Observing snap elections in Ukraine

Mark Pascoe, Electoral Guidance Manager at the Commission, recently went to Ukraine to observe the early parliamentary election. He visited in a personal capacity and has written about his experiences while there.

After visiting North Macedonia last year, I have recently returned from another mission – this time to Ukraine to observe the early parliamentary election on 21 July. I was again with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as a Short Term Observer (STO).

In April this year Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine on an anti-corruption ticket, beating the incumbent Petro Poroshenko in a second run off with over 73% of the vote. Previous elections in Ukraine have always seen a clear east-west split in the vote, but Zelensky was the clear victor in all but one of the country’s administrative regions in what was a strong vote for change.

Zelensky is new to politics but had previously created and starred in a popular TV show in which he plays a history teacher who unexpectedly becomes…the president of Ukraine.

Having taken up the position but with no support in parliament, Zelensky called for early parliamentary elections with a view to getting his political party ‘Servant of the People’, which incidentally is named after the TV show, some seats and himself some support.

Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, comprises 450 seats. Half are elected through national party lists using proportional representation, with a 5% threshold required for a party to be allocated seats. The other half are elected to represent single-member constituencies using first-past-the-post. Again, owing to the war in the east of the country, the constituency elections do not take place in 26 of these constituencies, with the seats remaining vacant.

After a day and a half of briefings in Kyiv on the political environment, the legal framework, electoral administration, the media and the campaign, I was deployed to Vinnytsia in the west(ish) of the country. After a local briefing, my STO partner and I were sent on to Yampil, a small town on the banks of the Dniester with a view across to neighbouring Moldova.

Elections in the country are managed by the Central Election Commission (CEC), which for these elections appointed 199 District Election Commissions. 26 DECs were not able to be formed due to the ongoing war in the east of the country, where elections were not held. The DECs oversee the final administrative layer, the Precinct Election Commissions (PECs) typically made up of between 13 and 15 people, which are appointed to administer each polling station of which there were well over 30,000 across the country.

Polling opened at 8am on Sunday but as my partner and I had been designated the night shift, we made a gentle start to the day and reached our first polling station an hour or so later.

We had two ballot papers to look out for and with over twenty parties competing nationally, they were similar in length to some of the recent European parliamentary ballot papers we saw here in May.

Throughout the day we visited half a dozen different polling stations across our designated region. It being rural in nature, we visited small villages and like in the UK, polling stations were in schools or village halls. Huge posters detailing the candidates (for the constituency) and the party lists dominated the entrances and we noticed that many electors took their time to read up on them prior to voting.

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Voting

People must show identification before receiving a ballot paper, with most electors presenting their ‘national passport’ – a document given free to all citizens that contains details on residence, marriage, any children, amongst other things.

Upon receiving their ballot paper(s) voters were required to sign the electoral register themselves as well as signing the counterfoil of the ballot paper, which was retained by the polling station staff. Having cast their vote, the ballots were then placed in clear plastic ballot boxes.

On absent voting, those unable to make it to a polling station were able to apply to vote from their home. The polling station staff held a separate list of these voters and visited them in turn during the day of the election, taking a mini ballot box and all other necessary equipment with them.

For those temporarily away from home in other parts of the country, the option existed to apply to vote in a different polling station on the day itself (these voters could not vote in the constituency election and could vote only in the national party list poll). Ukrainian citizens overseas were able to cast their ballots at diplomatic buildings in a whole host of countries, from Iran to Malaysia, from Cuba to Kazakhstan.DSC_2398

Close of polls

Polls closed at 8pm with counting then carried out within the polling station. This was an incredibly transparent but laborious process. A single member of the PEC was responsible for counting every ballot paper, having first held them up for the view of everyone present. At our polling station just over 200 people had voted and this process took over four hours from start to finish.

After midnight we travelled to the DEC to observe the verification of results for the district, each PEC brought their results and ballot papers in one-by-one where everything was checked, formalised and, once approved, results were transmitted electronically to the Central Election Commission. This too, was a lengthy process as everything was checked one PEC at a time and all results read aloud.

By the time we came to leave at 6am, our shift over, they had processed 22 of 192 polling stations. As we left we walked past hundreds of polling station staff milling around or sleeping in their cars as they waited for their turn.

After some sleep and a late breakfast we returned to the DEC to observe for a while longer, it seemed that some of the members had not moved from their chairs in over 12 hours. By the time we again left the building at 4pm, almost 24 hours on from the close of polls, they had processed around half of the results.

The final result was announced by the Central Election Commission on 26 July.

None of the Servant of the People’s new MPs has been in parliament before. How this will pan out for Ukraine will be interesting to observe, but despite a lower-than-usual turnout there was a noticeable sense of optimism amongst the people I met and people are expecting positive change.

In terms of the administration of the election, the OSCE’s preliminary findings were broadly positive, noting: “the electoral administration was competent and effective despite short time available to prepare the elections, which were seen as an opportunity to consolidate reforms and changes in politics that Ukrainian voters are hoping for”.

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