Local authorities still have the time to implement the protection standards against COVID-19 in elections, regardless of current differences in protection means supply at election commissions and polling stations in communities. As for public activities of parties and candidates, we regret to say that typical abuses and violations of electoral standards were present, and have negatively impacted the competitiveness of election process. This information was presented by representatives of Civil Network OPORA on 23 October press-conference in Kyiv.

Incidents and anti-epidemic measures

Countering foreign interference in the election process, in particular by the Russian Federation, is a critical task for democratic states. Civil Network OPORA has investigated the statement of the European Solidarity party about receiving a letter from the Main Department of the Security Service of Ukraine in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to the party leader Petro Poroshenko with a request to provide information about party's candidates in local elections. Based on the results of analysis, OPORA concluded that it was a provocation aimed to publicly discredit the SBU, as well as to cause public confrontation between electoral subjects and Ukrainian authorities. Thus, the e-mail address of the letter the European Solidarity party received imitated an official domain name of the Security Service of Ukraine, while the letter was in fact sent from a free mailing service rambler[.]ru. Civil Network OPORA has also addressed to the MIA of Ukraine suggesting it gives an opinion on actions of the State Secretary of Hungary for National Policy Arpad Janos Potapi in terms of compliance with Ukrainian election legislation. OPORA's observers detected a number of facts proving the participation of Hungarian official in Ukraine's election campaign in support of the KMKS Party of Hungarians of Ukraine during his visit to the Zakarpattia oblast.

On the initiative of the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyi, a public poll will be held on 25 October 2020 covering questions about the attitude to particular society development issues, financed by the Servant of the People political party. Given the different attitudes of citizens to the initiative itself, representatives of the National Police of Ukraine urged voters not to obstruct the poll. OPORA notes that activities of the President have the features of hidden advertising in support of the certain political force, what may be a violation of the principle of equal opportunities for all electoral subjects. Although the poll is going to be held outside election commissions, its quasi-official status, based on the initiative of the President of Ukraine, can facilitate mobilization technologies of the certain political party with violation of the standards of equal opportunities for candidates and parties, while campaigning on the Election Day is banned.

The process of 2020 local elections includes not only the implementation of the new Election Code, but also the realization of anti-epidemic measures during the voting. OPORA believes that the lack of proactive position of the Parliament and insufficient organizational and informational activities involving election commission members and local government representatives has negatively affected the coordination of efforts realized by authorities at all levels. The closer the Election Day was, the more active local government bodies became in the implementation of the Procedure for anti-epidemic measures in elections, according to observers. Local government bodies, for their part, responded quite resonantly once the Government obliged them to finance the anti-epidemic measures themselves. Thus, the risk of its unequal application in different communities or even oblasts of Ukraine is already apparent.

"Portrait of a candidate"

Civil Network OPORA has analyzed the age, education, gender, party affiliation, etc. of 271,362 candidates nominated either independently or by one of 147 parties. In general, the largest number of candidates for council members at all levels, as well as mayoral candidates nominated by: the Servant of the People party - 29,469 (10.9%), AUU Batkivshchyna - 28,491 (10.5%), the For future party - 26,602 (9.8%), the European Solidarity - 22,763 (8.4%), the Opposition Platform - For Life - 19,176 (7.1%), and 16,914 (6.2%) persons run independently. The vast majority of mayoral candidates also run independently - 1,081 (37.1%).

The vast majority of candidates are non-partisan - 76.1%; have higher education - 75.1%; and belong to the age group of 35-50 years - 44.4%. 55.5% of candidates in local elections are men and 44.2% are women. The largest number of candidates work in the business sector (LLC, PJSC, SFG, IE, etc.) - at least 29.2%. Every seventh candidate is unemployed (14.6%), and 10.9% of nominees work in local government bodies and other authorities. According to Civil Network OPORA's calculations, 257 (70%) current mayors are running for one more term. 56 current MPs are candidates for local council members and city mayors.

Commissions and Ballot Papers

In terms of the negative dynamics of the COVID-19 spread and increased risks for citizens of contracting the disease, it was hugely challenging to mobilize about 350,000 people who are going to stay in crowded places during elections and directly interact with voters (including persons staying in self-isolation or those with respiratory symptoms). The challenges are going to be relevant until the voting results are obtained. In particular, precinct election commissions are going to have the minimum membership, especially on the lowest administrative territorial levels, such as in small towns, in townships, and in village communities. Although the number of actors eligible to nominate candidates for PEC members was extended, most of them failed to show much interest or high activity levels to contribute to the capacity of election commissions so that they could perform on a higher competitive basis.

Territorial election commissions established 29,284 precinct election commissions. On the other hand, at 2,581 polling stations (9% of the total number), voting is not going to take place, for they are located on Ukraine’s territories temporary occupied by the Russian Federation, and also on the grounds of conclusions from civil-military administrations stating the infeasibility to have elections in certain areas.

A key challenge for the all-rounded evaluation of the PEC formation process comes from the fact that neither the official website of the Central Election Commission, nor other open sources have any comprehensive and exhaustive information about the results of establishing PECs. Although there are several problematic commissions, the formation process of PECs to be monitored by observers ran in line with the legal formalities, and within the deadlines set by the law. The biggest number of seats in PECs (established in towns with the district centers status) was claimed by the “Servant of the People” party (14%), “Batkivshchyna” AU (13%), “European Solidarity” (12%), and the “Opposition Platform – For Life” (10%). In total, parliamentary factions prevail in the composition of precinct election commissions, accounting for 63%. Distribution of executive positions (chairperson, deputy chairperson, secretary) claimed by political parties in PECs is generally rather balanced and proportionate. 

An important procedure of the reporting period was the production of ballot papers and their transfer from the producing company to the TEC in charge of the respective elections. 7 of the 152 TECs observed by OPORA failed to meet the deadlines for approval of texts of ballot papers and for setting the degree of protection on them. In 72% of cases, ballot papers were produced by polygraphic printing companies and by individual entrepreneurs. Since parliamentary political parties failed to submit any proposals, it was impossible to establish commissions to control the production of ballot papers at least at 7 of 152 TECs. Mistakes in the printed ballot papers were detected in 5 cases. Thus, the process of production and receipt of ballot papers only recorded such irregularities as random TECs breaking the set deadlines, low interest of local organization of political parties in controlling functions granted by the Electoral Code, and some mistakes detected in the text of printed ballot papers in some communities. OPORA calls upon TECs, PECs, and the law-enforcement authorities to duly provide for the storage of ballot papers before the election day, and to proactively respond to notifications about violations of the law related thereto. 

Campaigning activities

The last month of election campaign showed that the list of all most active election actors (ranked long before the start of elections) has not been substantially altered on the stage of official campaigning. Most potential election actors launched the early campaigning activities almost in parallel (also using various forms of pre-election charity), relying on the lack of any formal restrictions on transparency of funding and the rules for holding the events. Therefore, the electoral actors who launched their campaigns within the lawful timelines did not have a chance to compete on equal footing with parties or candidates who found their ways to avoid legal liability, while breaking democratic election standards. According to OPORA observers, in October, 83 political parties exercised various forms of campaigning activities (on the stage of early campaigning, the number was about 70 parties). Thereat, large-scale national campaigns were conducted by the four political forces: “Servant of the People,” “For the Future,” “European Solidarity,” and “Batkivshchyna” AU. In terms of campaigning activities by candidates for local heads of district and regional centers, the most noticeable actors came from the “Servant of the People” (active in 73 districts and 19 region centers).

As compared to the early parliamentary elections, the number of political ads posted on Facebook has doubled. Thus, during as little as 44 days, from September, 5, to October, 19, 86,964 political ads have been posted on Facebook. Although social media had a huge impact on election campaigns, the Electoral Code failed to resolve the issues with regulation of campaigns on the Internet, and specifically in social media. The legal uncertainty contributed to the situation when political forces started their activity in social media long before the formal start of election campaign. A positive change in the rules was a CEC RESOLUTION No 24, which lays out the forms of submitting financial reports for all election actors. Moreover, it includes a requirement to distinguish between the costs for campaigning on Internet, specifically in social media.

Altogether, from the start of election campaign on September, 5 to October, 16, OPORA detected 6,220 unique pages sharing political ads on Facebook. Thus, according to our estimates, political forces and candidates for positions of different levels spent on Facebook ads about USD 2.6 mln (ab. UAH 70 mln). The undeniable leader is the “For the Future” political party. They spent for Facebook ads over USD 370,000. In addition, the party established one of the largest networks of regional pages – 63 pages. It helped the party target the entire territory of Ukraine. In addition, large amounts for political ads supporting the party were spent from the pages of its leaders, Ihor Palytsia and Oleksandr Shevchenko. They spent over USD 70,000 (almost UAH 2 mln) and over USD 43,000 (over UAH 1 mln), respectively. Although the “Nash Kray” party was not highly active in the beginning of the campaign, after the second half of September, they have increased their presence and spent for Facebook ads over USD 150,000 (over UAH 4 mln). The “Servant of the People” party holds the third position in terms of costs for social media campaigning because they spent almost USD 148,000 (almost UAH 4 mln) for political ads during the monitored period.

Common irregularities

Although the campaign was generally competitive, a key challenge remains – there is a high number of of repeated cases of breaking the election standards and the unsatisfactory statistics of minor electoral fraud recorded by the law-enforcement and by OPORA observers. In October, the most frequent violations of electoral law detected by OPORA observers were related to the placement and dissemination of printed campaigning materials without the source data and the facts of placing printed campaigning materials in unauthorized sites (as of October, 22, the total number of verified cases went over 700). Smaller numbers, but no less serious, though, were recorded for cases of indirect voter bribery, such as unlawful handing out of goods and services to voters (over 60 cases, but with decreased intensity in the recent weeks). Cases of abusing administrative resources were repetitive, too (48 cases in total). Their actual scale is much higher in part of breaking democratic standards of elections, rather than of formal legal rules. In addition to irregularities related to campaigning, the most common types were the cases of procedural infringement by territorial and precinct commissions related to the implementation of stages in formation of election commissions, holding the opening meetings by precinct election commissions, registration of candidate lists and the production of ballot papers (the total of 84 verified cases).

OPORA observers conducted a systemic monitoring for cases of obstructions to activities of candidates and local organizations of political parties, cases of damaging their campaigning materials, and reports from election agents about the illegal actions towards them. The organization hereby states a rather high conflict level of the election process. It included a series of attacks on candidates and their campaigners, damage or destruction of their property and campaigning materials. There were also frequent cases when candidates reported about obstruction to their activities which require due investigation by the National Police of Ukraine. OPORA calls upon Ukraine’s law-enforcement bodies to actively control the situation with possible clashes or confrontation during elections, and to respond resolutely to violence against electoral actors, especially during the stages of voting, vote count, and the establishment of voting results.

According to the National Police, since the start of election process, as of 7 a.m., on October, 20, they have registered 5,881 claims and reports related to election process. Charges were served under 2 criminal proceedings under Article 160 of the CC (voter bribery) in Kyiv and Odesa Oblasts, and under 2 criminal proceedings under Article 157 of the CC (obstruction to the exercise of suffrage) in Dnipropetrovsk and Kirovohrad Oblasts. 22 criminal proceedings were dismissed: 11 cases – under Article 160 of the CC (voter bribery), 9 – under Article 157 of the CC (obstruction to the exercise of suffrage), 2 – under Article 158 of the CC (submitting fake data to the register), 1 – under Article 159-1 of the CC (breaking the rules for funding the election campaign). The total number of protocols on committing an election related administrative offense filed by the police is 1,367.

The Unified State Judicial Register published almost 200 court decisions; 73 decisions were redirected to police for proper filing. About 80 cases resulted in guilty verdicts. In 48 cases, proceedings were dismissed for the lack of fact and constituent elements of an administrative offence, or the court only issued a verbal warning.

Reference: OPORA's observation is aimed to provide impartial assessment of election administration and process, facilitate free and fair election, and prevent violations. Civil Network OPORA has been realizing a wide-scale observation of regular local elections, to be held on October 25. We have deployed 188 observers nationwide, and short-term observers will join them on the Election Day. OPORA also monitors the use of budget resources for indirect campaigning, and civic ombudsmen inspect polling premises in terms of accessibility, as well as protect voting rights of citizens.

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