Ukrainians home and abroad flocked to the polls to cast their ballots on March 31 to choose the country’s next president.
The result of the election, widely praised as free and fair by domestic and international monitors, left incumbent president Petro Poroshenko dangerously close to being eliminated.
Though, with no candidate taking more than 50 percent of the vote, a second-round run-off between Poroshenko and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky will be held on Sunday, April 21.
Ukraine Away caught up with Tamara Olexy – executive director of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA), who leads the organization’s team of international election observers in Ukraine – to hear her thoughts on the conduct of the election so far.
Tamara, UCCA and the Ukrainian World Congress (UWC) reported that this election met international standards. What, for you, were the main positives and challenges reported during this election.
I believe in general the elections were very well managed and allowed the Ukrainian electorate to vote in a secure an ordered manner.
As we reported in our preliminary statement, which we presented the day after the elections at the press conference, we saw very few irregularities. Those that were reported, we believe, are not systemic in nature and they didn’t impact the result of the elections.
Some of the minor procedural errors that were noticed were, for example, the presence of campaign advertising and that the information for voters was not displayed correctly, but I believe in most cases it was due to lack of space at the polling stations for all the information to be hung evenly for all the candidates.
I think one of the most important things that we used to see on many occasions from ours various different polling election missions is that the polling stations located on the second and the third floors make it really difficult for the elderly and for the disabled to access the voting stations. I believe this need to be addressed because a very small minority of polling stations are equipped to handle anybody with any disabilities.
With that being said, these isolated irregularities didn’t impact the election results. We are able to base our reporting on the online forms from our observers, we had over 750 reports submitted, so we believe that the first round of the presidential elections in Ukraine did meet international standards.
You have been an observer to almost every election in Ukraine, do you see progress in the organization of the electoral process and elections themselves? Especially in comparison to previous years?
Yes. It is almost embarrassing to say, but I’ve monitored every election in Ukraine since 1994 except the second round of the Orange Revolution, though I was there for the first and the last rounds. So I have seen quite a few improvements.
I believe that the level of organization is much higher. From the time it takes to process each voter to the notable improvements in the performance of the election commissions themselves, who I think are much better trained now. Similarly, I think also one of the most important positive steps in recent years is allowing local NGOs to be present as elections observers.
There is, however, room for improvement, and I can give just a few examples.
I think the over-reliance on handwritten protocols is a bit of an issue. It not only increases the likelihood of human error but it also significantly slows down the process. I don’t see why it should be so hard to preprint protocols that have, at least, the candidates’ names on them. I think it would be easier and it would quicken the pace of the protocol process.
I know in previous elections there used to be instructions on how to fill up the ballots properly for the vote to count, I didn’t see that this year at the elections and I think samples could be provided, clearly showing how to fill out and how not to fill out the ballot.
These could be just minor improvements and we will probably outline some more recommendations in our final report after the second round of the elections (April 21 – Ed).
What are the peculiarities of this election campaign? Have you witnessed or experienced any new approaches or campaign tactics?
Well, one of the things that I would like to underscore – and this is due to Russian illegal annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing war in the Donbass – there is a large percentage of eligible voters that were not able to participate in elections.
This is an extremely difficult situation for Ukraine, but I do believe that the authorities tried to make every effort to help these disenfranchised voters by establishing special procedures for them.
This is something that most countries don’t experience, and I think [Ukrainian authorities] are trying their best to allow these voters to participate in the electoral process. So, I think that is one issue that people need to take into consideration when they evaluate how the election is occurring in Ukraine.
I also think that, for the most part, each candidate does have access to the media and I understand that certain media cover some candidates more than others – though, in general, candidates had access to coverage.
Finally, now that there are so many media outlets that cover the various different issues that affect the voters, I believe debates are pretty important. The debates before the first round of elections among numerous candidates were quite productive, with this second round I am happy to see that the debates were scheduled.
But I also think that in addition to the debates, a ‘town hall’ format is not a bad idea since each region of Ukraine has different issues, so relying on campaign slogans doesn’t provide the overall picture of the position of each candidate.
If you have ‘town hall’ meetings throughout the country you can address different issues that affect each different region and propose your agenda to those voters. I think it brings more information for people to make a more educated decision as to whom they would like to vote for.
Do you think debates should be compulsory?
I think it would be a very good idea. As I said, if you just rely only on campaign slogans you don’t see the entire picture, so you want to hear candidates’ positions on various different issues, not just a single word. Campaign slogans are one sentence which fails to encapsulate the whole position of each candidate.
How do the debates work in the USA, are they effective?
Yes, I believe they are effective. An average participant in the electoral process can see how the person reacts under different stress, you also see their answers to a variety of different issues on local, national and international levels: foreign policy, healthcare, education, security and so on.
All these issues need to be addressed and the society needs to hear how this candidate would propose to improve all these issues.
Returning to Ukrainian elections, whose election campaign was most effective or most interesting? What are the features of this time run up campaigns?
The use of social media is very important nowadays. In the United States there used to be just the televised campaigns or articles in newspapers, but now social media for the younger generations is very important to engage them in the political process. So this was important for all the candidates.
Basing on the results of this first round of the elections, what changes in the society have you noticed?
My personal view is that there is a lot of frustration that the corruption hasn’t been completely tackled, that the standard of living hasn’t improved as much as the citizens would have liked and, probably, the most hurtful is the continuing war in the East with the enormous loss of lives – where over 13,000 Ukrainian heroes have died as a result.
At the same time, I also think that you can’t overlook the positive steps that have taken place over the last five years. From the visa-free regime with the EU to the Tomos for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, support for the Ukrainian language, medical reform – to name a few.
Probably the most important thing that has been accomplished over the last five years, speaking for the Ukrainian-American standpoint, is all the support that Ukraine has garnered throughout the world.
If you look just at the United States, never before had members of Congress of both sides of the aisle wholeheartedly supported Ukraine. I think that is the job of any national leader, so I think people need to consider that the work that has been done for the last five years in that regard is extremely important.
Before the elections, there were a lot of posts and other information about the dangerous situation in Ukraine, regarding the activity of nationalist, radicals and other activists. Were those fears realized in what your observers faced here?
I think the community understands the Russian propaganda, “Russkii mir” and so on, it is happening not only within Ukraine but it’s also in countries throughout the world.
Russia perfectly understands how to use propaganda and they have been spreading these ideas for decades if not for centuries. Members of the Ukrainian-American community understand this and try to explain this to their compatriots in their respective countries – that Ukraine is not a country of fascists.
Even the result of the first round of the elections showed that those who were considered extreme right candidates received very little electoral support compared to the other countries in Europe. I think these are false narratives, though we explain to our observers – at the pre-election briefings – the goals and purpose of Russian propaganda, we try to educate them to understand and look at it in a different way.
What are your expectations before the second round of the elections from the observer’s point of view? Maybe there can be more tension or some incensement of violations?
I would think now that this a decisive round of elections between the two finalists, I would like to hope that every Ukrainian understands that they have the moral duty to vote. Voting, in my opinion, is a path to the stronger and more vibrant democracy, and this is the most important right and responsibility that a citizen has in their country. I’d like to hope that they will take it seriously.
Although the UCCA does not support any candidate, we support Ukraine’s freedom and independence. We believe that a democratic and sovereign Ukraine is not only in the national interests of the United States – of which I am a citizen – but also is a keystone of freedom and stability in the entire region.
There are certain positions the UCCA stands for and we believe that are on the best interests of Ukraine. They are the ability to deter foreign aggressors – let’s be honest, to deter Russia – we support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, we hope and we pray that Ukraine continues its course of Euro-Atlantic integration including NATO and the European Union. We obviously want a market economy in Ukraine and we want Ukraine to defend basic human rights and freedoms, not to mention the Ukrainian language.
Talking about your team of observers, how many were there during the first round and what is expected before the second round?
We (UCCA) had 78 observers registered with the Central Election Commission for the first round of elections. We knew that there will likely be the second round of elections because there were so many candidates, we put out a call for additional volunteers for the second round.
The biggest issue that we have right now is that it falls on April 21, which is Easter Sunday and that is an important holiday for all Christians. But, in the end, we did receive additional ten observers, so although some of our observers will not be returning to Ukraine, I suspect that we will have several dozen and we will be, again, coordinating with the Ukrainian World Congress to make sure that our missions cover as many territories as possible. This is so we do not overlap.
UCCA and UWC are the only observers that monitor the elections process at diplomatic posts, not only in the United States but in countries where Ukrainians reside. During the first round, we monitored elections in 25 different countries around the world.
Who are these people, who have volunteered to be observers?
On this matter, I have to be extremely thankful for our observer mission. The majority are the Ukrainian-Americans but not only that. We have many members who are just Americans that have absolutely no connection to Ukraine, but wanted to help the democratic process – they have been exposed to Ukrainian culture Ukrainian issues.
Our missions are all volunteers, we are not paid by the US government and UCCA does not pay them. We do the coordination on the ground, we provide the briefing materials so that they are well appraised of Ukraine’s election law and what are demands for international observers.
I have to say that their commitment to democracy needs to be commended because this is a large undertaking for an individual to give up their time and money to participate in such an important mission.
Returning to elections in Ukraine, already we hear some thoughts about future parliamentary elections in autumn this year. Do you have any plans to participate as well?
Our executive board made a decision at a recent meeting that we will host a delegation of international elections observers for the parliamentary elections as well. We haven’t missed an election since 1991 and we hope to have a large delegation for the elections in the Autumn.
We are one of the few NGOs registered with the Central Election Commission, but the only Ukrainian-American organization. That gives us the ability to work with our community and work with the general American public to draw interest in serving as election observers.
How it is possible to become a part of your team of observers? Can a Ukrainian citizen apply for it?
We do not accept Ukrainian citizens, anybody that doesn’t have a Ukrainian passport is eligible to apply.
We obviously have the forms that the Central Election Commission provides and we also have an additional form that the UCCA provides, where we evaluate language skills, if there is experience in observing elections, not just in Ukraine but anywhere.
We try to take our processes very open, we understand that observers are paying their own cost, so we try to accommodate the area where they like to monitor the elections.
If somebody doesn’t speak Ukrainian, for example, we try to make sure that his or her partner will be fluent so they can work together, there is a lot of coordination on our part. I think we are unique in the fact that most of our observers not only speak the language but understand the mindset and the culture of Ukraine which gives us a little edge over other NGOs.
Do you get any feedback or cooperation from the Ukrainian Embassy, in your activity in the USA? What are your relations?
We don’t take any directives from anybody but we do work on issues together. We have a full-time Washington office that monitors Congress and keeps in touch with members of Congress.
We also have, in our different branches around the United States, an external affairs person. We inform the Embassy about the issues that we are working on.
We also hold various different conferences, seminars, and forums in matters that are timely, we do an annual report-card of Ukraine which reviews the country’s progress in various different sectors over the last year, we hold special conferences on historical topics to educate the general public in the USA on Ukraine’s true history. So there are a lot of things that we do.