Ukraine’s chance to return to Europe (Financial Times)

24.10.2012 16:43

By Vitali Klitschko

Ukraine’s parliamentary election this Sunday is a referendum on the presidency of Viktor Yanukovich who won power in February 2010, in a free and fairly contested democratic election. Since then, however, the rules of the parliamentary election system have been changed to favour allies he hopes will continue supporting him.

The mood among Ukrainians has also changed. Many voters who once believed in Mr Yanukovich’s promise of a better economic future after the frustrating stagnation that followed the optimism spawned by the Orange Revolution of 2004, have become pessimistic. Opinion poll surveys record that two-thirds of Ukrainians now believe that the country is moving in the wrong direction.

Ukrainians are caught between what appear to be the twin objectives of Mr Yanukovich’s rule: the continuation of the promotion of oligarch capitalism that further monopolises the country’s economy, holding back its very real potential; and the selective use of the courts and law enforcement authorities to jail political opponents, forbid citizen protests and stifle media criticism of contentious government policies.

Further afield, diplomatic isolation from Brussels, Moscow and Washington has left Kiev vulnerable. Strategic co-operation and national interests have taken a back seat to purely mercantile deals. A historic association agreement between the EU and Ukraine that would see a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement and open up important markets to Ukraine is in limbo. And trade wars with neighbouring Russia continue to hurt local exporters.

Sunday’s election gives Ukrainians hope and a chance to return to a European path of development. However, it will not be an easy one, since the voting system is still a cause of concern among democrats.

Ukraine has a two-ballot system for choosing the members of its 450-seat parliament. One vote is for a party, which must win a 5 per cent share of the vote to secure representation; the other is for an individual candidate.

The government has chosen allies to run as “independents” in districts challenging incumbents and opposition candidates. These “independents” enjoy support from officials, whether in the form of social service personnel canvassing precincts or pledges of funds for public works. The independents also dispense care packages of sugar, buckwheat and basic medicines.

Prosecutors and election officials turn a blind eye to this. Meanwhile, opposition candidates face intimidation and denial of access to government-controlled media.
Local officials and phantom party representatives also staff precinct and district election commissions. International and local election observers have documented some commissioners residing at the same address. It is here where the fairness and integrity of the election is most vulnerable. As Joseph Stalin once noted, it’s more important who’s counting the vote than the number of votes cast.

It was in order to address concerns like these that two years ago my political colleagues and I founded the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms (Udar) to build a national party committed to European democratic values, basic economic freedoms and an anti-corruption platform. Our election programme also includes a call for a more empowered civic society with independent institutions and the devolving of power from central government.

If elected, we will create an anti-corruption bureau staffed not only by officials, but citizen activists and human rights watchdogs. During this campaign, more than 3,000 citizen- documented dossiers of corrupt acts by officials have been collected by Udar and civil society activists. The common factor in all of them: bribes being taken for administrative services that are essentially free.

The government has failed to secure an election environment free of coercion and intimidation. Still citizens cannot be stopped from taking matters into their own hands. During the Orange Revolution citizen activism was key to guaranteeing the integrity of the vote. It remains so today.

The writer is the leader of the Udar political party and the WBC heavyweight boxing champion

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