Ukrainian Presidential Election Paves Way for October Parliamentary Elections
On April 21, 2019, Ukrainian citizens headed to the polls to select their next president in a second-round election triggered after no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round on March 31. Volodymyr Zelenskyi, representing the Servant of the People Party and a relative newcomer to Ukrainian politics, achieved a landslide 73.23 percent of the vote, with incumbent President Petro Poroshenko receiving 24.45 percent.
This election comes at a critical juncture for Ukraine. Its territorial integrity is under continuous threat from its eastern neighbor with wide socio-economic and political ramifications and the country is now eagerly seeking integration into Western political and security structures. It is also only the second election since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, which ousted Viktor Yanukovych and sparked Russia to seize control over the Crimean Peninsula and support separatist forces in Ukraine’s east, resulting in the occupation of part of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
In both rounds, voters turned out in relatively high numbers to select their next leader. Over 61 percent of the country’s 30 million registered voters headed to one of the country’s 29,919 polling stations to cast their ballot, with official results announced by the Central Election Commission (CEC) on April 30. The results confirmed that most Ukrainian voters preferred a new president to face their country’s pressing domestic and international challenges.
The election represented an important milestone for both the country and election administration. This was the first major election held during the administration of the new CEC whose members and leadership were appointed in September 2018. Observers from a diverse range of international and domestic monitoring missions publicly stated that Election Day was carried out in a generally professional and smooth manner across Ukraine. Violations mainly occurred during the campaign period and were due to a flawed legal framework. The few violations noted on the first- and second-round Election Days had no impact on the final result. The efforts of the election officials at all levels – as well as the large margin of victory – leave little doubt that this election is a democratic achievement for all involved.
However, it is not time for Ukrainians to rest. Parliamentary elections are just a few months away, so it is critical that election stakeholders now seriously reflect on the achievements and shortcomings of the presidential election process and draw lessons learned to improve future elections and begin addressing observer recommendations. The parliamentary elections in October will likely be fiercely contested and potentially disputed, testing the durability of Ukraine’s election system in a manner not seen during the presidential election.
The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has worked in Ukraine since 1994 and continues to act as a close partner to election administration, civil society, political stakeholders and the international community to promote democratic reforms. Based on its electoral and political expertise, IFES has produced 2019 Presidential Election in Ukraine: Post-Election Report, which outlines the achievements of election stakeholders and critical improvements that must be implemented to strengthen electoral processes and safeguard the democratic landscape for future elections. The report is also based on reviews of observer statements and available recommendations as well as discussions with electoral stakeholders. In addition to IFES.org, the full report will soon be available on the newly launched IFESUkraine.org.
Significant improvements were made ahead of this presidential election, including:
- Essential upgrades to the preparedness of authorities and election management to withstand cyberattacks;
- Wide-scale cascade training of all levels of election administration, likely contributing to a decrease in significant violations during voting, counting and tabulation;
- An improvement in the police and security actors in maintaining order and public safety; and
- A demonstrably competitive campaign environment.
Despite these notable achievements, a number of concerns remain both for future presidential elections and upcoming local and parliamentary elections.
The legal framework for elections continues to require substantial change in order to meet international standards. The Presidential Election Law is arguably the least flawed of the laws governing elections, but a number of outstanding recommendations put forward by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Venice Commission to remove existing gaps and inconsistencies in the law and unnecessarily burdensome provisions have still not been implemented. For some electoral violations, the law fails to set sanctions or sanctions are not sufficiently dissuasive. The election dispute resolution process suffers from inconsistent legal frameworks, overlapping jurisdictions and extremely tight deadlines. The IFES report offers recommendations to address these and other inconsistencies and flaws and calls on the Parliament and other stakeholders to take concrete and immediate action.
A number of observer and civil society groups raised issues with the election campaign and pointed to the questionable legality of certain types of campaigning by a number of candidates – particularly in relation to political finance and abuse of state resources. The law lacks clarity regarding what constitutes election campaigning, fails to stipulate sanctions for noncompliance and should enable authorities to better investigate the abuse of state resources. It is also recommended to consider imposing campaign spending limits in order to level the playing field for candidates in the future.
Leveling the playing field also requires making the election process more inclusive and accessible. Nearly all credible observer groups noted that polling stations remain largely inaccessible for people with disabilities, with little being done to make campaign and election materials inclusive as required under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which Ukraine is party. Few women stand as candidates and are eventually elected in Ukraine. Of the 39 initially registered presidential candidates, only four were women. Women are significantly underrepresented in Parliament, at only 11.6 percent. This highlights the need for special measures to increase women’s political representation before the October 2019 parliamentary elections.
Other areas also require improvement to guarantee that Ukraine’s elections are transparent, inclusive and democratic. The appointment mechanism and late replacement of members of District Election Commissions and Precinct Election Commissions presents a risk that election administrators will lack the training and knowledge to carry out their duties. The voting process itself must be examined in order to guarantee fundamentals such as the secrecy of the vote. There must be reforms to the voter registration process to keep it from being unnecessarily burdensome for voters who live away from their place of official residence, such as internally displaced persons and mobile citizens.
Despite the fact that the presidential election was held under a challenging political environment, the election administration was able to deliver an orderly and professionally managed electoral process that resulted in a peaceful transfer of power. The presidential election was characterized by uncertainty about the outcome in the first round and by a wide gap between the winner and second-place finisher in the run-off. Hence, it may not have tested the full range of vulnerabilities to Ukraine’s election process, which the upcoming parliamentary elections undoubtedly will. All election stakeholders must now come together to review the work that still must be done to advance Ukraine’s democratic progress.