Polls closed in the decisive presidential election runoff yesterday (November 21) between Viktor Yushchenko, the candidate of the center-right coalition of market liberals and nationalists, and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who was backed by outgoing president Leonid Kuchma and the “oligarchs.” The Central Electoral Commission has failed to release final results so far, but it said Yanukovych led with 49.57% against Yushchenko’s 46.57%, with 98.57% ballots counted by noon today (November 22), effectively proclaiming Yanukovych the winner. Exit polls, however, showed a victory for Yushchenko. The National Exit Poll consortium, whose survey was anonymous, said Yushchenko led Yanukovych by 11% percentage points, 54-43, while the poll conducted by Sotsis and Social Monitoring showed a 49.4-46% edge in Yushchenko’s favor.
This was probably Ukraine’s dirtiest election since independence in 1991. The ruling elite, which threw all its weight behind Yanukovych, committed numerous violations in the run-up and especially on election day. The irregularities ranged from media intimidation to open physical violence, and deployeda wide arsenal of dirty tricks.
The elections’ first round on October 31 produced no winner, as both Yushchenko and Yanukovych scored between 39-40% of the popular ballot, with Yushchenko ahead by 0.65%. The first round was marred by violations, and U.S., EU, and OSCE observers said it was not in line with democratic standards. But the runoff on November 21 was even worse, as Ukraine’s Human Rights Commissioner, Nina Karpachova, acknowledged.
The most widespread irregularities in the first round included disenfranchisement through entering wrong information about voters on voter rolls and voting with absentee ballots, when voters were compelled, by bribery or intimidation, to de-register from polling stations in their residential areas and travel across Ukraine to vote elsewhere. The runoff produced fewer errors in voter rolls, so this irregularity can probably be written off as local bureaucrats’ sloppiness. But the Committee of Voters, a watchdog group, said the runoff’s main problem concerned the misuse of absentee ballots. Originally, absentee ballots were allowed with a noble goal — to allow people who are far from home with compelling reasons to still vote. But this turned out to be a dangerous legal loophole. Traveling in organized groups by buses and trains, each “absentee” could vote several times in different places during election day. Voting by the “absentees” was employed on a mass scale in the runoff. The Committee of Voters counted over 100 buses transporting “absentees” from district to district.
Parliament, which is no longer dominated by pro-government factions, did everything in its power to close the loophole. On November 18 parliament passed a law banning absentee ballots by 236 votes out of the 388 parliamentarians present. But President Leonid Kuchma refused to sign the law, saying that the world has had no precedents for amending election legislation with so little time left until the poll. “This would leave millions of people out of the Ukrainian presidential election,” he said on November 19. Yushchenko, against whom the “absentee” weapon has been used, reacted angrily. “The president is aware that he has created a Ukrainian model of criminal government,” he told Channel 5. “Kuchma refusing to sign this bill into law is more logical than if he agreed to sign it.”
The morning of November 21 began with reports of buses loaded with “absentees” cruising across the country. In Kyiv, activists from the pro-Yushchenko Pora (It’s Time) youth movement blocked the departure to Poltava Region of buses with “absentee” employees of the Naftohaz Ukrainy government-controlled oil and gas company. Public sector employees were reportedly forced to vote using absentee ballots en masse. Police and tax officers in pro-Yushchenko western and central Ukrainian regions complained that passports were collected from them in exchange for absentee ballots, under threat of dismissal from jobs.
The “absentee” voting was not the only trick employed. Parliamentarian Mykola Katerynchuk, an aide to Yushchenko, said that thousands of observers were barred from polling stations in eastern and central areas, and several of Yushchenko’s aides, including MPs Sergei Sobolev and Sergei Teryokhin, were beaten up. There were reports of youths breaking into polling stations and smashing ballot boxes, while police stood by. In contrast, a policeman from a village in Cherkasy region was shot dead defending ballots from unidentified intruders shortly before polls opened. Fake opposition leaflets claiming that Yushchenko had called on his voters to boycott the runoff were found in Kyiv several days before the vote. Cases of so-called “carousel voting,” where people are offered money for casting already-marked ballots and subsequently taking blank ballots out of polling stations, were reported in student hostels in Kyiv and eastern Kharkiv. The Committee of Voters election watchdog reported that voter rolls included non-existent inhabitants of three non-existent apartment blocks in the Crimean capital, Simferopol. Even such exotic means as pens with vanishing ink, offered to voters for filling out ballot papers, were reportedly used at several polling stations in the predominantly pro-Yushchenko cities of Kyiv and Lviv.
It remains to be seen whether dirty tricks produced the desired effect in favor of Yanukovych. They probably failed on the national scale, for several reasons. First, a well-organized opposition often prevented tricks or reported them to the media. Second, outright trickery apparently often produced an opposite effect, prompting those who had initially hesitated to now vote against the government-backed candidate. Finally it was not always possible to control for whom the “absentees” actually voted. But in the east, especially Yanukovych’s power base — Donetsk Region — vote rigging probably worked, as the claimed 96% turnout is reminiscent of the Soviet era’s fantastic turnouts.
(Interfax-Ukraine, November 19; Radio Era, November 20; Korrespondent.net, Interfax-Ukraine, UNIAN, ICTV November 21; Channel 5, November 18-21)