On July 21, I was in Kherson, a pleasant port city in southern Ukraine, observing Verkhovna Rada elections with the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which had invited me to participate as a member of their delegation. NDI, an NGO based in Washington, has been doing valuable work in Ukraine for more than two decades. It was a slightly different election observation experience than earlier ones I have had.
The overwhelming majority of my previous nearly three dozen times as a short-term international election observer in nine countries throughout my U.S. Helsinki Commission career were with the inter-governmental, 57-country Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), primarily with its Parliamentary Assembly. Twenty of my past observer assignments were in Ukraine.
The essence of the NDI observation experience followed a similar pattern, with briefings and meetings in Kyiv, some held jointly with the International Republican Institute (IRI) delegation, and then deployment across Ukraine. Like the OSCE, IRI, the Ukrainian World Congress and other observation missions, NDI issued an election statement the day following the elections.
Similar to their assessments of the presidential elections earlier this year, the international observer missions, as well as domestic observers such as OPORA, assessed the Rada elections positively – despite the war and tight organizational time-frame, even though they were held three months earlier than planned. All agreed that the elections were democratic and competitive, respected freedoms of expression and assembly, reflected the will of the people and were well-conducted. My colleagues’ and my own Kherson Oblast observations in 10 polling stations mirrored that of observers around Ukraine, with voting and vote counts that were calm, orderly and efficient. They were, in a word, boring, as in uneventful, with “boring” in this context being a good quality.
This does not mean I have found that observing in precincts where everything is running smoothly is necessarily a boring experience. I have sometimes had the opportunity to talk with polling station officials and others curious about impressions of Ukraine, life in the United States, U.S.-Ukrainian relations and how an American learned to speak Ukrainian – often leading to a brief lesson about the history of the post-World War II emigrants and their children and grandchildren.
Notwithstanding the generally positive assessments, observers agree that there is room for improvement in the election process. There were some minor voting day violations. With respect to candidate registration, the longstanding practice of “clone” candidates grew during these elections – i.e., candidates with names added to the ballot with the aim of misdirecting voters away from legitimate candidates with similar names. Recommendations made by NDI and others addressed the need to facilitate voting by internally displaced persons (IDPs), other internal migrants and citizens registered in non-government-controlled areas. Another recommendation suggested revising laws governing campaign financing to ensure greater transparency and accountability. It is simply too easy for big donors (i.e., oligarchs who also happen to control the majority of TV stations) to unduly influence politics.
The new electoral code passed just before – but too late to apply to – these Rada elections takes a major step forward, notably moving from the current “mixed” system to the open party list system, which should reduce corruption. However, most election experts say that amendments are still needed to further improve the election process.
These elections dramatically redrew the political map of Ukraine, shaking up the political scene in a way not seen since independence – a veritable “revolution at the ballot box.” They are potentially a game-changer. For the first time, a political party – President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People – won an outright majority. This, coupled with his 73 percent win in the presidential elections, gives Mr. Zelenskyy a strong mandate for change. Many questions remain with respect to the new team’s commitment to genuine reforms. Are they really committed to combatting the scourge of corruption? Will the new elites really be different from the old ones?
According to the polls, the Ukrainian people, who for most of independent Ukraine’s history have been frustrated with the country’s ruling elites, have high expectations. Managing these expectations will be a huge challenge for Mr. Zelenskyy, the new Rada, and whatever new government that will soon emerge. Among the challenges will be for the largely inexperienced and unproven new Rada to come up to speed, although the recent retreat in the Carpathians for the newly elected Servant of the People party, with its crash course in governance and the economy, may be a promising start.
There is so much that still needs to be done to build upon the post-Maidan reforms. This includes firmly establishing rule of law and property rights; de-oligarchization; rooting out corporate raiding by state law enforcement, including the Security Service of Ukraine; reforming the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine; finishing judicial reforms; activating the new anti-corruption court; strengthening anti-corruption institutions; cleaning up customs; and serious reform of the Rada itself, including lifting national deputies’ immunity from prosecution. Mind you, this is by no means a complete list.
Even with the requisite political will and (hopefully) willingness to work with reformers, including those who served in the previous government and Rada, change will take time. Whether this historic opportunity comes to be realized is anyone’s guess at this point in time, but within a few months we should have a better sense of where things stand. In any event, the opportunity is ripe for the taking, and the potential rewards for Ukraine and its people are incalculable.
Ukraine’s friends in Washington and elsewhere are all trying to figure out the new political landscape in Ukraine. While there are still many unknowns, most are cautiously optimistic. Washington will continue to stand with Ukraine, especially in light of Moscow’s ongoing aggression. Importantly, Congress’s historically strong bipartisan support has not faded, notwithstanding the growing frustration in the last couple of years at the slow pace – and even in some instances backsliding – of reforms. Just think of how much more robust Washington’s support for Ukraine and how much stronger the U.S.-Ukraine partnership would be if Ukraine finally moves more resolutely on reforms. More importantly, just think of how these reforms can transform Ukraine into the country we all know it has the potential to become. Happy 28th Independence Day, Ukraine!
Orest Deychakiwsky is Vice Chair of the Board of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. This opinion piece initially appeared in The Ukrainian Weekly.