All the essential elements of a typical Tymoshenko rally were present in Yuzhne on February 21, a small city 40km east of Odessa. There was the rant against president Petro Poroshenko as well as the complaining about the rise of energy prices. She didn't forget the promises to bump up subsidies. And the event was crowned at the end with a small girl climbing on stage to hand the presidential candidate a huge bouquet of flowers.
More unusual was the substantive part of her speech that Tymoshenko dedicated to what she describes as preparations for mass electoral violations in the March 31 election. “44 candidates! 44 candidates!” she called out to the crowd gathered in the local palace of culture. “Who are those people?” She accused Poroshenko of using one-time subsidies payments as vote-buying schemes, and mimicked voters having to take photos of their ballot to prove they voted for the right candidate before receiving payment. Among the supporting crowd partly brought by bus from Odessa, the lively retelling drew laughter and applause.
One month ahead of the first round, of what will almost certainly be a two round election, concerns that the 2019 presidential election could be the dirtiest in the country’s history is growing.
The election has been hailed as exceptionally competitive, with three separate candidates having a real chance to reach the second round but they are running neck-and-neck in the polls. In this uncertain context, accusations of vote-buying and campaign violations are not only a threat, but they are also tools to be used by candidates to score points against each other.
The country’s security agencies have emerged as key players in the campaigns of accusations.
Just as Tymoshenko was railing against Poroshenko in Yuzhne, Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) announced that a series of nearly 40 simultaneous searches across the country had revealed a vote buying operation put into place by Tymoshenko’s campaign team. UAH3m ($111,000) in cash were seized in the Khmelnytsky region. Two days later, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in an interview he was investigating possible instances of voter bribing by members of Poroshenko’s campaign team.
“There is a conflict between the security structures,” Vita Dumanska, the coordinator of Chesno, a civic organization focused on increasing transparency in politics, told bne IntelliNews. According to Dumanska as well as several other analysts, Avakov, one of Ukraine’s most influential official, has been leaning towards Tymoshenko or at least refrains from openly support Poroshenko. On the other hand, the SBU as well as the General Prosecutor’s office, led by long time Poroshenko ally Yuriy Lutsenko, have been firmly on the side of the incumbent president.
“Traditionally, siloviki have been used by the incumbent and very rarely against him, so this is quite new,” Balazs Jarabik, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told bne IntelliNews. But according to Jarabik, the claims made by the state organs should often be understood as a part of the political campaign: “Avakov says Poroshenko’s team is involved in mass vote buying, and maybe he is. But that shouldn’t come out of a political interview, that should come out of a process and should appear in court.”
So many candidates
Irregularities, dirty tricks and outright fraud are nevertheless real risks, observers noted. The record number of candidates has been hailed as a mark of the openness of Ukraine’s political system but, according to a monitoring performed by Chesno, only 10 of the 44 candidates (43 since Lviv mayor Andriy Sadoviy pulled out) are actually campaigning, Dumanska says.
“Technical candidates” can be used by the real candidates to stuff local electoral commissions with supportive members able to sway decisions in case of disagreements. On election day, they can also spread the vote and confuse voters, who will have to check a single box on a ballot paper that might be almost a meter long.
Another record figure caught the attention of Olga Aivazovska, the Political Programs Coordinator at OPORA, a Ukrainian NGO focused on election monitoring: the number of Ukrainian organisations registered to act as election observers during the election soared from a mere 10 in 2014 to a whopping 139 this year. According to an analysis published by OPORA, 85 of these organisations have no previous experience in election monitoring and at least 30 are directly linked to candidates. Aivazovska says these “fake election observers” could be used on election day to drown local electoral commissions under hundreds of complaints, grinding the process to a halt.
“It’s a risk. And mathematically it looks scary, but we don’t know if it’s going to happen,” she added.
Going off the grid
But the scheme at the heart of most claims of upcoming mass fraud both from Poroshenko’s and Tymoshenko’s side is the “setka,” or “grid,” an organisation set up at the regional level that can be used to distribute campaign materials but also, some allege, to bribe voters. In the press release that followed the searches in campaign offices of Tymoshenko’s party, Ukraine’s Security Service described the scheme as an “electoral pyramid.” Avakov said the Interior Minister was also investigating “grids” set up to benefit Poroshenko.
Declarations such as Tymoshenko’s speech in Yuzhne or announcements from security agencies are likely to increase as the first round looms closers, according to Jarabik: “We’re going to see more of this, it’s part of Ukraine’s internal “hybrid war”.”
Yet, most of those closely watching the election believe that pressure from the West as well as the potentially destabilizing effect of mass scale fraud will prevent Ukrainian political elites from going too far. In Odessa, a region often singled out in discussions about fraud risk because of a traditional low voter turnout and the presence of strong criminal networks, Anatoliy Boyko, the head of the local branch of the Committee of voters of Ukraine remains cautiously optimistic. The heated exchanges between candidates may be indicate potential fraud but, he says, “It’s also a sign of competition. It’s a sign that we aren’t like Russia.”