By Ria Novosti
International observers on Monday slammed Ukraine’s parliamentary elections as “a step backward” for democracy and said the vote was marred by fraud, intimidation and other abuses.
“Ukrainians deserve better than these elections,” Andreas Gross, head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) observer mission, told reporters in Kiev on Monday afternoon.
Sunday’s vote, in which President Viktor Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions seems likely to get 33 percent of the vote, was widely seen as a test not only for Yanukovych himself, but also for Ukraine’s fledgling democracy, particularly given the allegations that have surfaced in recent months of authoritarianism, corruption and the jailing of political opponents.
Several opposition parties also gained considerable ground in these polls, to the point of posing a potential threat to the ruling party’s hold over the 450-seat legislature. The observers’ findings cast a pall over Ukraine’s democratic future.
The observers criticized the pre-election media coverage as unfair, and also pointed to a lack of transparency in campaign finances and the abuse of administrative resources.
They slammed what they called the inordinate campaign spending by the Party of Regions and its financial backers, many of them wealthy businessmen from the party’s support base in southern and eastern Ukraine.
“A democratic election is much more than a competition between smaller and bigger oligarchs who colonize Ukrainian politics and democracy with their big money,” Gross said.
Ukrainian Central Election Committee chief Volodymyr Shapoval dismissed those allegations at a press conference on Monday.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told reporters late Sunday night that the vote had been fair.
The observers also took issue with Ukraine’s new electoral law, enacted late last year, which they say hands the Party of Regions an unfair advantage.
Under it, half the parliament is to be elected by established party lists, and half will be chosen by majoritarian constituencies. Critics and opposition members have slammed what they called the manipulation of the latter, by installing “dummy” and “clone” candidates to fool voters and funnel votes away from the opposition.
“It was meant to be an improvement, but ended up lacking sufficient legal and institutional guarantees of its proper application,” said Pawel Kowal, chief of the European Parliament’s observer mission.
Despite observers’ negative assessments, Ukraine’s opposition forces enjoyed a surge in support, largely as a result of the Yanukovych administration’s slide in ratings over recent months.
Oleksandr Turchynov, a senior member of the United Opposition’s Batkivshchyna party, which appeared to have secured about 22 percent of the vote, said Monday that his party was ready to join forces with other opposition groupings that performed well in Sunday’s vote.
Among them was world famous boxer Vitaly Klitschko’s Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR), which scored about 12 percent, and the nationalist All-Ukrainian Union “Freedom” party, popular in the Ukrainian-speaking western regions, which by midday Monday looked to have secured about 9 percent of the vote.
The opposition face a difficult road ahead, analysts said Monday.
Serhiy Taran, director of the Kiev-based International Democracy Institute, pointed to the results still expected to come in from the majoritarian district races, which he says could add about 3-4 percent to the Party of Regions’ tally.
He added that these races featuring “independent” candidates, who are easily poached by the Party of Regions, could be crucial to the opposition’s future in parliament.
“They can work together on the common initiatives aiming to save democratic values in Ukraine, or to promote European integration,” he said. “But I doubt that they will be able to form a majority to influence the government.”
The preliminary results are expected Wednesday.
The international observers’ assessment of the elections may now throw Ukraine’s European future further into question.
The West and the European Union have consistently spoken out over the jail term handed down to Tymoshenko, and over Yanukovych’s alleged rollback on democracy.
The US has threatened sanctions, and the EU rowed back on the implementation of an Association Agreement with Ukraine shortly after Tymoshenko’s imprisonment.
While Taran said it is too early to predict the Western response to Ukraine’s flawed elections, other analysts said that Ukraine’s “off-and-on” relationship with Russia remains more realistic.
In the midst of widespread criticism from the West, the Kremlin has sought to pull Ukraine more aggressively into its orbit, offering a discount on natural gas in exchange for its energy transport infrastructure, as well as membership in the Moscow-led customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
According to Vladimir Kornilov, director of the Kremlin-friendly Institute for CIS Countries in Kiev, Ukraine’s European option is set to remain an elusive goal.
“There is not much of a choice here,” he said. “[Ukraine] can knock on that closed door for ten years.”