Ukraine votes in local election amid confidence crisis & fraud allegations

A woman casts her ballot during a regional election at a polling station in Kiev, Ukraine, October 25, 2015. © Valentyn Ogirenko
Ukrainians are going to the polls to elect new local authorities on Sunday. However, the campaign has been marred by allegations of foul play and a failure to open polling stations in several cities, as well as other irregularities.

The election is widely viewed as a vote of confidence for the current government, which has seen a plunge in popularity over its 20 months in power, as Ukraine continues to suffer from an economic slowdown and continued conflict in the east of the country.

This week Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk declared that he does not care about his own or his government’s approval rating. His party, People’s Front, scored over 22 percent of votes in last year’s parliamentary election, on par with that of President Petro Poroshenko. Now the party’s rating is in single digits and it did not even bother to launch a campaign.

Poroshenko’s own party, BPP, remains among the favorites, but is facing strong competition from Batkivshchina (Fatherland) of the former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and Smopomich (Selfreliance) of the Lvov Mayor Andrey Sadovyi. In eastern parts of the country, the Opposition Block, which includes politicians from the now-defunct Regions Party of ousted President Viktor Yanukovich, is hoping to score a landslide victory.

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There is great uncertainty about how the results will turn out, as an opinion poll conducted by the respected Democratic Initiatives Foundation this month showed that only a third of voters have decided who they will cast their ballots for. There is also confusion about new election rules, with only 12 percent of Ukrainians saying they understand them clearly, according to the same survey.

The campaign was marred by cases of foul play, like buying votes, according to the Committee of Voters of Ukraine (CVU), a watchdog, monitoring democratic institutions in the country.

“Unfortunately we saw the old problems with the current campaign. There is the buying of votes and the police did not do anything, failing to launch even one prosecution case against those responsible,” the CVU’s head Aleksey Koshel said.

He added that the Ukrainian criminal code fails to bloc semi-legal ways of vote manipulation like using a formally independent charity or an NGO named after a candidate or a party to distribute money and food to voters.

“Prosecuting such things is really very hard,” he acknowledged.

On Sunday, the committee identified 20 cities in Ukraine, where voting was poorly organized. In Cherkassy about 20 percent of polling stations failed to open on schedule because ballots were not delivered on time. None were opened in Krasnoarmeysk.

In Vinnitsa, no booths were available at dozens of stations, compromising the secrecy of the voting process. In Zaporozhye, two sets of ballots were sent to stations, one of them valid and the other not, sparking confusion.

One of the biggest cases of foul play happened in Mariupol, an eastern port city with some 455,000 residents, where polling stations have not opened on Sunday. The city’s election commission said late on Saturday that the ballots printed for Mariupol were flawed and that the election must be postponed until November 15.

Poroshenko’s BPP party accused the Opposition Block of orchestrating the crisis, claiming that the ballots were printed at a factory secretly owned by one of the opposition politicians. The block in turn accused BPP of using its leverage in the election commission and a pretext to derail the election.

“If the authorities in Ukraine cannot organize elections in the territory under their control, how do they plan to organize it in the areas of Donetsk and Lugansk regions that are not,” the opposition party said in a statement.

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The question refers to the rebel-held parts of the country, which wanted to hold their own local election independently from Kiev. However, they have been postponed until March 2016 after vocal protests from the Ukrainian government.

The local elections in the rebel-held areas are part of the so-called Minsk agreement, a roadmap to peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian conflict that was sponsored by Russia, Germany and France.

Kiev called the rebels’ plan a blatant violation of the deal as it insists that it should organize the election on their own terms and only after taking back the territories. The deal also unambiguously states that the election must take place before Kiev would be allowed to put its guards along the border between the rebel-held areas and Russia.

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