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US electoral specialists call the Ukrainian Government’s actions chaotic

05.04.2011    source:
In this interview, the Director of the National Democratic Institute explains why western NGOs have suspended their cooperation with the President’s working group on electoral legislation and expresses concern about recent trends and distortion of the facts by the Minister of Justice

As reported here, the international organizations taking part in the President’s Group on drawing up new electoral legislation – the National Democratic Institute [NDI] and the International Republican Institute [IRI] – have informed the Minister of Justice and Head of the Working Group that they are suspending their participation until such time as the Group’s work becomes more transparent and takes into account different views (see below for letter in full).

The Minister of Justice Oleksandr Lavrynovych expressed surprise and wondered whether Ms Jewell, who was present at the meeting of the Working Group has any understanding of the process.

In an interview to the newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnya, the Director of NDI in Ukraine, Kristina Wilfore, explained why they do not see eye to eye and accused the Minister of twisting the facts. She stressed that NDI’s main objective is to make the electoral process honest and transparent since elections are the basis for representative and honest policy.

“During the last local elections we supported the civic network OPORA which carried out comprehensive, non-party affiliated, observance. Having witnessed on the eve of the local elections how electoral legislation could be changed in literally one night not long before the voting, we saw this as making certain manipulation of the voting possible. Since the changes in the electoral legislation concerning the local elections created obstructions for some participants in the electoral process, we issued a joint public statement together with the International Republican Institute. In it we criticized such an approach to work with electoral legislation.

According to our observations, the local elections were a major step backwards, seriously retreating from that democratic level which characterized previous elections. The last local elections in Ukraine were not democratic and quite far from the standards for honest and transparent elections.

In response to this analysis of ours, the Ukrainian government announced that certain organizational problems seen during these local elections had been connected with the fact that the legislation was passed at the last minute before the elections. Supposedly therefore immediately after the elections a working group was created to improve electoral legislation. There was talk in particular of changing the law regulating the Verkhovna Rada elections in advance.

During the elections there were also many regrettable occurrences not linked with legislation. There is information about numerous cases of intimidation, of bribing of voters, not to mention the fact that the  largest opposition party in the country was not able to put forth its candidates in three regions.

In view of all this, it was extremely important with the creation by the President of this new working group to regenerate public trust in the electoral process, the trust of the political forces which will take part in the election, the trust of individual citizens.

What was in question was not simply the technical preparation of legislative norms, rectification of previous mistakes in legislation. I feel that the reestablishment of trust was an even more important task.

However the organization of the group’s work and its membership indicate that this process does not meet the three main criteria needed when dealing with reform of electoral legislation.

The process does not have an adequate level of transparency nor does it take into account the views of all interested parties. There is also lack of sufficient accountability. These in our view are the main criteria which should regulate work of this nature. That is essentially why we decided to suspend our membership of this group.

Would your return be possible and under what conditions?

Over five months of work we heard a very large number of words, yet only certain small steps were taken in the direction of transparency and accountability. Specifically, permission was given for representatives of the civic network OPORA and the Committee of Voters of Ukraine to take part in the working group’s meetings so that they could make their contribution to the drawing up of the draft law. However we do not see that the possibility has been given to all political opponents, to all political forces which will be competing in the elections to add their bit, to express their view of what should go into the draft law.

What is also totally incomprehensible is the timeframe for work on the draft law, that is, when the first text of the draft will finally be published. The role of the many international organizations whose names are very often mentioned by Ukraine’s government is just as unfathomable. We do not understand what role they have in fact been given in this process.

The statement from the Minister of Justice, O. Lavrynovych presents our position incorrectly with distortion of the facts. This does not add confidence that the work process will be organized honestly and openly.

In our view one of two things is happening. Either the drawing up of electoral legislation is taking place in secret behind closed doors so none of the political opponents, of those political forces which will be competing in the elections and civic organizations are able to make their contribution to the preparation of this legislation. Or the level of organization of this process is so low that it would be more accurate to call it disorganization.

This places in question all the statements of the present government about its exceptional stability, its being organized and able to create order. It in fact turns out that the actions of this government are chaotic despite the fact that we are dealing with one of the most important processes in the country, the drawing up of legislation.

Does the International Republican Institute have a different position regarding the issues you have raised?

No, the International Republican Institute has taken the same decision to suspend its membership in the working group under the situation improves. Our position is identical and Mr Lavrynovych’s commentaries have no relation to the truth.

What are your criticisms specifically about?

All those steps which we are asking to be taken are nothing complex. They do not require the passing of special laws or the like. The main thing is that there should be enough time for their implementation.

These recommendations are based on the experience of the work of analogous groups in 30 countries which has made it possible for our organization to accumulate a fair amount of knowledge and experience in this area. These are our general recommendations. And over the months of work with the President’s Administration we have always openly expressed our position.

It is therefore in the first instance vital to explain to the public how the process of drawing up the draft law is getting on, and in particular to name a timescale since I, for example, have heard six different versions with respect to this.

They need to inform finally who specifically is drawing up the norms of the draft law. I am, or more accurately, was a formal member of the working group, yet I didn’t once even set eyes on a draft.

There have been statements made that the draft law will be sent to the Venice Commission to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. At the same time we do not have any confirmation from these organizations of their having agreed to review the draft law. We have asked Ms Lukash about this directly and received the response: “We don’t have anything yet to review therefore we haven’t yet approached them”. Yet we know, for example, that the process for review and provision of recommendations by the Venice Commission is quite drawn-out.

It is therefore unclear how there will be time for the draft law to receive an expert assessment before being submitted to the Verkhovna Rada.

Last week the members of the working group were sent proposals which will supposedly go into the concept of the draft law. Yet even these proposals do not constitute a comprehensive vision of what the draft law should entail. Furthermore it is unclear how the body created on the basis of these proposals will be discussed further.

The next thing that needs to be done is to present the actual draft law for public discussion so that the wider public can consider it. Hold a forum, discussion regarding what the draft law in its prepared form will entail.

Time should be set aside, at least four or five weeks so that after publication of the draft law civil society has the opportunity to not only discuss it, but to provide specific recommendations.

It is vital that the working group takes these recommendations into consideration.

There are, in addition, a whole range of mechanisms allowing for more effective inclusion of representatives of the opposition in the working group. They say that members of opposition parliamentary factions are in the working group and that is sufficient. In fact, , this is not enough. That will become clear when you ask the parties represented by those parliamentarians in parliament.  You could organize multi-party forums where the parties could express their view regarding practical results of the adapted legislation. Instead we have already seen how the electoral system was totally changed unilaterally without taking into account the views of political forces, without any public discussion.

We remained in this working group for five months although the process by which it was organized worried us from the outset. We did that so that at some level we could have the possibility of promoting dialogue between the government and civic organizations, in order to inform civil society about what the future electoral legislation which will directly affect members of the public in the first instance will be like.

Have you encountered such an attitude to the preparation of analogous draft laws by the leaders of other countries?

Yes, for example in Kyrgystan and other countries of the Eurasian region we came up against a strong wish to control certain aspects of the preparation of electoral legislation and a certain degree of resistance from the government. There was a similar situation in Kosovo. At the same time such a position could be rectified with the help of steps taken for example in Georgia. A third party which was a totally neutral, independent moderator, took on certain duties in coordinating the process. That meant that particular heated issues were removed and the process returned to normal. 

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