Post Election Ukraine: At Its Final Crossroads?

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyyy

George Horhota for New Pathway – Ukrainian News.

Ukraine’s early spring Presidential and last week’s parliamentary elections resulted in fundamental change as a neophyte political candidate, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and his brand new Servant of the People party, swept both contests, winning an overwhelming mandate to pursue reform. Together, they campaigned on the promise of tackling systemic corruption, which has held the country back since its independence 28 years ago.

The magnitude of the unexpected results from an accelerated snap parliamentary election (originally slated for October) reflected Ukrainians’ disillusionment with incumbent members of parliament (called Verkhovna Rada) who have protected themselves against corruption charges by passing self-serving immunity legislation. Now, with many of them losing the protective shield that incumbency provided and all of the successful Servant of the People party candidates being new to elected office (no current or past members of parliament were eligible to run under the party’s banner), the resulting unique governance landscape offers President Zelenskyy the potential to make good on his election promise.

The parliamentary election was the first since Ukraine’s 1991 independence, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, to deliver a parliamentary majority for the President’s party, obviating any need for forging compromising coalitions which in the past hindered tackling corruption — and its corrosive twin, being the absence of genuine rule of law.

Time will tell whether President Zelenskyy, the actor starring in the popular Ukrainian TV fictional series “Servant of the People” (which foretold his real life election outcome), can implement the promised anti-corruption agenda that led to his capturing an unprecedented 73% of the Presidential election’s vote. But unlike Russia’s elections, which ban or imprison opposition candidates, the results of the July 21st vote were declared fair by international observers, including Canada’s Head of Mission the Hon. Lloyd Axworthy who, representing the non-governmental organization CANADEM (funded by the Canadian government), issued a preliminary assessment of the election the day following the vote as having “largely met international democratic standards”.

I was privileged to join 127 other election short-term observers (‘STO’) from across Canada participating in CANADEM’s Mission Canada delegation. My personal observations at nine polling stations on election day reflected the democratic characterization by the international community of the election.

Over 2,000 Canadians have supported the evolution of democracy in Ukraine since its independence through participating in bilateral election observation missions by invitation of successive Ukrainian governments. On July 21st, my STO colleagues were joined by 50 long-term observers, and collectively we visited more than 1,850 polling stations across Ukraine observing election protocols, processes, ballot counting at the close of voting and even acceptance of polling results by District Election Commissions.

For two days leading up to the election, my CANADEM teammate and I visited a dozen polling stations in the Poltava region to observe their preparedness for a democratic vote, including auditing whether the ballots were stored in a locked safe (each guarded by two police officers 7/24 – repeated at over 29,000 polling stations across Ukraine – from the ballots’ Thursday distribution to Sunday’s election).

Every polling station’s staff that we visited welcomed our independent international observations. It was clear that the stakeholders in the election, regardless of party affiliation, wanted fair elections to be conducted whose outcome Ukrainians and the international community alike would accept. As a Canadian I could not have been prouder of our country supporting such an important mission dedicated to help advance free elections in new and emerging democracies.

Now that the results have been acknowledged by the international community as representing the will of voting Ukrainians, the hard work begins for the newly minted President, his cabinet and elected parliamentary members to quickly deliver on their election promises to root out corruption and build a stronger foundation for the rule of law to flourish. This will no doubt start with removing the immunity from conviction for corruption offences that parliament had voted for its members in the past.

George Horhota served as a Short Term Observer on Canada’s Election Observation Mission to Ukraine (July 16 – 25)