Presidential elections were held last week in Ukraine, a country where PAX works on peace building. Some were concerned about fraud. PAX intern Elsa Court was there as an election observer. “The election was run professionally, the mood of the voters was positive. It exceeded our expectations.” These are her observations.
Taking the road from Kyiv’s Boryspil airport into the city, one thing is clear: a Presidential election is coming. Along the highway, at some points it feels there are more political placards than trees lining the road, each candidate staring down the speeding cars against a background of their own distinctive colour scheme.
As a short-term election observer with a Danish youth NGO, Silba, my week leading up to Sunday’s election was filled with talks, tours, and activities to better understand Ukraine’s unique political challenges. A recurring theme were issues stemming from the ongoing conflict in the Donbas, which has lasted five years, killed 13,000 people, and displaced millions more.
On the day itself, the conflict was more tangible than I expected, even though our observation zone was a district towards the outskirts of Kyiv’s right bank. Waking up at dawn to catch the opening of the polling stations, in teams of two we met our translators and headed to our designated zone of the city. I was partnered with a Danish student, Malthe, while our translator, Nadya, worked as an English tutor. As we chatted throughout the day, it turned out she and her husband were from Luhansk and had been forced to flee in 2014, first to Odesa, then to Kharkiv, and finally settling outside Kyiv. But she told us of how as an IDP (Internally Displaced Person) she had been discriminated against in employment and housing, with many initially treating her with suspicion because of her origin.
Yet in terms of the voting process in Kyiv, all three of us agreed that the day exceeded all expectations. At each polling station, Nadya would introduce us and we would present our observer cards, issued by the central election commission, for registration. Every time, we were greeted professionally and the polling station chairperson (we saw a good gender balance) was open to being interviewed. Everyone made a real effort to be transparent, showing us the process and clearly answering our questions.
Problems taken seriously
We would stay for at each station about half an hour, observing the set-up and how the officials handled voters coming in for their ballot. There were some recurring issues, mostly the misspelling of names and mix up of addresses. But in each case that we saw, the officials took each person’s problem seriously, writing down remarks and in some cases directing them to the state authorities who would deal with their case.
Earlier in the week Maria Alekseyenko told us more about the legislative reform. Alekseyenko is the programme manager of Right to Protection, a Ukrainian NGO that works in front line areas and worked in cooperation with PAX for the Ukraine Unit’s upcoming gender pilot report. Despite the legislative reform that allows those living in non-governmental controlled areas (NGCAs) to vote, she found that around 20% of those people were certain they would not vote at all. Primarily due to the complications and effort required to cross one of the five contact lines into government-controlled Ukraine.
The count begins
After observing 9 polling stations over the course of the day, shortly before 8pm we arrived back at the first polling station we had visited. The doors were locked and the count began. Again, we were surprised by how orderly, professional, and transparent the process was. Throughout our training, we had been warned of the multitude of ways fraud or disruption can be carried out – everything from spilling coffee on ballot papers, to starting arguments, to blocking the view of the count from observers.
By the book
But by 1am our task was complete, with the ballots counted, sorted, and packed into black plastic bags ready to be taken away. The comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy was the clear winner in our station with no less than 55% of the vote – though it should be noted that the polling station was surrounded by student dorms, which perhaps indicates the demographic Zelenskiy is most popular with. (Zelenskiy and incumbent President Poroshenko will go on to the second round). Some of the older polling station officials did not agree with who the young people had voter for, but their discontent went no further than a few mutterings like “Oh, Lord, these students.” All votes were counted properly. We were invited to sign the protocols confirming that everything had been done by the book along with the domestic observers and polling station officers. Only then were the doors unlocked and we could leave.
Malthe, Nadya and I agreed that our experience of the day was great. Whether the polling station was in a sports hall, a school corridor, or a community centre, we felt that the process mirrored how elections happen in Denmark or the Netherlands. The professionalism of the polling station officials and the positive mood of the voters – many people brought their children (or dogs) and of course, took selfies – felt so familiar to our experiences of voting. In a region of Europe where free and fair elections are not guaranteed, my experience of seeing polling stations where everything went smoothly is an extremely positive sign – regardless of who will win.