Third Round – Preliminary Statement
On 26th December 2004, the British Helsinki Human Rights Group observed the repeat run-off of the Ukrainian presidential election, increasingly labeled the ‘third round’ by supporters ofboth candidates. BHHRG monitored the election in towns and villages in Chernovtsy, Khmelnitsky,Ternopol and Ivano-Frankovsk districts.
There were widespread examples of breaches of the electoral regulations and media bias in favour of Viktor Yushchenko. Improbably high turnouts – to judge from the OSCE’s criteria in the first two rounds in eastern Ukraine – were registered in the pro-Yushchenko regions of the west. The de facto control of just over half the country by supporters of Viktor Yushchenko meant that a free and fair election was not possible in practice since this political grip infected the voting and recording of the results.
BHHRG found that the first round of the election held on 31st October was conducted in an orderly, relaxed atmosphere that was unprecedented for post-Soviet Ukraine and that gave little immediate reason to suspect procedural foul play. However, during the second round, in the opinion of BHHRG’s observers, the process had deteriorated primarily because of the activities and undue influence of the “orange” opposition observers and “observer-journalists” inside polling stations. In the third round, the situation had worsened even further so that serious doubts must arise as to the integrity of the process and the veracity of the results. The West concentrated its allegations on claims that Viktor Yanukovich’s total on 21st November was inflated unfairly, but it neglected to note the effect of the political control by Yushchenko’s supporters over western Ukraine which may have seriously deflated the prime minister’s poll numbers then – and again on 26th December.
The decision of the Ukrainian Supreme Court, under pressure from the streets and Western governments, to order a third round of voting seems to have intensified the distortion of the electoral process in “orange”-run regions. Many of the so-called improvements to election procedures imposed for the third round had the effect of cementing the Yushchenko camp’s de facto control in much of the country and disenfranchised many Yanukovich supporters.
- On 7th December, as part of a “package of reforms” the Ukrainian parliament changed the election law to limit access to the mobile ballot box only to “Group 1” invalids. “Group 1” includes people rendered immobile due to injury or illness but not to those who are de facto immobile simply due to age. Probably millions of elderly Ukrainians were disenfranchised. At midday on 25th December, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court reversed the legislation. Officially, every territorial election commission (TEC) in the country had been informed no later than 3.30 p.m. on Christmas Day, election eve, that other categories of citizens would be eligible to vote at home as well. Evidently, however, some TECs were either not informed or did not transmit the information to the precinct election commissions on time. Consequently, voters believed they had to complete the application procedure for obtaining home voting rights before 8 p.m. Saturday (i.e. Christmas Day for Catholics). In almost all polling stations visited, the number of those entitled to vote by the mobile box was half the number in Round 2. When taken together for all Ukraine, this may have meant the difference between victory and defeat. It is estimated that anywhere from 3-4 million of the c.11 million pensioners in Ukraine are essentially home-bound. Reports emerged on election day that elderly voters had died in polling places after exerting the effort required to get there from their homes.
- There were also inconsistencies in the application of the law’s restrictions on absentee voting. Some commission chairmen said that all voting by absentee ballot had to be done at the TEC. Others claimed that one polling station was designated for this purpose. In Kamenets-Podolsky 16/193, for example, the chairwoman told BHHRG that the 880 extra ballot papers at her polling station were for absentee voters and that her polling station was the only one in the district where people could vote this way. In a sparsely inhabited area of Ukraine where the official size of the electorate may be inflated (because of widespread migration) it is disquieting to see so many extra ballots floating around amid confusion over how the law is to be applied.
- In the areas visited by BHHRG, pro-Viktor Yuschenko forces tightly controlled TV and other media. Local and national TV channels were awash with orange right up to and during election day when campaigning was supposed to be prohibited. For instance, on Christmas Day, election eve, one nationwide TV channel broadcast pictures of Christmas tree decorated mainly with tangerines! The orange “bombardment” was done in such a way as to avoid mention of Yuschenko himself or the election but the message was clear and evidence of clear bias by the election authorities who failed to prevent or condemn it.
- On polling day, the Group’s observers saw political agitation on behalf of Mr. Yushchenko inside polling stations. This ranged from little orange flowers adorning the voting booths in one village to local observers wearing bright orange scarves elsewhere. The orange scarf-wearing Yushchenko observers argued that their choice of colour was allowed because no party affiliation was printed on them – just like the orange scarf worn by Mr. Yushchenko at his non-stop rally in Kiev’s Independence Square. In fact, the scarves were all identical and of the distinctive “day-glo” variety minus the slogan “Tak!” and party logo. The message these Yushchenko colours conveyed was clear – and intimidating since they were worn by young men in their twenties. Observers for the other candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, complained about these and other examples of banned electioneering on polling day in favour of Yushchenko including the flying of an orange flag on top of the town hall in Snyatin.
- The Group’s observers examined the voters’ lists and in several places and found examples of signatures that were practically identical. These cases were usually in pairs for people with identical surnames. Maybe the two people were present and only one signed, but in western Ukraine many people have close relatives who have migrated to find work abroad. These migrant workers travel abroad with their passports leaving their domestic ID cards at home. This makes double voting possible, since Ukrainians abroad may vote in embassies and consulates while someone else might present the ID back home in Ukraine and be granted the right to vote either by negligent or dishonest poll workers.
- The possibility of widespread fraudulent voting in western Ukraine must be considered given the extraordinarily high turnouts in areas known to have provided many hundreds of thousands of migrants to western and central Europe. Oddly enough, the OSCE team has repeatedly neglected the improbably high turnouts in western Ukraine. While the OSCE found a 96% turnout in Donetsk on 21st November, 2004, evidence of fraud it ignored similarly high or even higher claimed pro-Yushchenko turnouts in the west. On 26th December, the OSCE saw nothing implausible in turnouts of 96% of registered voters in Ivano-Frankovsk and Tarnopol (two of the most de-populated regions in Ukraine), nor of 93% of registerd adults in Lvov or of 91% in Volhynia.
- The secrecy of the ballot continued to be compromised by the use of transparent ballot boxes which allowed observers to see which of the two candidates many voters had chosen since the flimsy ballot papers were easily decipherable. The fact that young men who were Yushchenko observers sat right next to many ballot boxes may have intimidated voters who could also see how earlier voters had cast their ballots.
- Yanukovich observers were registered everywhere visited by BHHRG’s monitors but in small villages in western Ukraine they were frequently absent. The explanation that they had gone away temporarily or had gone home early left the suspicion open that either they had been encouraged or forced to leave, or had never been there in the first place. The absence of one candidate’s observers undermined the credibility of the process and especially of the count.
- The sad conclusion must be that for all the media-generated euphoria about Ukraine’s “orange revolution” each successive round of voting saw a decline in the probity of the electoral process. The West too flouted its own officially-proclaimed concerns following the earlier rounds by rushing to congratulate its preferred candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, even before the results were fully tabulated and any challenges to them heard – and despite reproving President Putin for jumping the gun in the other direction on 22nd November. Far from being a worthy example of democracy vindicated, on 26th December, 2004, Ukraine’s third round of voting for her third president since 1991 marked a decline in the legitimacy of her elected institutions.