Oct 29, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Ukraine’s Election Results and A New Paradigm for Democracy Education

The recent elections in Ukraine underscore the role democratic governments must play in criticizing flawed elections: the OSCE/ODHIR initial observation report published on October 28 indicates that there were significant structural problems leading up to the election that undermine the credibility of results.

 

Elections specialists regularly note that elections, like those in Ukraine, can be rigged well before voters head to the polls. But the civic education community clings to the paradigm that participation is as important as structure. The logic is as follows: if enough voters overwhelm the polls, and the ballots are counted and tabulated fairly (which is disputed in Ukraine), the results will be more democratic than with lower voter turnout. This electoral numbers justification is used to support civic education awareness programming. How can you argue with the fact that a higher voter turnout, when ballots are counted fairly, will translate to a more representative result?

 

But as demonstrated in Ukraine, voter turnout on election day alone cannot overcome structural biases that threaten to erode the democratic process in a pre-election environment. There is a paradigm shift that needs to solidify across the civic and voter education communities: focusing on get out the vote and registration campaigns can increase voter turn out, but it has a limited effect on the quality of the democratic process if there is significant structural bias. As reported ODHIR, in Ukraine “the ability of candidates to get their messages to voters and to compete under equal conditions…was negatively affected in a significant number of electoral districts due to harassment, intimidation, and misuse of administrative resources. The campaign environment was assessed as not fair overall…” Further, the Central Election Commission had indicated that it will not release precinct-level results, fundamental to a transparent process.

 

It is critical for pro-democratic forces to understand how demonstrably unfair voter outreach can be if it is designed overwhelmingly to benefit one faction rather than to promote legitimate democratic processes. The exclusion of political candidates, Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko, and the economic influences on the electoral process in Ukraine demonstrate this to be the case.

 

External pressure is critical to countering structural bias. The democracy education community has a responsibility to pressure our own governments to speak out when our allies conduct elections that are clearly flawed – and if necessary, to apply political and economic pressure when elections are, by design, unfair. A statement released by the EU, while noting irregularities, stopped short of the frank criticism that might be expected of democratic governments.

 

We have a responsibility to take action to stand with civil society groups and civic leaders: to support their efforts to address these flaws from within by strengthening campaign finance laws, promoting the enforcement of existing election commission statutes, and ensuring that voters understand the platforms upon which the parties and candidates stand.

 

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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