Role of Trainers in Donetsk and Lughansk, Ukraine
During the weeks prior to Ukraine’s May 25 early presidential election, separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk vowed to prevent the election from proceeding in these regions, which they now proclaimed were “peoples’ republics.” However, despite threats and intimidation from these groups, election commissioners and International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) trainers found creative ways to prepare for and carry out elections in parts of these oblasts. The courage and dedication of those election professionals allowed many people to exercise their right to vote, undermining separatist claims that people in the region feel no attachment to Ukraine and strengthening the legitimacy of the election result.
IFES, together with the Central Election Commission (CEC), and through the generous support of United States Agency for International Development and the Government of Canada, developed a training plan where they would train district election officials and then continue mentoring these officials as they went on to train precinct-level polling officials. These plans did not envision dealing with an increasingly volatile security situation, however, as the election approached, election commission members had to contend with the determined efforts of separatists to prevent the election. Armed separatists set up checkpoints throughout the region, occupied election commission offices, threatened, and in a few cases detained, District Election Commission (DEC) members. Many polling station members received threatening telephone calls or SMS messages warning them not to participate in the election. In many places, such actions made the conduct of the election impossible. However, in others, election officials and the IFES trainers with whom they were working came up with creative ways to allow the training of election commissions, and then the election itself, to proceed.
Thinking outside the ballot box…
One of the most serious obstacles to preparations for the election was a lack of facilities. Many election commission offices were occupied or were under surveillance by separatists ahead of May 25. Those that were able to function undertook extra precautionary measures, such as operating only with the blinds closed, disconnecting their phone lines, or banning responding to the doorbell. In places where the election commission offices could not be used, trainings and meetings were held in secret in undisclosed locations, including cafes, public libraries, hotels and private apartments. Trainers and commissioners took care to constantly change the location of meeting venues and to keep the locations secret and known only to participants. In some cases, election commission members resorted to switching off their telephones before going to meetings to avoid remote detection.
In the town of Severodonetsk, armed separatists forced their way into a training and ordered participants to stop, asserting that election activities were forbidden. Quick-thinking IFES trainers were able to convince the gunmen that a training was not in fact an election activity, and thus not covered by the order from the separatist authorities. The trainings were (incredibly) allowed to proceed.
In Lysychansk, the district commission posted a lookout in front of the building where a training was taking place. Commissioners were asked to be prepared to leave by a back door in case of an assault by separatists. When armed separatists showed up towards the end of the training, 250 polling station officials were able to slip away quickly before the building was taken over.
From the start, separatists also deliberately targeted election materials, knowing full-well that without ballots, voter lists, seals and other materials, voting could not proceed. Cars passing through checkpoints were searched and in some cases, materials seized. IFES trainers and election commission members began sending such materials in unmarked boxes in the luggage compartments of intercity buses, which they knew from experience were not being searched. In one case, election commissioners reportedly used an ambulance to transport election materials through checkpoints. Trainers were also careful not to carry any election materials on their person and to be prepared with a story to tell at any checkpoint if stopped.
Information, advice and Moral Support
IFES trainers were a reliable source of information on procedural and technical issues for election commissioners in all regions of Ukraine, but their continual support was especially important in troubled Donetsk and Luhansk. IFES trainers provided a lifeline to commissioners working under distressing and uncertain circumstances. Some trainers were the first to receive calls following the kidnapping of commission members and seizure of facilities. In these cases the trainers were able to contact the appropriate authorities on behalf of the affected commission. On Election Day, trainers also fielded a lot of phone calls from members of Precinct Election Commissions (PECs) in those districts where the DEC was not operational. The trainers offered guidance where they could, and were able to contact CEC members directly on more difficult questions.
Several last-minute changes to the electoral law created confusion among PEC members, but IFES trainers were on hand to respond to questions and provide clarification. For example, many commissioners called IFES trainers for clarification on a change that added active-duty soldiers to the voter lists in their precincts. IFES trainers worked with the CEC to come up with a clear procedure for doing this, which they then communicated to the appropriate election commissions.
In addition to providing election commission members training and on-the-fly advice regarding new problems as they unfolded, the IFES trainings were often the first opportunity that election commission members actually had to meet and work together. By bringing commissioners together and allowing them to discover that their colleagues were also ready to proceed with elections, IFES trainings helped turn the election commissions from theoretical bodies into determined groups of election workers. Nevertheless, many commissioners went far beyond what might reasonably be expected from someone carrying out a low-paid, part-time job. The support and encouragement of IFES trainers no doubt helped convince some wavering precincts to see the project through, despite the risks.
After Election Day, IFES collected stories from a number of its trainers who supported the May 25 elections in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Due to continued security concerns, IFES will not release the names of these individuals nor their specific locations. These individual trainers and their counterparts in District and Precinct Elections Commissions acted in a patriotic and selfless way to ensure that some voters in the Eastern part of Ukraine were able to vote. Without the dedication and personal bravery of these individuals, turnout results in the East would have been lower and more voters would have been disenfranchised.