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Vote-Buying Cheapens Ukraine’s New Democracy

Ukraine's politicians know their voters are poor -- and they're not above exploiting that fact.

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It has not been lost on Ukrainian politicians that many of their voters are poor. Those running for office have often tried to profit from this sad fact. But their frantic attempts to buy votes are increasingly alienating and discouraging the electorate. 

I’ve just returned from the city of Chernihiv in northern Ukraine, where I observed a parliamentary by-election this weekend. On a scorching hot Sunday morning, citizens of this placid provincial town trickled into a polling station located in a big high school gymnasium. There was a strong smell of fresh paint. Despite the usual summer lull, this electoral district in Chernihiv has made headlines in the Ukrainian press. Commentators have described the race for this seat the dirtiest election campaign in recent memory. Even President Poroshenko called the pre-election maneuvering a “disgrace.”

In the end, over 90 candidates joined the fray — so many that the electoral authorities had to create a yard-long paper ballot to fit them all in. Unfortunately, the proliferation of candidates didn’t make for healthy political competition, since most of those entering the race had zero political weight and served only as spoilers for the main contenders.

The real battle played out between Sergiy Berezenko, a nominee from the party of President Petro Poroshenko, and Gennadiy Korban, a business partner of powerful oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. The president and Kolomoisky have been involved in a high-stakes power struggle since March, and almost everybody I spoke to agrees that the Chernihiv election was a proxy battle between the two men.

Chernihiv’s citizens have become the main casualties of the stand-off. Neither Berezenko nor Korban is native to the city, leading locals to refer to them disparagingly as political “parachutists” (the Ukrainian equivalent of “carpetbaggers”). Berezenko embodies the cronyism of Poroshenko’s entourage, given the president’s propensity to appoint close associates and former business partners to official posts. The nephew of a high-ranking lawmaker in the president’s parliamentary faction, Berezenko chairs a notoriously corrupt government agency in charge of managing government property. On the other side, Korban has also never been a public politician before this campaign. His main claim to fame stems from helping Kolomoisky solve corporate disputes before the Maidan revolution and manage the Dnipropetrovsk regional administration afterwards.

According to the official results, Poroshenko’s man won. (The outcome was verified by Ukraine’s most reliable election monitor, the civic organization OPORA.) Precisely how this victory was achieved, however, is quite another matter. The 36 percent of the vote that Berezenko ultimately won probably has less to do with his own lackluster campaign than with his closeness to Poroshenko, who remains relatively popular. Even so, Berezenko’s team has earned biting criticism amid allegations that it paid for votes before the polling day. Similarly, Korban’s team (which finished second with 15 percent of the vote) is said to have bribed the poorest voters with food packages disbursed on city streets. According to the estimates of another Ukrainian election watchdog, about 40 thousand potential voters received these handouts (nearly every third).

The by-election in Chernihiv has thus revealed an uncomfortable truth about Ukrainian democracy: most politicians are happy to exploit the voters’ poverty. In Chernihiv, one of the poorest areas in Ukraine, the annual per capita income in the region is only 86 percent of the national average. The contrast with the relative affluence of Kiev, a mere 85 miles away, is stark. Instead of engaging in debate about policies for fighting poverty, the candidates simply opened their respective party coffers. That the opposing political camps resorted to such crude tactics — despite the intense public attention surrounding the election — attests to the elite’s depressing shamelessness even by the lax standards of Ukrainian political culture.

This economic insecurity creates serious incentives for political corruption on the voter’s end as well. Yevgen Radchenko, an election campaign expert from the civic organization Internews Ukraine, explained the problem at a recent training session for election observers. When polled off the record, he says, most of the poorest voters agree to sell their votes when the interviewer offers a sum equivalent to monthly expenses on house utilities (some $20 compared to an average Ukrainian salary of less than $200). This means that, in an electoral district with 145 thousand registered voters (like the one in Chernihiv), a cynical candidate would have to spend less than $1.5 million in order to pay this amount to the poorest 50 percent of all registered voters. Not all are guaranteed to give their votes in return — but many do.

The opacity of campaign financing, a perpetual problem in Ukraine, intensifies this degradation of electoral competition, especially on the local level. Candidates resort to loopholes in the legislation to mask their handouts as “charity donations.” Berezenko’s campaign was reported to have signed so-called “social contracts” (money in exchange for campaign promotion services) with prospective voters as a shield for shady cash transfers. Korban’s team got around the restrictions by handing out food packages in areas that technically lay outside the city’s electoral district. A third candidate from the Democratic Alliance party challenged these violations in a Chernihiv court one week before the election. However, the courts swiftly rejected the case on the basis that there was “no proof” that these practices constituted vote-buying. The court thus effectively gave the two main rivals a green light to carry on with the practice of “remunerating” voters materially

Despite the use of dirty campaign money to lure voters, the turnout of only 35 percent was still low in comparison to all previous parliamentary elections. This means that Berezenko earned his parliamentary seat thanks to a meager 12 percent of eligible voters — hardly a strong sign of democratic legitimacy. Public disenchantment with the corrupt campaign has had a more serious impact than Ukrainian politicians admit. Several voters who came to the polling station where I observed the vote complained vocally that they saw no candidates on the list who reflected their interests. The turnout of young people was astonishingly low, despite the intensive coverage of the campaign on TV and social networks. The political apathy of this otherwise active social group has been a worrisome hallmark of this election.

It all boiled down to this: two moneyed competitors from Kiev and Dnipropetrovsk saw fit to arrange an auction for a parliamentary seat in a district where no one among the local politicians has comparable resources. Since the candidates had no real connection to the city, they chose to buy voters rather than communicate with them. The disenchanted voters responded by not showing up. Unless this problem can be addressed, Ukraine’s next elections, scheduled for this October, are likely to turn into a vulgar competition among the richest to buy the votes of the most deprived.

The photo shows Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky in his former office, when he was governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

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