Monitoring an election in Ukraine opens a Canadian’s eyes

The ballots: Ukraine’s election has been internationally condemned as flawed.


A few weeks ago, two things happened to me independent of one another. I finally tracked down a book that I had been looking for and I went off to Ukraine for my second electoral observation mission.

The book is called From Dictatorship to Democracy, A Conceptual Framework For Liberation by Gene Sharp. It’s a small book, no bigger than a pocketbook and with only 130 pages, thin enough to stuff easily in the back pocket of a pair of jeans. It is an enormous book in that it is a non-violent how-to manual for citizens who want to throw off their dictatorship and replace it with more democratic government. Like Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, it is dense, carefully written and full of blinding flashes of the obvious — at least they become obvious to me once I have read them. It is a book of big ideas and practical lists. There is an interesting New York Times interview with Sharp.

As I was labouring through this book, I joined a Canadian mission of international observers to witness Ukraine’s 2012 Parliamentary elections. Canada fielded 420 long- and short-term volunteers to observe, record and report on whether the October 28 election was in compliance with Ukraine’s election laws and regulations and with international standards for free and fair elections.

I was a better observer for having read the book and a better student of the book’s subject for having observed the election.

The international community, including Canada’s mission, has roundly condemned Ukraine’s election as flawed. Weeks after the vote, the outcome of Ukraine’s parliamentary elections is still not settled. Several of the 225 districts that elect a single parliamentarian will be required by the Central Election Commission to undergo another election since tabulation of the October 28 count has been declared flawed. The proportional-representation votes on a separate ballot are also in dispute.

The stakes are high. If the Party of Regions wins a supermajority in Parliament it will be able to revise Ukraine’s constitution. With little opposition, the Party of Regions will likely increase the already extensive powers of the Party’s President Viktor Yanukovych. This is all part of a larger drama being played out in Ukraine that started in 2004 with the Orange Revolution. The future governance of Ukraine, democracy or dictatorship, is at centre stage.

Our small role as a monitoring mission was simple. We were to systematically and objectively record our observations of the voting process at the poll level and report them to our headquarters. This data would form the basis of a final report by our mission to the Canadian government. As a data gatherer, it was not my role to judge the various events occurring before election day, form opinions about any aspect of the whole mosaic that is public governance or violate my commitment to confidentiality. I was there to gather data in one of 225 constituencies on election day by visiting a random sample of polls.

My group was deployed to Donetsk in the southeast. Six of us were sent on further, a two-hour car ride to Mariupol, a steel town on the Azov Sea. The predominant language was Russian. My partner Maria spoke Russian — lucky me. We also had a driver and a translator. Our task was to observe preparations at polling stations before election day, observe about 10 polls on election day, including an opening and a closing, observe the counting of ballots and transmission of one poll’s vote count to constituency headquarters. It was for most of us an 18-to-24-hour shift.

At each poll, we found more than 20 dedicated volunteers — all ordinary citizens who were paid about $25 US for their services. There were independent observers checking to see if the electoral rules were followed.

Voters stood in line to vote when the polls opened. Even amidst anxiety and cynicism, more than 58 per cent of Ukrainians voted. This was impressive: Showing up to vote is a powerful indicator of the Ukrainian citizens’ belief in this fundamental principle of democracy.

We tried to be as visible as possible, to show everyone we were around and might even come back; the deterrence factor was one of our few tools.

On voting day we saw a broad assortment of other “observers” many of whom claimed to be with the media, though there wasn’t a pen to share amongst them.

Most polls we visited had three observers from the Party of Regions; they wore black slacks, black turtlenecks and black leather jackets — the junior thug dress code. They must have been trainees because they all got embarrassed when we asked for their ID.

Police and military are not allowed in the polling station. At one poll, we saw two guys dressed in colour coordinated combat fatigues with body armour and some well-designed badges. I thought they were serious military types. After talking to them, we determined they were self styled Cossacks:  military without guns, rebels without causes and mercenaries without a contract. Just hanging out on election day showing the colours; we all agreed they had the best and most expensive Halloween costumes we saw.

The elderly vote: pride and fierce determination

We loved the elderly: They voted with pride and fierce determination. In some polls, first-time voters were given a flower and everyone stopped work and applauded them. At many polls music was played outside the halls and people set up food stalls.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the only monitoring agency with a larger contingency than ours, has publicly called the last two years a major step back for democracy in Ukraine. In its report, an official says: “Considering the abuse of power, and the excessive role of money in this election, democratic progress appears to have reversed in Ukraine.” It noted:

  • The jailing of two top opposition party leaders, one of whom is the former president.
  • The suppression of media critical of the president
  • Widespread use of public resources by the president’s party and the intimidation of opposition candidates.
  • Many new election administration rules for tilting the process toward the president and his party.
  • Many aspects of the actual election that violated Ukrainian electoral law and international standards.

The report is being characterized as scathing in the international media. The Canadian mission of which I was a part was equally critical.

I constantly reminded myself that I was an observer. There was no place set for us at the table. We had no power. Yet even without power, our contribution was significant. We acted as a deterrent, damping overt and excessive chicanery while we were in sight. We also showed citizens with little power that we cared; the international community supported them in exercising their right to vote. I hope our presence gave them confidence and maybe a little power.

We had to remain unbiased while recognizing that subverting democracy is more than interfering with votes on election day. In places around the world the scale of chicanery is grander and the tricks are dirtier. Our role, to observe an election, can feel small if we see bigger wrongs we would like to right. Yet if we exhibit bias, we rob ourselves of the power of our presence granted by our objectivity.

One conclusion is worth stating. The international community can do little when the issue is democracy or dictatorship, but we must do what we can.

The power to choose rests in the hands of the people; they may have to overcome serious obstacles before, during and after election day.

That is where Gene Sharp’s book comes in. We can see what is happening in the countries caught up in what we in the West blithely call the Arab Spring. We have watched the profound effects still rippling through the lives of millions as the former Soviet Union states (including Ukraine) experiment with a multitude of governance structures. We have seen the genocide and human suffering as ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia ripped themselves apart. In all these instances, the rights and the lives of the citizens are radically changing.

My only observation affirms Sharp’s central thesis: Revolution and the eventual choice of governance structure is the choice of the citizens. The international community may help but ultimately the people are responsible for their governance. Sharp’s book offers guidance and legitimacy, there are many ways to change from dictatorship to democracy. The quicksilver that is democracy is hard to handle and easily lost; but it is possible.