Sunday, 11 November 2012
Ukraine: Vote-Rigging Reports Leave Electorate Cold
KIEV, Ukraine -- With nearly 100 percent of the vote now counted from Ukraine's controversial Oct 28 election, the Party of the Regions and its Communist allies look set to secure another term in power. While opposition forces are contesting the result, public protests are noticeably muted. Voting day saw widespread allegations of fraud, but this is not unusual in Ukraine, a country renowned for endemic corruption. Vote-rigging sparked the 2004 Orange Revolution, and every subsequent election has been marred by claims and counter-claims of falsification. However, in the recent elections, social media and the innovative use of technology in election monitoring meant falsifications were more visible and clearly substantiated than ever before. Polling stations in the Odessa region were temporarily closed after voters posted videos on YouTube of pens containing invisible ink. CCTV cameras providing live online streams of electoral stations captured incidences of ballot-box stuffing. The depths of widespread disillusionment were exposed on Russian social networking site VKontakte.ru, where large numbers of votes were openly sold for as little as $30. When civic organization Maidan Alliance had its website hacked, it utilized Twitter to continue to provide constant up-to-date source of information. In one highly contested district in Kiev, the opposition claimed election officials inflated the vote tally for Viktor Pylypyshyn, a government-aligned candidate. Pylypyshyn stands to win both a seat in the Verkhovna Rada and a convenient immunity from prosecution. He currently faces charges of abuse of office costing the taxpayer in excess of $2 million. As angry crowds gathered outside the electoral commission for the district, fights broke out and riot police used tear gas to quell trouble. The deputy head of the commission, Anastasia Prymak, blamed initial incorrect figures on a "computer malfunction" and broke down in sobs as she left a vote-counting session. Against this gloomy backdrop, home-video footage of a man dressed in a giant panda suit casting his vote quickly went viral, providing some much-needed light relief. Opposition parties Udar and Batkivshchyna have been quick to capitalize on these highly publicized problems of vote fraud. Vitali Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxer and leader of anti-corruption party Udar, has called for a cancellation of the election results. Jumping on the bandwagon, Batkivshchyna leader Arseniy Yatseniuk's call on the electorate to "defend their vote" was reminiscent of the Orange Revolution. However, the number of protesters who showed up to the Nov. 5 rally was not. In 2004, an estimated 1 million people took to the streets to demonstrate against vote rigging; in 2012, this number was reduced to approximately 1,000. The reasons for this comparatively dismal show are complex. One issue may be that the opposition is focusing on the wrong problem. While voter fraud undoubtedly occurred and deserved condemnation, the final vote count roughly corresponds to the findings of four independent exit polls. This suggests falsification was not extensive enough to affect the final outcome. A second and related issue is the international community and opposition's failure to highlight and respond to issues of corruption much earlier in proceedings. As noted by the independent electoral monitoring body OSCE, "a democratic election is not just about being able to choose which party to vote for, it is about ensuring parties are competing on a level playing field." In Ukraine, this was decidedly not the case; the election outcome was to an extent determined long before any votes were cast. In November 2011, the Verkhovna Rada approved constitutional amendments to the electoral system. The "new" mixed system, a combination of proportional representation and first-past-the-post seats, is almost identical to the one abolished after the 2004 Orange Revolution. According to political analysts, it heavily favors the incumbent party. During the election campaigns Yanukovych and his cronies heavily controlled media coverage. Charismatic opposition politicians Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko were incarcerated and unable to register as candidates, following trials condemned by the European Union as unfair and politically motivated. Indirect vote-buying practices were widespread with gifts bestowed on the electorate ranging from food parcels to free bicycles. Such voter manipulation tactics, while hard to quantify, were likely more pervasive and far-reaching than voter fraud. As there was virtually no public resistance to these corrupt practices prior to the elections, it is unsurprising there is little now. A key issue highlighted by the recent elections is the extent and depth of political apathy in Ukrainian society. The electorate, increasingly tired of a corrupt political elite, lacks the motivation to resist encroaching authoritarianism for the second time in a decade. That apathy is undoubtedly what Yanukovych is banking on.