signatures, with 30,000 coming from each of 18 different oblasts, which the CEC said the six nominees failed to do.
The Supreme Court also decided that CEC procedures were not sufficiently spelled out and transparent.
The decision left many in Ukraine stunned, including President Leonid Kuchma, who has inferred that the political allegiances of the Supreme Court judges must be determined and questioned whether the cases were decided politically.
Mr. Riabets answered the Supreme Court charges by stating that it had been physically impossible to count and corroborate the more than 600,000 signatures that had been submitted in the last three days before the July 12 deadline. He said that he had developed figures that showed the CEC realistically had needed at least 10 days or an additional 1,000 workers to do the job.
In addition, Mr. Riabets vehemently denied that the commission had worked in a secretive or closed manner.
"I invited the press and the candidates' representatives to watch the counting and analysis procedure after each time we met," explained Mr. Riabets.
He added a bit later, "I emphasize that not a single candidate had any complaints until after the procedures were completed and the candidates rejected."
Mr. Riabets said he had asked the Procurator General's Office to look into the Supreme Court ruling in the case of the first candidate who was registered on appeal, Vasyl Onopenko, the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party candidate, and that all the cases would be turned over to Ukraine's chief law enforcement body within the week.
He also said he would request that the collegium of the Supreme Court as a single body review the six cases, which were decided by individual judges.
Mr. Riabets is finding himself under increasing pressure to resign as the newly registered candidates lash out one after another at the manner in which the CEC ruled on their candidacies.
The latest call came from Yurii Karmazin, the last candidate to be registered by order of the Supreme Court, who told reporters minutes after Mr. Riabets had spoken that he would submit a proposal to the Verkhovna Rada, in which he is a national deputy, to dismiss all the members of the Central Election Commission.
"I will push for the members of the CEC to be held responsible for their actions," said Mr. Karmazin, who explained that the heart of the problem with the signature-counting procedure used by the CEC was the old Soviet legacy of registering place of residency ("propysky") with government authorities.
Mr. Karmazin said the practice, which has been outlawed in the Constitution but is still utilized by government officials, was a convenient, although unconstitutional, instrument that the CEC used to reject signatures.
He explained that many of his petition-gatherers gave current addresses, not those they had registered with the government in an earlier time. In many instances, the petitions which they submitted and all the signatures on them were rejected because their address did not correspond to the one that the government had in its records.
Mr. Karmazin also said that, at times, full pages of signatures were rejected because one name on a page was illegible or smeared.
"The members of the CEC went outside the Constitution and gave themselves authority they did not have," he explained.
Should Mr. Karmazin's effort succeed - and that is a distinct possibility because all six candidates are members of the Parliament, cover a relatively broad ideological spectrum and just may be able to find the needed votes - then the elections certainly would be in jeopardy.
The CEC maintains responsibility for all aspects of the election process, from setting precinct and district zones, to establishing television and radio slots for individual candidate presentations, printing ballots and, finally, the counting of the votes.
It would take a minimum of several weeks to find nominees and approve new Central Election Commission members should the current composition be changed, which would force the election date to be postponed.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 22, 1999, No. 34, Vol. LXVII
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