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Zelenskyy’s new poll could be a threat to local elections in Ukraine

Is the poll president Zelenskyy added to the local elections in Ukraine a violation of the election law or something else entirely?

October 26, 2020 - Kateryna Pryshchepa - Articles and Commentary

Presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskyy voting for Ukrainian presidential election at polling station in Kyiv. Photo: Dmytro Larin / Shutterstock

On October 13th Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy released a video in which he announced that a public poll would take place on October 25th. This was also the date set for Ukraine’s local elections. According to statements made by the president and his party Sluha Narodu, the poll will involve up to five million voters, giving the chance for citizens to express their opinions on questions really important to them. Participation in the poll will be voluntary and its polling posts are supposed to be located outside voting stations for the aforementioned local elections. Legal experts and political opponents, however, have raised concerns regarding the violation of election law and attempts to distort public debate on important national issues.

In a rather dramatic manner the poll’s questions were set to be revealed one per day starting on October 14th. The first two questions are as follows:

 “Do you support the idea of ​​life imprisonment as a punishment for corruption on a particularly large scale?”

“Do you support the creation of a free economic zone in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts ?”

Despite this, on October 15th Ukrainian media undermined this approach by publishing a leaked list of the remaining  three  questions:

“Do you support the reduction of the number of members of parliament to 300?”

“Do you support the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes, such as its use to reduce pain in critically ill patients?”

“Do you support Ukraine’s right to use the security guarantees set out in the Budapest Memorandum to restore its state sovereignty and territorial integrity?”

An illegal use of public office

These questions and Zelenskyy’s desire to conduct the poll simultaneously with local elections were met with a wave of criticism from legal experts and members of civil society. According to Olha Ayvazovska, the chairwoman of elections watchdog Civil Network Opora, the very idea of political polls being organised on the same day as planned elections shows clear signs of the so-called “administrative resource”. In Ukraine, the term “administrative resource” refers to the deliberate and widespread use of state resources to promote one particular political party or candidate. This is especially notable during election campaigns. There are already indications that political institutions have been heavily involved in the poll project. According to Serhiy Leshchenko, a former journalist and current board member of Ukrzaliznytsia (Ukraine’s public railway company), the poll project is being coordinated by Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy chairman of Zelenskyy’s presidential office. The poll, according to Ayvazovska, will ultimately help promote Zelenskyy and his party. This opinion is also supported by Ihor Feshchenko, an analyst with the NGO Chesno. 

Yevhenia Kravchuk, the deputy chair of Sluha Narodu’s parliamentary group, stated that in order to prevent any violation of election law, the poll will be conducted by an independent organisation. The questions will also be asked by volunteers who will be located outside the election polling stations. According to Ayvazovska, however, this is by no means a guarantee that the poll will comply with the law. For example, volunteers outside the voting stations might ask questions to citizens who are just about to vote in the local elections. As a result, the questions may simply provide additional promotion for Sluha Narodu and their candidates. Moreover, the very fact that the poll was announced by the president himself has placed him at the heart of the local election campaign.

In addition to these issues, the financial resources allocated to fund the poll will potentially violate election law. This is because they will likely help to promote Sluha Narodu despite the fact that they are not part of official electoral spending.

Vital elections under threat

The elections on October 25th were the first in Ukraine since the completion of the first stage of decentralisation reform, which began in 2015. In 2020, all local communities that had not yet become part of a larger administrative unit were assigned to one of these new areas. The elections provided communities with newly elected governing bodies, made up of councils and mayors.

According to Ayvazovska, Zelenskyy’s announcement has shifted public attention away from critical local election issues to speculation related to the poll. This has led to a lack of clarity on safety measures during the vote despite the fact that COVID-19 cases continue to increase in Ukraine. Simultaneously, the purchase of personal protective equipment for members of the electoral commission is still to be finalised. These issues now are not receiving sufficient coverage in the media.

Distortion of public debate

Zelenskyy’s poll will undoubtedly create unneeded chaos on election day. The manner in which the poll’s questions are formulated will likely distort public debate on important political issues and damage Ukraine’s unstable democracy.

The president’s first announced question proposes a severe punishment for corruption. It would be wise to remember here the phrase coined by the 19th century Russian writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, who noted that in Russia the strictness of laws is often mitigated by the non-binding nature of their implementation. This phrase is still often used in post soviet countries to describe the nature of legislative activity. Moreover, Zelenskyy’s previous attempts to declare demands or requests to the prosecutor’s office and judiciary have only strengthened concerns regarding selective justice if these severe measures are implemented into law.

It is also worth noting that the poll’s second question concerning a special economic zone in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts violates Ukraine’s constitution. The document simply states that issues of tax policy can not be decided by means of national referendum.

Zelenskyy’s political opponents in parliament have raised concerns that the poll will be used to promote some of the government’s controversial policies. This includes proposals concerning those parts of Donetsk and Luhansk not currently under government control, as well as some controversial institutional reforms. These concerns are supported by the fact that there is no guarantee that the poll will be conducted in accordance with any established polling methodology or procedures. This is despite official intentions to survey millions of voters. It is still not clear if any reputable polling organisation in Ukraine will be involved in constructing the sample for the poll and organising the event on the ground. Without guarantees that polling professionals will be involved, there is a high risk that voters in regions with more favourable opinions of the president and his policies will be deliberately targeted for participation in the poll. This would subsequently represent a distortion of public opinion by the poll organisers.

These fears are supported by various comments made by public figures close to Sluha Narodu, as well as the fact that the party promised to use the national referendum as the tool to decide important political issues during their parliamentary campaign in 2019. According to Ruslan Stefanchuk, the deputy chairman of Ukraine’s parliament and Sluha Narodu representative, the poll will be used as a sort of test drive for future national referendums.

As a result, it could be argued that Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his closest collaborators’ extensive background in show business is now placing unnecessary pressure on Ukrainian politics.

Worries confirmed

On October 25th, on the day of the local elections some of the fears of the commentators have been confirmed. According to Ayvazovksa, the volunteers who have been asking voters presidential questions have been present in different regions of Ukraine in different numbers. The volunteers have been present at the entrances of 55 per cent voting stations in the country in general. But in the south of Ukraine were present at 78,5 per cent of voting stations, in the east at 56,87 per cent, in the center at 55,79 per cent and in the west — only at 37,87 per cent of voting stations.

Moreover, independent survey conducted by the sociological group Rating – a reputable survey institution in Ukraine – demonstrated, that people who took part in presidential survey were more likely to support presidential suggestions. On 25th October Rating surveyed 9947 voters in all regions of Ukraine and asked them if they took part in the local elections and in the presidential poll. According to survey results, over one third of the voters did not answer the questions of the presidential poll. And supporters of different parties took part in presidential poll differently. Among voters who support presidential party Sluha Narodu 63 per cent answered the questions of the presidential poll. And among supporters of the party European Solidarity (the party of the former president Petro Poroshenko) only 27 per cent answered the questions of the president.

Those voters, who answered the questions of the presidential poll tended to answer more positively to Zelenskyy’s questions, than the voters in general. For instance, 78 per cent of those who filled in the “ballot” of the presidential poll answered “yes” to the question regarding the “use of security guarantees in the Budapest memorandum”. Among the voters in general, 56 per cent supported that idea. Among voters who answered the questions of president 81 per cent supported the idea of lifelong sentence for the specifically significant cases of corruption, and among the voters who did take part in elections but did not take part in the presidential poll, 63 per cent support this idea.

However, when taken into account the voter turnout on 25th October, those numbers have to be treated with the great caution. According to the Central Election Commission of Ukraine, less than 37 per cent of registered voters took part in elections. So the response of the voters to the presidential poll cannot be presented as the views of Ukrainian society. Both the results of Opora monitoring and the survey by Rating Group demonstrates, that Zelenskyy’s poll results are skewed and cannot be presented as the views of the Ukrainian voters. So it is up to political class now to prevent public relations exercise of this sort from becoming the basis of state policies.

Kateryna Pryshchepa is a Ukrainian journalist, PhD candidate and frequent contributor to New Eastern Europe.

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