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Leigh TurnerHMA Ukraine, Kyiv
Later last week, in More good news about electoral fraud I noted that despite rumours of inevitable massive fraud in last Sunday's presidential elections, some experts were saying that there was fair chance of good quality elections on 7 February. I hoped this would turn out to be true.
So how have we done? There's a lot of good news. There's been no hint of street violence (though I'd still prefer not to see one party or the other positioning groups of stout supporters at strategic points around the city). The OSCE/ODIHR mission issued a statement on 8 February saying that the electoral process met most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments. Leaders of the mission deploying phrases like "an impressive display of democratic elections" and "a well-administered and truly competitive election offering voters a clear choice". And congratulations have been rolling in, including from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, reported in my blog earlier today.
None of this means that Ukrainian democracy is perfect, or that there aren't struggles ahead. One party has said it will be challenging some of the election results. Difficult negotiations have started in the Rada (parliament) to determine whether there will be a realignment of parliamentary forces, or whether new parliamentary elections will be needed, possibly in May. And when the shape of the government becomes clear, Ukraine will face a host of challenges ranging from taking forward negotiations with the IMF, through the need for deep-seated economic reform, to the need to tackle corruption. None of this will be easy. But whatever happens next, it's worth bearing in mind that the good conduct of the elections has raised Ukraine's standing in the world as a democratic leader in the region. That in turn enhances Ukraine's claim to move ahead on closer integration with the EU. Ukraine's integration with the EU, starting with the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement between the EU and Ukraine is one of the best ways to help economic reform in Ukraine. As Gordon Brown said, "the UK has long supported Ukraine's EU aspirations and we will continue to do so. A broader EU is a stronger EU". Absolutely right. The UK believes Ukraine is a European country and should have the right to join the EU when it has met the necessary conditions. Let's get on with it.
Here's a link to a great article published by the Foreign Office Europe Minister, Chris Bryant, in the Guardian on 10 February, entitled "Ukraine's inspirational electorate". I like it particularly because it draws attention to the millions of people who turned out in last Sunday's presidential election second round, in bitter winter conditions, to cast their vote. It also highlights the role of the hundreds of thousands of election commission workers who did a good job on the day to make sure people could vote and to count the votes afterwards.
While we're at it, take a look at the guest blog of Andy Tate, Management Officer of the British Embassy here in Kyiv, about being an OSCE/ODIHR election observer. Ever wondered how the OSCE/ODIHR gathered the information that helped them to conclude that the first and second rounds of the Ukrainian presidential election were democratic and met most OSCE standards? Here's your chance to find out. Fine photos, too.
A guest blog by Andrew Tate, Management Officer, British Embassy Kyiv
05:15 Sunday 7 February, Cherkasy, Central Ukraine.
It's 25 degrees below zero outside and the roads are icy. It's the start of a long day as part of the OSCE international election observer mission for the 2nd round of the Ukrainian Presidential Elections. The polling stations open at 08:00am, but we need to be at our first station (pic 1) at 07:15am to witness the opening procedures.
We had visited the previous day to introduce ourselves and are greeted warmly by the Chair of the Precinct Electoral Commission (PEC). We observe the seal on the safe containing the ballot papers being broken and the paperwork being completed. Everything is in order. At 08:30am we say goodbye having seen the first votes of the day being cast. We aim to visit ten polling stations during the day before the polls close at 20:00 ranging from village halls (pics 2 & 3) to local schools (pic 4). We manage nine. People unable to visit their local polling station are able to vote at home.
Whilst travelling between one polling station and the next we find a group of election officials visiting those people registered to vote at home. We take the opportunity to join them (pic 5). The same procedures apply. The voter's ID is checked and they then sign the voters' list before casting their ballot. At 19:30 we head to our final polling station where we intend to stay and witness the count of the ballots (pic 6). The procedures are followed meticulously and the ballots stacked against the names of the two candidates.
At around 22:30 we leave the polling station under police escort to deliver our results to the District Electoral Commission (pic 7). The place is packed with police and other PECs delivering their results. We watch as the details are entered into the computer and the data transmitted to the Central Electoral Commission in Kyiv. Our job done we return to our hotel for a de-brief and manage to get back to our rooms at around 02:30. It was a long day, but worthwhile. And a unique chance to see Ukrainian democracy in action.
7 February, the day of the second round of the Ukrainian presidential elections, dawns clear and bright in Kyiv (weather forecast, for a perfect winter's day, is here). I'm pleased to see press reporting suggesting that the polls have opened in an orderly fashion. By mid-day the candidates have both cast their vote. Let's hope that the rest of the day proceeds in an equally calm way, and that the main excitement of the next 24 hours will be watching the results come in.
A couple of people have said to me that they liked the photos I put up on the week-end of the first round of the presidential election on 17 January. I went on a beautiful walk in central Kyiv yesterday and took a couple more pics. They show that, for all the reports (including mine) of a fierce-fought campaign, ordinary life goes on. They also show that Kyiv is an outstanding capital for city-centre snowboarding and sledging; and that there's been a lot of snow in the past few weeks.
As Ukraine moves closer to the decisive second round of the presidential election on 7 February the words of the European Commission after the first round might seem a distant memory. In a statement on 18 January, the Commission welcomed the fact that the first round of the elections on 17 January "took place in a peaceful atmosphere", and urged the leaders of Ukraine to ensure that the next round of voting on 7 February would be held "in a similarly peaceful environment".
With the election two days away, not everyone would describe the atmosphere in Kyiv as a "peaceful environment". Electoral campaigning is running at fever pitch. And the two electoral camps have continued to trade tough allegations about each other's plans for 7 February - the latest about how the Rada's 3 February changes to the electoral law could make fraud easier (say some), or more difficult (say others). There's talk of street protests. Anyone might think things were spinning into some kind of crisis.
But wait. Haven't we been here before? The 18 January Commission statement also noted that the first round "was preceded by a vigorous campaign which presented voters with a genuine choice." No change there, then. That vote too was preceded by allegations that fraud was about to take place on a massive scale. I noted with interest before January's vote (Good news about electoral fraud?) that some experts were suggesting those fears were overblown. They were right: the authoritative OSCE/ODIHR observer mission concluded that the first round "was of high quality and... met most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments"; and that "Civil and political rights were respected, including freedom of assembly, association and expression."
So I've been listening with interest to what experts on detecting electoral fraud are saying this time round. And guess what? Some people I respect are saying that there's a fair chance of good quality elections on 7 February. The key, they say, will be to ensure that both presidential camps use their right to have their own people in place around the country to keep a close eye on what's going on; that both take the OSCE/ODIHR election observers into their confidence, give them maximum access, and report to them any dodgy happenings; and that both make sure that all their election commissioners turn out on the day so that neither side can accuse the other of trying to put a spanner in the works.
Now I don't want to be accused of being a follower of arch optimist Dr Pangloss. It's important to take seriously all allegations of potential electoral fraud; and, as I noted earlier this week, the OSCE/ODIHR observers, like the two presidential candidates, face a tough task on Sunday to do everything they can to ensure the election is clean. But democracy is one of Ukraine's most attractive features; and the experience of the first round shows that Ukrainians are well capable of holding elections to European standards. It seems indisputably in the best interests of both presidential camps, as EU High Representative Cathy Ashton said in a statement published on 4 February, "to ensure that the will of the people can once more be expressed at the polls this Sunday". So I hope that happens; and that after the second round I can again write that election day turned out, frankly, a bit humdrum, dull and routine.
Amidst all the allegations and counter-allegations about potential electoral abuse ahead of the second round of the presidential election on 7 February, it's good to see the short-term observers of the OSCE/ODIHR election monitoring mission are back in town. I meet a few of the British observers for a beer at a pub in Kyiv on Wednesday night, before they fan out across the country. It's inspiring to meet them. Some are volunteers who have observed elections in dozens of countries. Others are doing the job for the first time, and will be paired up with more experienced colleagues for their assignments. All have an infectious enthusiasm as they prepare for their challenging travel schedules to oblasts across the length and breadth of Ukraine. One person who observed the first round tells how kind locals provided blocks of polystyrene for election observers to stand on in freezing polling stations (I see cold conditions are again forecast); and explains how, after arriving at a given polling station when it opens next Sunday morning, she will keep observing right through the day until the votes are being counted in the dead of night.
There's a good account of a day in the life of an election observer from the British embassy here in Kyiv during the first round of the presidential elections on 17 January here.
I've written before about why I think the OSCE/ODIHR observer mission is a brilliant mechanism to prevent electoral fraud. The fierce debate between the different presidential camps which has raged this week is an indication of just how challenging and important the observers' job will be. Good luck to all of you.
There's also a possibility things could go less well. As happened before the first round, some people on both sides are accusing their opponents of planning to fix the polls in their electoral heartlands, or - devilishly - of planning to make it look as if the other side has done so. That way, the logic goes, whoever loses will have plenty of justification to cry foul and refuse to accept the result. Such uncertainty could lead to delays, court cases and confusion. So I hope, as the Europe Ministers of the UK, Germany, France and Poland wrote on Saturday, that if the OSCE/ODIHR mission gives a favourable verdict on the quality of the election, the losing side will accept the result and the new president can get on with running the country.
But rumours are going around of a possible outcome of the 7 February election which would be worse than the losing side not accepting the result and going to court. People on both sides have accused each other of planning, should they lose, to incite trouble on the streets of Kyiv. There have even been references to one side or the other having armed men ready to deploy. The aim, it is alleged, will be for the losers to provoke trouble and so to bring the result of the election into disrepute. Some politicians argue that it is therefore reasonable to pre-station groups of stout supporters around the city in order to prevent any attempt by their opponents to cause unrest.
Personally, I'm not a great believer in conspiracies. So a lot of these rumours sound like dangerous loose talk to me. There were many allegations of potential misdeeds before the first round of the presidential election on 17 January. Most turned out to be wrong. I find it hard to believe that any Ukrainian politician really wants to bring violence to the streets of Kyiv - particularly when the Orange Revolution of 2004, involving hundreds of thousands of protesters over a period of months, was peaceful. It goes without saying that any violence would damage Ukraine's reputation as a beacon of democracy in the region. So I hope that the rumours turn out to be no more than that; and that both sides will keep calm and let the debate about who should run Ukraine be decided where it belongs - at the ballot box.
A guest blog by John Foreman, Defence Attache, British Embassy Kyiv
It’s 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning at a small Ukrainian polling station. The local election commission has given one of their volunteers the honour of being first to vote. The clock ticks, the man votes to a round of applause and the doors are flung open. Voters start to trickle into the polling station, trussed up against the freezing weather.
I'm here with an embassy colleague as a short-term election monitor for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Europe. Other teams are fanned out across the country. Our team has been assigned to Cherkasy oblast, situated in the middle of the country and the birthplace to two of the most important Ukrainian national heroes, Taras Shevchenko and Bohdan Khmelnytsky. OSCE long term observers, who have been working on the area for a couple of months, give us a list of 179 polling stations. We are asked to visit 10 different locations.
We decide to visit remote rural areas. Fortunately the roads are passable despite ice and drifted snow. Over the day, we cover 250 km, visiting polling stations in schools, sports halls, farm clubs and theatres. Ukrainian choral music blasts out from one; in another a budding entrepreneur is running a small shop. Everyone is friendly; one flame-haired commission head thanks us for choosing her station and for supporting their new democracy. On learning that we are from the UK, some locals try out their English and we are even presented to a class of 10 years to say a few words. We talk to the heads of the local election commissions to learn of any problems in the run up to the elections and observe the voting. We then complete observation forms to send to Kyiv to be collated with those from other OSCE teams.
The efforts of locals to vote are inspiring. Far beyond the reach of public transport, old and young trudge along small roads, determined to make their voice heard. When one old lady votes and then slumps into a chair, commission members revive her with a stiff drink and warm words.
The polls close at 2000 and we watch the count. It's been a long, exciting day and everyone is tired. The votes are emptied onto the table, counted, re-counted and then recorded officially. When all are content, three commission members, accompanied by a policeman, squeeze into a Lada and race off down the icy roads towards the local district election office to deliver the results. We follow in pursuit. On arrival, a huge, jostling crowd from other voting districts is already there. It’s going to be a long night. We hand over to another OSCE team who will remain overnight and at 0200 try and find some food.
Some of these suggestions produce hollow laughter from other electoral experts in Kyiv. Those people allocated by candidates to local electoral commissions, the sceptics argue, could be sleepers for other parties or just plain unreliable, particularly where minor candidates are concerned. There are simply too many polling stations (33,000) to supervise properly. And so on. Fraud, these experts argue, is inevitable.
I think they're both right. On the one hand, fraud in the Ukrainian electoral system is potentially a problem, and it's vital that election commissions at local and national level plus the various political camps and the international observers do everything they can to ensure the election is clean. At the same time, the argument that some parties may be tempted to big up the supposed risk of fraud so as to prepare the ground to cry foul after the election - whatever the result - has the ring of plausibility. The assessment that some of the concerns expressed about fraud may in fact be exaggerated would support such a thesis. I've blogged before about this, and about the need to use the excellent offices of the OSCE/ODIHR observer mission both to minimise the risk of fraud during the election and to make it as hard as possible for anyone to raise unjustified concerns afterwards.
The good news is that, according to OSCE/ODIHR, all the main electoral camps are so far co-operating fully with the mission and have been raising many cases of potential fraud so that the OSCE/ODIHR experts can investigate and, where necessary, make recommendations to reduce the risks. Let's hope such co-operation continues so that all concerned can maximise the chances of the forthcoming election being as free and fair as possible - and a further step towards the consolidation of Ukraine's reputation as a democratic leader in the region.
What do you do when you think the other side is going to try and rig your country's elections? What if you're sure someone will accuse you of fixing the vote, and not accept the result? Good news: there's a highly-developed mechanism already in place to help minimise the risk of anyone trying to fix the elections. And the more you use it, the better it works.
With the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections less than six weeks away, it was great to see Foreign Minister Poroshenko make a strong statement this week in Washington that the elections will be democratic and free. Back in Kyiv, though, there are some harsh accusations going around. Party X says: we will win the elections. But Party Y will engage in electoral malpractice and claim a false victory. Party Y says: we will win the elections. But Party X will claim we've fixed the elections and claim really they won. All parties say there's a high risk of claims, court-cases and confusion after the second round of the elections on 7 February.
Luckily, help is at hand. I noted back in October that Ukraine had taken the terrific step of inviting the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, to observe the election. 60 long-term election observers arrived in late November and have already deployed across Ukraine. A further 600 short-term observers will arrive shortly before both rounds of the elections. OSCE/ODIHR have a strong record in Ukraine. Their assessment of the second round of the 2004 presidential election in November 2004 concluded that it "did not meet a considerable number of OSCE commitments and Council of Europe and other European standards for democratic elections." Their final report, issued in May 2005, concluded that both the first and second rounds "failed to meet a considerable number of OSCE commitments, Council of Europe and other international standards for democratic elections." OSCE/ODIHR also delivered important reports on the 2006 and 2007 Ukrainian parliamentary elections. These guys know what they're doing.
OSCE/ODIHR's impeccable credentials underline how valuable their presence can be to the electoral process. When I meet the experienced head of the mission, Heidi Tagliavini, on 11 December, she emphasises that OSCE/ODIHR will be keen for all the political parties to tell them about any potential for fraud which they see. That's a vital message. It's strongly in the interests of all Ukrainian political parties to take the election observers into their confidence and give them maximum support and access throughout their time here. OSCE/ODIHR have the resources and expertise to evaluate claims of fraud of all kinds and make recommendations for improving things.
If the parties can take OSCE/ODIHR into their confidence they will help maximise the chances that, in 2010, the observers will give Ukraine's presidential elections the cleanest possible bill of health. And if OSCE/ODIHR are able to issue a report saying that the elections were free, fair and democratic, that will make it tough for either side afterwards to claim that the election was fixed. That in turn will help avoid accusations and counter-accusations about vote-rigging after the elections - and enable Ukraine's leadership to get on with the important business of running the country.