With half the vote counted by the end of Monday, October 29, the ruling Regions of Ukraine party looks like it will hang on to a majority of seats in the Rada. International election observers slammed the vote, however, as marred by fraud, intimidation and abuse of power, leading to a "a step backward" for democracy.
"Ukrainians deserve better than these elections," Andreas Gross, head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's (PACE) observer mission, told reporters in Kyiv on October 29 afternoon in some of the most outspoken comments by an observer in years.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) also condemned the election, albeit in less strident terms, accusing Regions of misusing state resources in campaigning. There had been a lack of transparency in the way parties were financed in the campaign and an absence of balanced media coverage, the OSCE said, and the inability of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko to run as a candidate had also "negatively affected" the election process, it said.
Tymoshenko immediately launched a hunger strike from her cell against the "rigged" elections, where she is serving a seven-year sentence on what are widely seen as trumped-up charges.
Tymoshenko warned a Regions' victory would lead to "dictatorship" and would not accept the results, her lawyer Serhiy Vlasenko said. "Yulia Volodymyrovna [Tymoshenko] has gone on a hunger strike in protest against vote-rigging," Vlasenko said by telephone from the city of Kharkiv where Tymoshenko is being treated for back trouble in a state-run hospital. "This was not an election, this was total vote-rigging".
Prime minister Mykola Azarov brushed off international criticism, saying: "To assert that the elections were not transparent, is to say that white is black."
The general election was a litmus test for the administration of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, which is trying to move closer to the EU - a test that the condemnation means Ukraine has failed. The EU has frozen talks on Ukraine's Association Agreement, with Brussels insisting that if the country wants to join Europe's club, it must adhere to the same values - and that includes open and free elections.
With half the votes counted, Regions will win 33% of the vote - enough to secure 116 of 225 seats on offer from the constituencies - and well up on the 23% the party was polling going into the vote. Its allies, the Communists, have also polled better than forecasts and with support from allies Regions appear certain to reach the 226 seats needed to form a majority in the 450 Rada and so block the opposition parties from forming a government.
The main, united opposition bloc, which includes Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), was in second place with 24% of the vote. The Communist Party was in third with about 14%, followed by the UDAR Party of boxing champion Vitaly Klichko at around 13%, and the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party at around 9%.
Brussels' condemnation follows on from the presidential elections in 2010 where Yanukovych beat Tymoshenko by a razor-thin margin in elections that were widely regarded as some of the fairest in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
However, the results is not all bad news, as the opposition parties all put in a good showing and have eaten into Regions' hold on the Rada, in an important gain ahead of crucial presidential elections that are slated for 2015.
The PACE observers pointed to pre-election media coverage as unfair, and also highlighted a lack of transparency in campaign finances and the abuse of administrative resources. They slammed what they called the inordinate campaign spending by the Regions and its financial backers, many of them wealthy businessmen from the party's support base in southern and eastern Ukraine. "A democratic election is much more than a competition between smaller and bigger oligarchs who colonize Ukrainian politics and democracy with their big money," Gross said, putting the boot in.
Part of the problem was changes to the election law made in the run-up to the vote that make it easier or the ruling party to manipulate the vote in its favour. The system was changed so that half of the 450 seats on offer are chosen on the basis of party lists and the other half by majoritarian constituencies, where the voter doesn't know which personality they are voting for. Opposition parties have criticised this "blind" or "clone" voting as being the most open to abuse.
United we stand
Despite the disappointment, the opposition have been handed an opportunity as they will be well represented in the Rada, even if they are not in control. The trick will be for the opposition parties to unite into a common front against Regions and attempt to hold the ruling party to account - an extremely tall order for the normally fissiparous opposition forces.
Oleksandr Turchynov, a senior member of the United Opposition's Batkivshchyna, said his party was ready to join forces with other opposition groupings that performed well in the vote. Among them would Klitschko's Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR), which scored about 12%, and the nationalist Svoboda, or All-Ukrainian Union "Freedom", party which has done better than expected in the Ukrainian-speaking western regions and had 9% of the vote. However, that party may prove to be controversial, as it has been accused of anti-Semitism and racism. The party strongly emphasizes Ukraine's distinct cultural identity, regards the Soviet rule as an occupation of Ukrainian territory, scorns the Kremlin and plays up the importance of Ukrainian over Russian.
Ukraine's Central Election Committee has promised a preliminary result by the end of Wednesday, October 30. These will be based on close to 100% of the ballot papers counted, but without 100% of the hard copies delivered to Kyiv. The final results must be announced no later than November 17, after which the parliament has 30 days to hold the first session, which will probably happen in November.
However, the CEC has already made it clear it will obfuscate the results, making it hard to check if the vote was fair. Deputy CEC head Andriy Magera says the CEC website will only publish online the results of the 225 district election commissions as the law requires, but the CEC has no plans to publish online all the results of the 33,641 polling stations which make up those aggregated regional vote counts, reports the Kyiv Post.
In Russia's recent elections statisticians were able to show that the vote was clearly manipulated (there were spikes around the multiples of five in the counting where officials rounded up the results to the ruling party's advantage) but the same statistical analysis will not be possible in Ukraine without a full set of data. If the local voting station protocols are not published it is a simple matter for officials to manipulate the vote.
Jason Corcoran in Moscow - Russian banks are disappearing at the fastest rate ever as the country's deepening recession makes it easier for the central bank to expose money laundering, dodgy lending ... more
bne IntelliNews - The Kremlin supported by national sports authorities has brushed aside "groundless" allegations of a mass doping scam involving Russian athletes after the World Anti-Doping Agency ... more
Jason Corcoran in Moscow - Revelations and mysticism may have been the stock-in-trade of Nikolai Tsvetkov’s management style, but ultimately they didn’t help him to hold on to his ... more