Fraud charged in Mukachiv mayoral election; opposition demands resignations of top officials

by Vasyl Pawlowsky
Special to The Ukrainian Weekly

KYIV – A vote in the Verkhovna Rada on April 21 fell short by six votes of the necessary 226 votes on a motion that called for the resignation of the head of the presidential administration, Victor Medvedchuk, Minister of Internal Affairs Mykola Bilokon and Chairman of the Zakarpattia Oblast Administration Ivan Rizak.

The motion was precipitated by the overall conduct of the mayoral elections in Mukachiv, where nearly 34,000 citizens cast their ballots on April 18. According to many local and international observers, the election came nowhere close to being democratic, nor did those who were responsible try to feign the slightest air of fairness.

The fiercely contested vote, which was actually a second attempt at electing a mayor for Mukachiv after the first vote was declared invalid, had two main candidates: Victor Baloha, a Verkhovna Rada lawmaker from the Our Ukraine political bloc, and Ernest Nuser, who was backed by the Social Democratic Party-United (SDPU).

When the polling stations closed, many Our Ukraine deputies, fearing ballot fraud, collected copies of the protocols upon which the results of the ballot count were registered. The Our Ukraine national deputies calculated that Mr. Baloha had received 19,385 votes – 6,597 more than Mr. Nuser, who had received 13,898. Early in the morning of April 19, the Territorial Election Commission announced otherwise. It declared that Mr. Nuser had won the election by more than 5,000 votes.

Our Ukraine members considered the announcement the last straw after a day of dirty politics. The three opposition factions in the Verkhovna Rada announced during the beginning of the April 20 session that they wanted a vote on their resolution to dismiss the state officials whom they considered responsible for the Mukachiv events. The day was filled with allegations by Our Ukraine members – who had been in Mukachiv in large numbers to observe the elections – of attacks on deputies and observers, vote buying and intimidation of voters by burly, short-haired thugs.

Initiated by opposition leaders Viktor Yushchenko of Our Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko of the eponymous bloc and Socialist faction member Yosyp Vinsky, the bill called on President Leonid Kuchma to dismiss Mr. Medvedchuk on the grounds that voters’ rights were abrogated and the political situation in Mukachiv had been destabilized.

Prior to the vote, National Deputy Oleksander Zinchenko, who was appointed to head a deputies’ working group that visited Mukachiv to study what had happened on election day, called the situation in the city “critical.” The lawmaker, who was once a close associate of Mr. Medvedchuk, recommended removal of the head of the Zakarpattia Oblast Administration and the Mukachiv City Council, but only after an examination of the situation by the Supreme Court. Mr. Zinchenko also declared that there was a close collaboration among municipal authorities, law enforcement officials and the criminal element in Mukachiv.

During the session, both Mr. Yushchenko and Ms. Tymoshenko attacked the Social Democratic Party-United, Mr. Medvedchuk and Gen. Bilokon. Mr. Yushchenko declared that the SDPU with the help of criminals, had seized authority by force in Mukachiv. In addition, he accused the minister of internal affairs of not ensuring the security of the ballot boxes, polling stations, ballots and election documents. Ms. Tymoshenko labeled Mr. Medvedchuk as someone with close ties to criminal circles, and Gen. Bilokon as someone who provides the latter with protection to do whatever he wants.

Opposition leaders were not the only ones disturbed with the conduct of the elections in Mukachiv.

On April 19 the head of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, Joseph Borg, stated, “Genuine local elections should be about the voters choosing their representatives and leaders on the basis of democratically competing local political platforms. Regrettably, this has not been the case in the Mukachiv election.”

On April 20 Gerald Mitchell, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said, “Of deep concern was an attack on a polling station in Mukachiv by unidentified persons at the end of the vote count, which occurred in the presence of OSCE/ODHIR representatives.” He added, “This blatant attempt to disrupt the election proceedings is an attack on the very foundations of the democratic process.”

The elections in Mukachiv had been labeled by some as a litmus test for the state of democracy in Ukraine, and it has turned out to be one, with many fearing that a similar situation may play itself out during the upcoming presidential election in the fall. Many civic activists considered this election a trial run for the projects they have planned to ensure free and fair elections, and to encourage eligible voters to cast their ballots and not let someone else steal their vote.

“Our organization members have been in Mukachiv for over the last two weeks monitoring the election campaign, and we will be busy tomorrow making a list of every incident that is reported to us by citizens, our own observers, as well as those from the international observer community,” Vladislav Kaskiv, coordinator of the Freedom of Choice Coalition of Ukrainian NGOs, told The Weekly on April 17. “On Monday we will make our conclusions,” he added.

On Monday, their conclusions were announced and they read as follows: “The electoral campaign didn’t create equal possibilities for the candidates and didn’t secure any conditions for democratic and free elections. The courts were considerably engaged in the electoral process for the benefit for one side. The authorities conducted direct agitation for one of the candidates. The law-enforcement organs acted under the control of the criminal groups and completely withdrew themselves from the functions prescribed by the law; the militia officials managed the criminal groups. The election committees carried out/supported the total falsification of the election results.”

The coalition emphasized that: “The election results were totally falsified, in particular, under the participation of the election committees of all levels.”

Mr. Kaskiv told The Weekly there is plenty of evidence that shows the lawlessness of these elections, and voiced fears that they set a terrible precedent for the presidential election.

Besides the copies of the registered election results, Our Ukraine members have cited the results of an exit poll conducted by a consortium of polling organizations organized by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation. Within 45 minutes after the polls closed, Ilko Kucheriv, the foundation’s director, announced the exit poll results. According to the exit poll, Our Ukraine candidate Mr. Baloha received 62.4 percent of the vote, while SDPU-backed candidate Mr. Nuser received 29.99 percent of the vote. The other six candidates vying for the mayor’s post all received less than 1 percent of the vote, according to the poll.

When asked by The Weekly about the margin of error and the sample size, Svitlana Pototska, director of SOCIS, a member of the consortium, responded: “The sample size of 1,694 respondents, in relation to the number of eligible voters, gives us a margin of error of plus/minus 2 percent, which is very acceptable.”

“Whereas, exit polls in the West have often been used by the media for their election night programming, our organization, which was the first to conduct and organize exit polls in Ukraine, has used this sociological tool as a check against election fraud,” Mr. Kucheriv told The Weekly.

“I am completely confident of the results of the exit poll we conducted. But truly, these elections are a litmus test for the state of democracy in Ukraine, and when the official results are in, we will have something to gauge them against,” Mr. Kucheriv told The Weekly after the polls closed. The exit poll was supported by assistance provided by the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, the Swiss Embassy in Ukraine, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy.

The results of this exit poll show Mr. Baloha receiving 53 percent of the vote, and Mr. Nuser receiving 39 percent. “Our track record in conducting exit polls in the past, leads us to believe that there must have been a fair degree of fraud,” Mr. Kucheriv said.

“This was not a very clean election,” Mr. Kucheriv told The Weekly, adding that about an hour after the polls opened on April 18, Ms. Pototska had called him with an air of panic in her voice. “She said that one of her pollsters had been approached by a couple of burly looking skinheads, who told her: ‘If you do not stop doing this questioning we are going to take you out into the woods and bury you.’ ” This was not the only incident, he added.

Throughout the day a number of observers, including National Deputies Roman Bezsmertnyi, Yevhen Zhotniak, Taras Stetskiv, Yuri Pavlenko, Petro Oliinyk and Mykola Polischuk, were beaten or roughly manhandled at a number of different polling stations. One witness of the attacks on Mr. Bezsmertnyi told The Weekly that skinhead thugs were beating up on the deputy directly behind the back of a senior police official who was being questioned by journalists as to why observers and journalists were being ejected from polling stations. While this was happening, young policemen stood by. “It seems like they were feeling for Deputy Bezsmertnyi, but they just stood there as if some order had been given for them to do nothing at all,” he said.

Source: The Ukrainian Weekly