Andriy Mahera: “This election is reminiscent of 2004, because that was probably the only time when so much dirt was dished up”
The Deputy Chairman of the Central Election Commission speaks about “trading” with election commission members, counteracting the bribing of voters, the inefficiency of the cameras installed at polling stations, the prospects of international recognition of election results and attempts to besmirch his reputation
UW: The opposition made accusations regarding the unfair procedure for forming district commissions. You and your colleagues responded that you were physically unable to hold draws for all commissions separately and would have failed to meet the deadline set by the law. In an interview, the Chairman of the Central Election Commission (CEC), Volodymyr Shapoval, stated clearly, that there will be times when the CEC will be forced to violate the law in order to simply secure the normal course of the election. Do you think that this is a case in point?
It is necessary to distinguish between draws held in the CEC to select members of district election commissions (DECs) and draws held in DECs to select members of constituency election commissions. We did have quite serious problems meeting deadlines for the former procedure. I have a number of things to say against the election law, but it is fairly adequate as far as the commission formation procedure is concerned.
In fact, the problem is in the law on political parties. I don’t think it is normal for Ukraine to have some 200 parties. If there were strict conditions for party registration, such as in Russia, no more than 10-15 parties would participate in elections, and this would make perfect sense. Then we would have no problems whatsoever with “dummy” parties.
I suspect that many complaints related to the drawing procedure for election Commission members have to do with a desire to discredit the very principle of party-based Commission membership and replacing it with the “independent members” principle, which we had previously. This principle is now being used in Belarus, where there is not a single representative of the opposition on their Commissions. Is this really the state we want to attain?
U.W.: Did the CEC not even consider holding a separate draw for each DEC?
This option was not considered, because first of all, we would not have met the deadline and secondly, there is a vast number of parties. Let me give you one example. When we held the draw for DECs, it took us less than an hour. We had to draw 81 envelopes from a drum, so that everyone could be sure that a specific number, say 25 or 62, was used for one party only. If we had done this separately for each individual district, we would have had to draw 81 envelopes 225 times, which is unrealistic.
U.W.: If we stand back from this specific situation, do you believe it is fair to have a commission formation principle under which a party nominating just one candidate in a first-past-the-post (FPTP) district enjoys the same rights as one that has nominated 225 such candidates and is also running under the party system?
Of course, it doesn’t make sense when a one-candidate party which does not even have a party list for the election receives representation rights to all 225 commissions. That’s a flaw in the law. To my mind, only the parties that have nominated candidates nationwide should be given this right.
The mass media has published numerous reports, saying that some parties, which have obtained representation to DECs, are engaged in a “business” of sorts, offering to sell commission members to other parties.
U.W.: Can anything be done to fight this kind of “business”?
Yes, but it requires the political will of the leadership of law enforcement agencies.
U.W.: Is the “trading” of commission members a crime punishable by law?
It is necessary to ascertain whether there is an abuse of office, and if so, what kind of crime it is. But in any case, law enforcement agencies have to pay close attention to these facts.
U.W.: The opposition has leveled much criticism against the principle under which constituency commissions were formed – DECs held one draw each for all such commissions in their jurisdiction. Could this situation have been rectified?
The CEC passed a decision – unanimously, mind you – instructing DECs to hold a separate draw for each constituency commission. I was, in fact, the rapporteur on this issue. Under the current law, DECs do not have any substantial authority; it has been largely invested in the CEC. Thus, they would be capable of this difficult but important task.
However, recently, while I was on a business trip in Bosnia, the CEC made changes to this procedure, specifying just one draw for all DECs. This decision was taken a mere five days prior to the draw, thus quite a few constituency election commissions were confused.
U.W.: How many CEC members supported this decision, and who was the initiator?
If my memory serves me right, there were eight “ayes”, two “nays” and two “undecided”. The initiative came from CEC member Oleksandr Shelestov. I would not choose to criticize my colleagues, but in this case, I feel that the CEC made a wrong decision.
U.W.: What caused the chaos during the draws for constituency election commission members? In some DECs, draws were held several times.In other places, the commissions lacked a quorum; elsewhere representatives of the opposition were not allowed to monitor the draws, etc. Is this related to shortcomings in the law, or is there a political factor at play?
The election law cannot be modified to “suit” every election. Nor is it permissible to change the drawing procedure five days prior to the day on which they are scheduled to be held. But there are also subjective factors. Parties which have delegated their members to the DECs often demand something from them that is outside the law. Therefore, a lot of politics has been injected into the activities of DECs.
U.W.: The election campaign is about two-thirds over. Compared to previous campaigns, especially the one in 2004, is the current one cleaner or dirtier?
I once joked that it is easier to hold two presidential campaigns than one parliamentary campaign. I have witnessed two parliamentary and two presidential campaigns, but the election process has never been as difficult as it is this time.
First of all, the restoration of the FPTP component has added quite a few problems, particularly with regard to the bribing of voters. Parliamentary hopefuls have been so blatant or self-confident about it. Secondly, I am surprised about court practice, whereby contrary decisions are passed in identical situations involving different candidates. The utter policization of the election process, cases of billboards being spattered with paint and attacks on party tents and campaigners, are all detrimental to the election process.
U.W.: Even so, how does this campaign compare to the 2004 election?
In many respects, this election is similar to the 2004 campaign, because then was probably the only time when we saw as much dirt as today. The 2006 election was almost ideal; the 2007 election campaign was not far behind, and the 2010 campaign did not have nearly as many negative factors as there are today.
U.W.: What are the worst violations of the law that you have observed?
The main one which comes to mind is the bribing of voters. It is something that immediately catches the eye. The CEC has received numerous complaints from candidates, particularly about opponents bribing voters. But the election law basically permits the CEC to issue a warning to a candidate only when there is a court decision to this effect. The same goes for spreading blatantly false information about candidates.
Many complain that there is no effective mechanism to hold candidates responsible for violating the law. In my opinion, it is a good thing that there is no mechanism to cancel candidate registration on these grounds. Under current conditions, this norm would most likely be abused and would work against the fairness of the election process by allowing room for manipulation. The 2010 election was a vivid example of this.
U.W.: Is there a way to make it impossible to bribe voters without allowing rival candidates to make short work of one another?
In each case, it is necessary to determine whether there was voter bribing, violations involving goods that bear the logo of a party or candidate. Bribery entails criminal responsibility, while the violation of campaign procedures entails – various types of administrative responsibility. But the main thing is the reaction of the voters. Under normal election conditions, the news that a certain candidate is engaged in bribery would be a serious blow to his/her reputation.
U.W.: Which other serious violations, other than bribery, would you single out?
Interference with election campaigns. I do not understand such crazy things as attacks on party tents or campaigners. A person has the right to campaign for or against anyone he/she wishes. Nothing of this kind was observed during the 2006 and 2007 campaigns.
Moreover, it would be preferable for political parties not to direct their efforts, through their representatives, at disrupting the activities of commissions, creating a lack of a quorum, consciously failing to notify “minority” members about the scheduled time of commission meetings and other destructive actions.
U.W.: After the CEC approved the decision to make absentee ballots valid only within the boundaries of a FPTP district, can the problem of “election tourism” be considered resolved?
Today, this procedure is known as “a voter changing the voting place without changing the voting address”. This means that a voter can go to a registration authority with a statement that he/she will be at another location on the day of the vote because of a medical procedure, business trip, etc. After this data is checked, the place where he/she casts her vote is changed from his/her voting address (which is essentially the same as his/her legal residence) to the address of his/her temporary sojourn. The CEC decision only permitted this procedure within the boundaries of a single election district.
On the other hand, the voting address can only be changed on serious grounds. For example, a person has several places of residence, several flats, etc. That is to say, if a person, for example, has come to the capital from some oblast and rents a flat under an official contract, he/she can change his/her voting address from that in the oblast to the one in Kyiv.
U.W.: In other words, it is not enough for a voter to simply express the desire to change a voting address from, say, Luhansk to Kyiv?
That will be impossible without legal grounds. And I believe this procedure is absolutely fair. Otherwise we would have total chaos.
U.W.: Reports on local violations during the election campaign abound in the mass media. For example, an opposition representative of one commission was told plainly: “There are 11 of us here, while there are only three of you.” Why doesn’t the CEC react to such reports?
If facts of this kind come to the attention of the CEC, they have to be taken note of. But media reports must be checked, and if found to be true, a reaction must be forthcoming.
U.W.: Is this actually happening?
We most often react when we receive a complaint or statement from a candidate or other entities in the election process.
U.W.: As you are aware, video cameras at polling stations will only be streaming live during the vote but not during vote counting. That being the case, is there any point in having them at all?
Even before this law was passed, I spoke against the idea of installing cameras. One of the reasons for this is the additional burden on the budget. The CEC asked for UAH 1.2 billion to cover the cost of the election. A mere UAH 800 million was initially disbursed to us and we didn’t receive the balance until much later. Now, all of a sudden, the country has found a billion hryvnias to install cameras…
I cannot guarantee that the cameras will be working in online mode at all polling stations – there are settlements in mountainous areas where it is even difficult to get radio signals.
Actually, this idea was originated by politicians, not the CEC. No-one asked us for an opinion, but we will execute the law. However, I believe that the efficiency of these cameras does not justify the budget expense.
U.W.: After court decisions which ruled your actions in registering candidate Volodymyr Satsiuk unlawful, do you feel yourself to be in a “suspended” state? Did these decisions have any impact on your work in the CEC?
I am not afraid of being fired. But it is strange that such decisions have appeared. Presidents, parliaments and governments have changed in this country, but no political force has ever fought against a CEC member. This is the know-how of this election.
With time, I became increasingly convinced that it was more about me personally than about Satsiuk. If I had raised the issue of rejecting Satiuk’s registration, a different decision would have been challenged in court – the rejection of Statsiuk’s registration. In other words, it was simply an issue of finding grounds to take me to court.
U.W.: Who needed this and why?
It was needed to discredit individual CEC members. They tried to besmirch [my] reputation, to establish a link to a specific candidate, region and special service. You only need to read some comments on this case.
U.W.: Do you feel that your reputation has been besmirched?
The court decision was passed on 24 August. Several days later, in the evening, I went to a supermarket. A total stranger, an elderly person, approached me and said: ““These” receive Hero of Ukraine titles and decorations on Independence Day – an expletive followed – while you have been handed a court decision. In the eyes of people, this court decision looks like an award.” I wouldn’t call it an award myself, but I would probably be more ashamed if they gave me some kind of decoration today.
U.W.: You said earlier that this election will be recognized by the international community. Have you changed your mind after the critical US Senate resolution?
Nowhere did I speak about whether the election would be recognized or not. After all, this depends on political parties, candidates, certainly the government and, to some extent, the opposition, rather than the CEC.
U.W.: The opposition claims that the very fact of the non-participation of Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko in the election is already more than sufficient grounds to recognize it as undemocratic. Some representatives of the European community agree. The government, however, assures us that everything will all depend on how the voting and vote counting will go. What do you think?
As a member of the CEC, I would want the election to be given a good mark – not for a nice appearance but for a normal democratic election process. Somehow the issue of recognition did not arise either in 2006 or in 2007. Could the reason be that no-one set out to disrupt the election process and put up unlawful hurdles to hurt the opponents?
Everything is in the hands of political players. It also depends on whether the government will resist the temptation to play into the hands of certain candidates. This is hard to do in the conditions of a post-communist country, but we succeeded in both 2006 and 2007. There is every opportunity to change the situation for the better.
U.W.: Considering the importance this election will have for the future of Ukraine and the overall hype surrounding Ukraine in the world community, do you predict that there will be heightened attention to the election on the part of international observers?
The importance of the institute of observers is much higher for elections than, for example, the presence of web cameras. But we have not seen special attention from international observers. As of today, less than a thousand observers have been registered. OSCE representatives have assured me that 600 short-term and 90 long-term observers are scheduled to come to Ukraine. Thus, I believe that the bulk of observer applications are still ahead. For comparison, we had some 13,000 international observers in 2004. It would be great if we have 3,000 this time around.
U.W.: Why is the international community so passive?
It’s hard to say. Six hundred observers from the OSCE is a pretty good number. If every structure of this kind dispatched as many observers, we would be able to speak about more interest in the Ukrainian election process.