Despite the plummeting ratings of the Party of Regions, two thirds of all local communities still elect its candidates, supported by administrative leverage. On 18 March, for instance, candidates officially nominated by the Party of Regions won in 39 reelections of local community leaders out of 58 elections held on that day. This does not include candidates nominated from other political forces, yet de facto acting for of the Party of Regions (PR).
The predictable key mechanism for the victory of the party in power was its total control of electoral commissions. As a result, they are willing to pass any decisions, from expelling disloyal members from meetings to “correcting” the vote-counting procedureOnce disloyal members have been removed from a meeting, vote-rigging is a matter of course: the remaining members of the electoral commission can stuff ballots for the right party or candidate and put marks on ballots for opposition members, thus making them invalid.
A vivid example of election havoc was a video from the election of the Obukhiv Mayor when PR’s Petro Melnyk, President of the Tax Service Academy and MP, rudely tried to carry Iryna Herashchenko, a representative of the opposition and MP from Our Ukraine/People’s Self-Defense, out of the polling station. Before that, members of the district electoral commission unanimously decided to remove Iryna Herashchenko from their meeting, which provoked Mr. Melnyk’s actions. The video clearly shows that Ms. Herashchenko did not interfere with the work of the electoral commission. This hides yet another challenge in the upcoming campaign: the commission’s decision can be appealed against in court or a higher electoral commission. This process can last weeks and months, while election fraud is already taking place.
Commission members often end up helping those rigging elections. During the Vyshneve Mayor election in December 2011, a member of the district electoral commission tried to shake the ballot box after stuffing in a pack of ballots, to mix the stuffed pack with the rest. Regions with a disloyal electorate undergo the proactive recruitment of future “slaves”, paraphrasing the words of Ihor Rybakov on the infamous Zabzaliuk’s tapes: teachers in Ternopil and Zhytomyr Oblasts, who are the most numerous members of local commissions, are forced to enter the PR under the threat of being fired.
Some say that administrative leverage did not prove particularly effective during the by-election. If that’s the case, what was the recent incident in Ananiiv County, Odesa Oblast, where the Head of the Regional State Administration several times visited a village where an election was pending, to carry out a “proactive election campaign” which mostly meant threatening and intimidating voters? More obvious, though, is yet another dimension of using administrative leverage: the selective failure to prevent election fraud in favour of a certain political force, and turning a blind eye to significant and obvious violations during voting at polling stations and meetings of district electoral commissions. This dimension includes cases when the prosecutor fails to open criminal cases against election crimes, and police and Berkut units (special forces), are used to remove official observers, trustees and the media from polling stations. It is the criminal failure of legal enforcement agencies to act (or even to support criminal actions), that facilitates the PR’s wide-scale application of forgotten “carousels” and massive ballot stuffing limited to a few regions during the Orange period.
Local by-elections once more demonstrated a dangerous trend: local observers representing certain parties and NGOs have a very weak status. The latter along with the mass media are no longer guarantees of fair elections today. An electoral commission can easily decide to remove an observer from the polling station. The only effective means of observation today is to involve representatives of international organizations. People loyal to the party in power are still reluctant to deal with them, as the infamous incident in Obukhiv proved. Therefore, the opposition should strive for the most intense involvement of international observers. Moreover, opposition parties have to start looking for and training people to accompany international observers at the polling stations and commission meetings as interpreters, well aware of possible fraudulent mechanisms.