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Task Force on Elections and Civil Society in Ukraine notes: Voters lack information on presidential front-runner’s views

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WASHINGTON – With less than two weeks left before Ukrainian voters make a final decision on who will be their president for the next five years, the Transatlantic Task Force on Elections and Civil Society in Ukraine held an international teleconference devoted to the results of the first round of the election and concerns regarding the upcoming second round in which incumbent Petro Poroshenko and his opponent, Volodymyr Zelensky, will compete.

In their opening remarks, Jonathan Katz (German Marshall Fund) and Orest Deychakiwsky (U.S.-Ukraine Foundation), who served as first-round election observers in Vinnytsia and Mykolaiv, respectively, gave Ukraine high marks for the conduct of the March 31 vote.

Mr. Katz, who was part of a National Democratic Institute mission, cited that organization’s election assessment and noted that “the election was genuinely competitive” and that “despite ongoing Russian aggression Ukraine held an election that broadly reflects the will of voters and meets key international standards.” Speaking about the mood of electorate, he said, we see “a frustration among Ukrainian voters about the state of the economy, about the state of reforms, about the ongoing conflict in the east,” and “those issues are still front and center as we go into the second round of the elections.”

Mr. Deychakiwsky was part of the observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which deployed nearly 1,000 observers from 45 countries all over Ukraine. The election was assessed positively by the OSCE, he said, and stressed that: “Ukraine again showed its strong commitment to democracy. This irritated Moscow to no end.” He added that “the positive conduct of the elections increased the confidence of Ukraine’s international friends and partners [with regard to] Ukraine’s commitment to a brighter, democratic, Euro-Atlantic future. And this, I think, is ultimately what matters. And no matter who is elected president – and yes, it will probably be a bit more challenging in the event of a Zelensky victory – but no matter what, the West, I think, still needs to continue to support Ukraine, and especially Ukraine’s civil society.”

Olga Aivazovska, who heads Elections and Parliamentary Programs of the Civil Network OPORA, concurred with the positive assessments of the conduct of the first round, saying that “these elections were very competitive” and that “the number of violations decreased” as compared to the previous election in 2014. She noted that five candidates had representatives in 99 percent of the country’s election commissions with many of them lacking sufficient training and experience. This sometimes led to violations of electoral laws and procedures, but they were more of a technical nature and not systemic. The presence of international partners helped minimize serious violations, she said.

Inna Borzylo, chief executive officer of Centre UA, explained that her organization, in partnership with the NGO Chesno, focused on enlightening the public about the political platforms of the candidates and on analyzing campaign expenditures. She characterized the programs and pronouncements of the candidates as “quite populistic,” with the majority of them promising bigger salaries, higher pensions and lower prices for utilities like gas, “without providing any details about how they would implement these ideas.” 

Ironically, although the voters look to the president to solve the country’s socio-economic problems, the constitutional prerogatives of the presidency are primarily in the sphere of foreign policy, defense and national security, she said. According to the Constitution, it is mainly the prime minister who is responsible for the government’s economic policy. 

Oleksiy Haran, a professor at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and research director at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation (DIF), underscored the importance of the exit poll that DIF conducted in partnership with other independent organizations as an instrument of “democratic control.” When election results differ significantly from exit poll results it can be a sign of election falsification, but in this case, the tally of the Central Election Committee and the exit poll were consistent. 

Prof. Haran called Mr. Zelensky’s first-place finish in the first round with 30 percent of the vote a “protest phenomenon” not unlike what we’ve seen in other countries in recent years. The ability of President Poroshenko to overtake Mr. Zelensky in the second round depends on the mobilization of those who voted for Yulia Tymoshenko, Anatoliy Hrytsenko, Ihor Smeshko, Ruslan Koshulynskyi and Oleh Lyashko in the first round, who see themselves as ideologically closer to the incumbent than to political newcomer Mr. Zelensky and who may question the latter’s lack of experience and lack of clarity on Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration.

The voting public’s inability to obtain details directly from Mr. Zelensky about his specific policy prescriptions and positions on many important domestic, international and security issues was extensively discussed during the April 9 teleconference.

Kyiv moderator Vasyl Babych of the Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR) asked if there has been equal access of candidates to news media in Ukraine. He noted that the issue of a debate between Messrs. Poroshenko and Zelensky is now a dominant topic in the campaign and that the RPR board encourages both candidates to take part in a debate on public TV as foreseen by Ukrainian legislation.

Halyna Petrenko, director of Detector Media, said that in this election in Ukraine there’s not really a major concern about equal access to news media, but rather “we have a very interesting situation when we have one candidate who is hiding from the media – maybe it’s the first time in history. I mean Volodymyr Zelensky, who is very active in entertainment content [in a popular TV series], but this entertainment content he uses – not in addition to information and news content – but instead of information and news content.”

Ms. Petrenko went on to say that “Mr. Zelensky is trying to find a tricky way to appear publicly, but at the same time to avoid classic debates with tough questions, with concrete questions about military strategy, economic strategy and diplomatic strategy and so on.” He has not been participating in news and information formats, just in entertainment programming, she explained.

Prof. Haran said that Ukraine needs “real TV debates, not a show” not only for voters who have not made up their minds but just as importantly to hear the candidates’ ideas and positions on important issues and to be able to hold the winner accountable after the election in terms of carrying out his commitments.

Could Mr. Zelensky’s avoidance of serious news interviews and debates hurt him electorally?

Mr. Haran indicated that Mr. Zelensky’s strategy of avoiding specifics seems designed to be all things to all people, so that voters can project their own view on him and think that he will do everything that they want and to mask his and his team’s inexperience and lack of knowledge about critical issues.

Ms. Petrenko shared the following insights about the curious lack of unanimity among reformers to demand more public engagement from Mr. Zelensky: “On the one hand, of course, media experts and journalists and a big part of civil society at the moment are pushing Mr. Zelensky to come to the debate, to come to television to be more open and to answer our questions, a lot of questions. But on the other hand… we have some persons in our civil society, who are trusted in civil society, who now maybe have some hope to join his team, the team of Mr. Zelensky, or maybe they already joined his team, who try to persuade us not to push him to be on the TV [interviews and debates], to be in the media at the moment, because they say that he has [limited] experience. Let’s help him to win the election and then we will teach him somehow.”

Prof. Haran said that, for voters with higher levels of education, Mr. Zelensky’s avoidance of journalists and debates may be disqualifying, but for his supporters, who are seeking change, it doesn’t matter. But the analyst feels that civil society should continue to press Mr. Zelensky to be more open in these final days before the election.

A teleconference participant from Brussels wanted to know why the incumbent won the first round among Ukrainian citizens voting abroad. The reason, suggested by Ms. Borzylo, is that “they do not watch Ukrainian media. And they watch less investigations on the corruption of Poroshenko and his allies. And Poroshenko as the current president of Ukraine, of course, represents our country on high-level platforms and he is quite professional in this, and that is how international media mostly cover his activity.” 

At many think-tank forums in Washington, Mr. Poroshenko wins praise for halting Russia’s invasion, rebuilding Ukraine’s defense capacity and carrying out a number of significant reforms, while also being criticized for not doing enough about corruption. Prof. Haran expressed disappointment that most Ukrainian media have not been fair and balanced in their coverage of the president’s shortcomings and accomplishments.

This was the fifth in a series of international teleconferences of the Transatlantic Task Force on Elections and Civil Society in Ukraine, organized by the Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN) Democracy and Civil Society Task Force in Washington, the German Marshall Fund, the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, the Reanimation Package of Reforms and the Ukraine Crisis Media Center (the event venue in Kyiv). 

Other participants include the Center for Democracy and Rule of Law, the Center for Policy and Legal Reform, the OPORA Civil Network, the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, the DEJURE Foundation, the Center for Economic Strategy, the Anti-Corruption Action Center, Centre UA and Transparency International Ukraine. 

The Ukrainian Weekly