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Opinion > Rapid Reaction

Election brief

At the last minute, Wednesday March 22, I was given accreditation as a journalist to monitor the elections. I spent a sleepless night on the train Thursday, and two uncomfortable nights in Vynohradiv in Zakarpattia fighting a cold while trekking around this westernmost oblast Friday-Monday, hitting 28 polling stations around Irshava and Vynohradiv. The third night, of course, was spent watching people count ballots until morning. The few violations we saw those three days were mostly technical bloopers on the part of people who either didn't know better (like you can't be stamping empty ballots on Friday or Saturday before the election without a quorum of commissioners in the room), or thought that their precinct was too small to matter and they knew everybody by name anyway (like you can't let people vote without IDs even in a small village because that's the law). There was a lot more professionalism overall, and respect for the law, which is the basic change Ukrainians need to undergo. Commissioners took an oath this time and were very thoroughly warned of the criminal, rather than administrative, penalties for breaking this oath and not doing an honest job. There were a few glitches with delivering ballots by Friday (in Khmelnytskiy, there was a strange scenario where they couldn't get a quorum of the territorial (riding) commission together, so the ballots for local elections were not delivered at all and people in that oblast only voted for the Verkhovna Rada.) Most of the people in Zakarpattia said the situation was much improved over the presidential election in 2004, both in terms of atmosphere (no real tension or fear) and in terms of organization and financial support (per diems were raised to over Hr 50 a day for commissioners).

But the workload was much higher. With as many as 2,700 voters in a precinct and each one having to cast up to 5 ballots (Verkhovna Rada, oblast councils, county councils, city/town/village councils, and mayor), it was a very tough haul. I stayed for the count at a larger precinct with 2,100 voters, of whom only 1,250 actually voted. This was lower than the turnout at most of the precincts we had visited, where more than 50% had voted by 15:00 Sunday, and some places more than 70%. (I haven't seen the overall numbers yet, because I have no TV and was too pooped last night after four days of bad sleep, to go to any of my neighbors for an update.) The polls closed at 22:00, two hours later than in the past, but by 01:00 we still hadn't gotten through the counting of the unused ballots and completing the administrative portion of the count--nor had most of the other teams, with whom we were in telephone contact. Finally, our commission opened the mobile ballot boxes (2) and counted the 89 ballots that had been cast there. There was a bit of a scandal at this point, because a couple of men, one candidate for mayor and the other a video operator, said that one of the boxes had been taken to a hospital where none of the voters, mostly geriatric patients, had been ID'd. The commission refused to consider their request that those votes be discounted (it would have been about 55 votes), and they went ahead and counted them all anyway. Party of the Regions came out ahead, results that matched the exit polls that I had started getting at 22:00.

It was now around 03:00. It took another 2.5 hours to spill out the ballots in the main ballot boxes (4 of them) and sort them according to the 5 groups, a step that wasn't necessary in the presidential elections, and by 08:00, we had a count on the Verkhovna Rada: BYT with 31.5%, NU with 27.5%, Regiony with 10%, the Socialists with just under 4%, and Lytvyn with 3.3%. The remaining 40 parties (!!!) weren't on the radar even. 8 parties had no votes at all, 17 had 5 or fewer votes, another 8 had 6-10. In short, there was plenty of choice and people exercised it--and still 42 voted "against everyone," which was a surprising 3.4%, more than Lytvyn's bloc!

Given that the overall results at this precinct were radically different than those from the mobile vote, there was probably good reason for those two men to want the hospital votes discounted, but it didn't make a big difference to the total counts. Of course, if this went on all over the country, Yanukovych could have picked up 1-2% more than he should have. Who knows. I heard the cops were voting for him en masse, and one friend in Sevastopol, walking her baby in a stroller by her precinct, overheard two cops saying so. She said to them, "Isn't that a bit screwy, cops voting for a jailbird?" They didn't respond at all. "Probably dismissed me as a stupid mom with her kid," she told me. It is pretty sick, when you think of it. But even 100,000 cops would only give Yanukovych a half of a percent more of the final vote. I would venture to say that he may have conned his way into as much as 4-5% of the vote, but not enough to change the outcome. It's like the third tour last year, when the Yanukovych side still fixed about 5-8% of the vote, but it no longer made a difference to the result, so nobody cared.

In any case, this election really was Nasha Ukraina's to lose, and lose it they did. Imagine, a main line-up of the discredited Zvarych, scandal-ridden Poroshenko and uncharismatic Bezsmertniy-- not a guy among them who stirs respect, loyalty or admiration among Ukrainian voters. It was a complete sinker. Yulia ran a very slick campaign of undermining Yushchenko personally, but had Nasha Ukraina done their own homework, run a good ad campaign, and offered at least one smart, charismatic woman as a foil to Yulia, it wouldn't have had the result it did. I think they're going to be recovering from the blow for some time now (another indication of their lack of touch with reality), and maybe this will wake Yushchenko up to the fact that his party needs a major overhaul. Not to mention getting rid of the hangers-on and slimy sycophants from Yushchenko's personal entourage.

Yulia had some incredibly sharp people running her obviously costly campaign. Had posters of her like movie billboards, one in an ankle-length black karakul coat and designer jeans with a sword in her hand and the title "Night Watch" and subtitle "Everybody out of the shadows" and another with her in a white Roadmaster jacket and the same jeans on a black motorbike saying "Only ahead." People trust her, whatever that means. I certainly don't. I think she's a total economic bimbo and a soviet throwback in terms of how she likes to run things, but I guess she has the right balance of nostalgia and progressive to attract many Ukrainians who want more change than Yushchenko's been able to offer, and a more steely leader. But she played perfectly to the Ukrainian mentality, which Nasha Ukraina failed to counter.

A lot of non-Ukrainians are deeply disappointed in the result. I think it's a pragmatic one, giving Yulia the upper hand in a coalition, but not enough clout to be a real steamroller. It's the wake-up call Nasha Ukraina needed to get serious about politics and stop fumbling around. Tymoshenko's made it too clear that she won't talk to Regiony, so the Orange team will be back in place again and Mr. Yushchenko won't have to besmirch his reputation any further by negotiating with the Donetsk clan. I hope they don't change Yekhanurov but make Yulia speaker instead. It's going to be weird having a Rada without the Shufryches, Kravchuks, Vitrenkos (well, she lost last time as well and hasn't been in the Rada for years). The Communists have been decimated, barely squeaking through after having 20% in the last VR election (alas, I had hoped they'd be gone for good), so their input will be marginal. But it will be sad to see Konovaliuk, Karmazin, Suprun and a lot of other basically smart people gone, who for stupid reasons chose to run in little parties that had no chance of picking up a million votes. The loss of all the nasty crowd of wrench-throwers and crooks (except for Regiony) should make the Rada more functional, less leftish, and more professional...I hope.

It also looks like Omelchenko is out in Kyiv!!! He's in third place after Leonid Chernovetsky (!!!), the born-again Christian boss of Pravex Bank who supported Yushchenko in the last election, and Klitschko. I would never have imagined that at all. I think Chernovetsky must have run a stealth campaign, because I wasn't even aware that he was running for mayor until I came to Kyiv, 5 days before the election.

As I drove from Vynohradiv back to Yaremche, we could see the bright orange streamers tied in clusters to many rows of trees along the way. They looked like brilliant little flames against the bare branches, a reminder that the spirit of Orange is still here. That's what I hope Ukrainians can keep going.

PS

Having said all that, the news on the third day after the vote was that Luhansk is for some reason being very slow in returning vote counts. Considering what a Donetsk friend told me a month ago--that there was almost no Regiony presence in Luhansk at that time--, this could be a bad sign indeed. With results in from the less pro-Regiony areas mostly in, Luhansk could be the place where ballots are stuffed in favor of Regiony if indeed there was not a large pro-Regiony tendency there. This would be terrible. It could potentially push Yanukovych's results up to 35-38%. It makes me think that, in future elections, preliminary results should probably not be published too quickly and in too-great detail.

Kyiv city for some reason also started with the mayoral race rather than with the VR ballots, as they were supposed to. Don't know the implications of that...

I want to make clear one point about this election. War chests weren't the problem with the campaign, if any of you read my previous piece called "What's wrong with this election campaign?" Nasha Ukraina could have spent even less money and run a more effective campaign if they'd had smart people running the message. As it is, they failed to get across a compelling message at all. The last two weeks, they finally had some ads that were more constructive, but I think it was too little, too late, and still depended too much on Orange nostalgia rather than the Orange "can do" spirit.

As to negotiations for a coalition, Tymoshenko is apparently wanting to reprivatize 300 factories, while Moroz wants out of the WTO. Everybody smart starts negotiating from an impossible position, with their real position being about 25-35% less. That's what negotiating is all about. Given the alternatives for a coalition, NU should be able to persuade both groups to reasonably temper their starting positions. Reprivatization can only happen if there are very clear criteria and an evident benefit to the country: (1) at least $10 million more in the Treasury AFTER expenses and (2) better owners. Unless BOTH these criteria are met, it makes no sense to risk worsening the business and investment climate in Ukraine. So NU needs to present the criteria first, and let the numbers be determined on that objective basis. In the end, Tymoshenko will probably settle for 5-10 majors being re-sold on this basis. WTO is needed in order for Ukraine's metals and ag products to compete elsewhere and penetrate new markets. It is also needed for Ukraine's industries to modernize and become properly competitive and attract investment. NU needs to offer a good impact analysis in terms of job-creation and so on and remind everybody of the allowable period of protection while domestic makers get up to scratch. Get everybody rooting to raise the quality of our domestic products and management, rather than in sticking with the post-soviet status quo.

I have to admit that Tymoshenko upset me royally with her gratuitous scandals aimed entirely at Yushchenko, over even things like the nuclear waste facilities. She plays very dirty. However, that's politics. The Yekhanurov Government should have played a lot smarter, as should NU. NU really needs a new line-up, including young people like Konovaliuk and others, who I think can be long-term assets. They need to get back some others like Pynzenyk, who's learned to work in a team and did a damned good job on Shuster's show "Svoboda slova" last week, Karmazin, who was a very good spokesperson in the Rada, and maybe even such warhorses as Borys Oliynyk, the only brain in the old Communist faction. These people have respect. A smart party would have been attracting these people long ago, rather than wasting time and high spots in their election lists for the likes of Ruslana and Olha Herasymiuk. Geez...!

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Published on 05/04/2006

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  L. A. Wolanskyj

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