From the maidan to Main Street: Ukraine's landmark elections

by staff of the U.S. Helsinki Commission

While pundits attempt to sort out the political meaning of Ukraine's March 26th parliamentary elections to fill the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada, the significance of the conduct of the elections should not be missed. "Free and fair" was the resounding assessment of the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that also included observers from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE Office of Democratic Elections and Human Rights (ODIHR). This unqualified positive appraisal - a first among the 12 former Soviet republics outside the Baltics that have conducted scores of elections since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union - underscores the consolidation of democratic gains made in Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution following years of political stagnation.

These clean March 26 elections stood in stark contrast to the fatally flawed first rounds of the Ukrainian presidential elections that ushered in popular revolt 16 months earlier. Coming on the heels of the blatantly undemocratic presidential "elections" in neighboring Belarus a week earlier, comparisons were inevitable. The Rada elections also followed a series of recent electoral contests elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, including in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which to varying degrees fell short of international standards. The OSCE assessment in Ukraine returns the "free and fair" formulation to the lexicon of international election observations, departing from the heavily nuanced appraisals that have become common in recent years. This development has potentially significant implications for future OSCE observations, especially with parliamentary and presidential elections expected in Russia in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, current president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, was appointed by the OSCE chair-in-office to serve as special coordinator for short-term observers. Commission staff observed on Election Day, as part of the IEOM deployment of 914 observers coming from 45 OSCE countries, including Russia. In all, the group examined voting and the vote count in nearly 3,000 polling stations. The commission contingent observed balloting throughout the Kyiv and Cherkasy regions.

The Ukrainian government declined to invite observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an entity discredited in the eyes of many for its effusive praise of fundamentally flawed elections elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, including Belarus' undemocratic March 19 presidential contest. The CIS stood out for its sharply critical evaluation of Ukraine's December 26, 2004, presidential elections that resulted in Viktor Yushchenko's victory in elections widely considered to have met democratic standards. Ukraine has refused to participate further in CIS monitoring missions. The two dozen Russian Duma observers present offered tempered, mixed opinions about the conduct of Rada elections.

Whatever shortcomings there were in these elections - and no undertaking of this scale is perfect - they appear to have resulted from late or otherwise poor planning. Among these were delays in the formation of some district and precinct election commissions, the absence of a functioning Constitutional Court, long lines and crowding at some polling stations, and lingering inaccuracies in voter lists. On the positive side of the balance sheet were the significantly freer media and decidedly more balanced media coverage; no systematic use of administrative resources; the transparent, consensual and professional administration of the elections at all levels; inclusion of domestic, non-partisan observers; and an overhaul of voter lists.

Election day began early with polling stations opening at 7 a.m. There were over 34,000 polling stations. Adding to the vibrancy of the elections was the large number of domestic observers, an indication of buy-in on the part of Ukrainians young and old alike with many affiliated with particular parties or candidates and others representing NGOs.

Upon entering the polling stations, one was struck by walls plastered with informational bulletins on candidates and parties. Forty-five parties and blocs vied for seats in Parliament. While the international community was mainly focused on the parliamentary balloting, voting was also under way for regional and local government. Voters were thus presented with four lengthy ballots: national and regional, as well as local councils and mayoral races. While some older voters were befuddled by this collection of papers, most voters seemed to take it in stride. Election commission poll workers seemed attentive to their duties. This was put to the test in the complicated tabulation process that began, once polling stations closed at 10 p.m., typically involving the sorting and counting of thousands of papers. Processing the Rada results alone went into the wee hours of morning, with the three remaining stacks of ballots from other contests proceeding well past daybreak.

The undeniable success of the domestic observation in these elections, buttressed by years of investment in training and support by the United States and others, raises obvious questions about the need for future international observations in Ukraine. Has the time come to "graduate" Ukraine from such scrutiny and leave that necessary task to Ukrainian stakeholders themselves? Many believe the March 26 elections confirm that that time has come, especially if Ukraine continues on its increasingly democratic trajectory. The greater and more prominent role of domestic observers, also reinforces the notion that the time for Ukraine's "graduation" has come. Indeed, the OSCE should continue to encourage domestic stakeholders to prove themselves to their own people.

The maidan, Kyiv's Independence Square that featured so prominently in the massive demonstrations by orange-clad protesters in November 2004 and the jubilant crowds following Mr. Yushchenko's victory a few weeks later, was calm on the Monday following the Rada elections. Strolling past this bustling area, Ukrainians were going about their routines, perhaps an indicator that the politics of democracy has moved from the maidan to the Main Streets of cities and towns throughout the country.

Whatever the pundits may declaim regarding the election results or the continuing strength of the Orange Revolution, what seemed palpable was a keen appreciation for the business of governing. Neither a democratic revolution nor a single "free and fair" election are guarantees that the resulting government will be in a position to immediately deal with the basic needs of its people. Overcoming these obstacles will have a profound impact on how the next government meets the political and economic challenges Ukraine faces at home and abroad.

What we can say with confidence is that the March 26 elections were a further essential step in the process of overcoming the legacy of the past - a history marred by foreign domination, genocidal famine, denial of political and cultural freedom, and, more recently, political stagnation. Today, the people of Ukraine are removing the overgrowth of thorns - an image alluded to by the great poet Taras Shevchenko - that prevented them for so long from pursuing their own pathway to a brighter and more prosperous future.

The article above was released by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on April 20.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 30, 2006, No. 18, Vol. LXXIV

| Home Page |