Elections Work Ukraine 2010



This is election day, January 17th and the polls closed three hours ago. I am working in snowbound rural Bilovods'k, a town near Ukraine's eastern border with Russia. Roughly forty-five exhausted people fill the second floor of a decrepit village culture center, which has been converted into a temporary District Election Commission (DEC). It is 11:05 pm and the trickle of polling stations bringing their results to the DEC for certification is increasing to a steady stream. I'm guessing that we have a long night ahead of us.


En route to Bilovods'k from Luhansk

My German partner and I are two of some 490 international observers representing twenty-four nations spanning Europe, Russia, former Soviet Republics and North America. Observers have been deployed across Ukraine in teams of two from different countries to monitor the presidential election and report what we witness.

The chairperson of this DEC leaves no doubt who is in control. Olga, my interpreter, characterizes her as an 'old school Soviet socialist nit picker.' Colorfully dressed and in total control, her job is to officially receive the polling station protocols as each committee arrives at the DEC.

She holds up a protocol with both hands, pausing for dramatic effect, then begins reading aloud the results. She stops and booms ferociously at the silent polling station committee assembled before her.

"What is this mess?! These figures are smudged! This shows no respect for the election of a president!"


Sorry. Dogs don't vote here

Multiple people begin talking at once. Her voice rises above them and she grudgingly accepts the protocol. DEC staff processes its accompanying election materials and departs the room.

The next committee is not so lucky. There is a discrepancy between ballots issued, ballots used and ballots spoiled and the committee is ordered back to their polling station to reconvene and reconcile results. Olga attempts to ask them how far they will have to drive to their polling station, but they appear too despondent to respond and simply turn away as they leave. It will be a long night of great repetition for them that will surely continue well into the next day.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) typically issues a post-election assessment about the degree to which a country has met its commitments to international standards for holding democratic elections. For this election, OSCE'S preliminary assessment is a summary of all our reports sent by fax, phone or relayed by courier to headquarters in Kyiv. For many countries this is the most watched report to ensue from an election and is the one that grabs the headlines.


First-time voter receiving a congratulatory rose

Americans say, only half jokingly, that observers should be deployed here in the US. In fact, the OSCE does deploy monitors to observe US elections. It sends observers to all member states, but to avoid a conflict of interest, nationals of the host country never observe their own elections. We are instructed to watch for signs of fraud, voter intimidation, irregularities in protocols, vote rigging, ballot stuffing and like. OSCE assessments neither condemn nor endorse particular candidates nor issues. The assessments simply address member states' compliance with their commitments to democratic elections.

1:00 a.m. Shouting erupts from the stairwell. People now form a winding line which snakes outside into a large crowd, impatiently pushing against a police line. Argumentation ensues. Olga can make out just a few words but she sums up the mood by saying, "I can tell you that people are getting really agitated here." Our driver has been instructed to wait for us in the parking lot and we briefly consider whether it would be prudent to leave. In the past four hours the DEC has processed a trifling nine out of 195 polling stations and now, inexplicably, they have recessed indefinitely. Tempers are fraying and I'm beginning to feel nervous about their lack of progress.


Carrying ballot box to a residence for voters with special needs

Things quiet down when the police give in to the crowd's demand to wait inside the lower lobby where it's not so bitterly cold. Despite these few outbursts, I have the impression that tension during this election is isolated and anomalous and borne more out of bureaucratic incompetence than political unrest.

This is my sixth deployment as a volunteer election monitor. Airfare, briefings, logistics, and arrangements for an interpreter and driver are provided by the OSCE. Typically volunteers are selected based on prior international experience living and working abroad, flexibility and diplomacy when working under stressful conditions. The latter can be a challenge, especially when jet lag enters the mix of tension, foreign language and culture. During Ukraine's 2004 election I had the unpleasant experience of being verbally accosted as an American meddler, and on another occasion I was repeatedly jabbed in the chest and asked what right I had to be in Ukraine.

This year's election, by comparison, appears much calmer, at least this first round. And my general impression is that people in most countries appreciate the presence of foreign election monitors which focuses attention on the democratic process. In hospitable contrast to Ukraine in 2004, I have been asked to share meals and take coffee with people who find out I have traveled great distance to Ukraine. Another unmistakable change is that the fervent idealism of the Orange Revolution has faded into a hazy sunset of political cynicism.


Home voting for voters with special needs

Ukrainians joke that the Orange Revolution's Yushchenko went from "hero to zero" in the space of five years as Ukraine's president. Thanks to rampant corruption, political stalemate and an economy in deep recession, his popularity ratings fell to single digits heading into the election. Cynicism had developed to the point that one of the 18 presidential candidates changed his surname so that he would appear on the ballot as "Mr. Against All." Preliminary election results have yielded what opinion polls predicted: on February 7th Russian-leaning Viktor Yanukovych and West-leaning Yulia Tymoshenko will compete in a run off election.

Whoever wins the second round will be in the unenviable position of governing a nation that today is on the verge of default with an International Monetary Fund lending program, whose currency has recently lost 30% of its value and whose economy contracted by 15% last year. About half the population earns less than $200 per month. My interpreter, who has a Ph.D. in Literature, earns just such a salary for teaching full time at the local university. At 35 she has recently moved back into her parents' house because of the high cost of living. Wages may in part account for there being 3.5 million less Ukrainians living in Ukraine today than there were a decade ago.


District Election Commission

3:40 a.m. Once again the DEC committee is in recess. It has been recessed for an entire hour at this point and is nowhere in sight. It has processed a paltry 21 polling stations. New arguing starts this time between domestic observers and I cannot imagine how this process can continue much longer with nerves so frayed and people already exhausted and cold. We get a call from our supervisor advising us to return to our hotel and sleep for a few hours, then continue observing in the morning. Just as we are leaving the building the district election committee resumes business. Olga gets a call on her cell phone and steps away from us. Just then someone speaks to me and Anka, my German partner who speaks fluent Russian. She offers to translate but instead she turns and translates Russian into German without realizing it; we are all becoming exhausted. Once outside I am reminded how cold it is. The temperature is somewhere around 10 degrees Fahrenheit. We walk briskly across sparkling and crunchy snow, climb into our driver's Chery Tiggo, a Chinese SUV, and he prepares to exit the parking lot only to find it is blocked by a Russian Lada. He briefly considers driving down the wide concrete stairs but concludes they are too steep.

When people learn I do election work abroad, a common question I encounter is, "Isn't it dangerous?" I have rarely felt concerned about my personal safety. The OSCE warns that the greatest threat is liable to come from road accidents. And, I must add, no election experience of mine would be complete without a tale from the road. Following Ukraine's 2004 election we were rear-ended while stopped in traffic and I suffered minor whiplash. This year...

A police officer seeing our predicament raps on the window."You'll never find the owner to that car in this crowd," he says and directs us instead to a road leading up a steep hill behind the culture center. It is indeed steep and snow covered. Our driver makes multiple attempts to climb the snowy hill but keeps losing traction. With each attempt, he starts further and further away and races faster and faster toward the hill. Just when it seems to be getting a little dicey--speed and success versus speed and loss of control--the same officer again raps on the window. "Look. What are you doing?! The car is gone." It is an hour's drive back to our hotel and after a few hours sleep we return to continue monitoring the process.


Post-election debriefing among OSCE observers in Luhansk

Two days later upon my return to Kiev I come across a woman dressed in a hooded white robe standing alone and somewhat enigmatically at the center of Independence Square. She explains to me that she is keeping a vigil with prayers for Ukraine. Now five years after the Orange Revolution thousands of political squatters have been reduced to a party of one and prayers have co-opted political action. With a dispirited electorate and the absence of revolutionary candidates this time around, it will be interesting to see what intensity the second round of elections brings in a week's time.