Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election spurred accusations of vote-rigging, and a poll conducted this past fall showed that 82 percent of Ukrainians expected more of the same in 2010 — especially with the two primary candidates accusing each other of plotting to rig votes.
Some international and domestic election observers shared these fears, and a team of more than 600 election watchers was organized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to observe the election.

George Liber, an expert in Ukranian history and politics, was part of a team of more than 600 election watchers organized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to observe Ukraine’s 2010 presidential election. The group was invited to assess the fairness of the election.
UAB History Professor George Liber, Ph.D., an expert in Ukrainian history and politics, was among those invited by to assess the fairness of the election.

“Our job was to evaluate the voting conditions in the polling stations, and every few hours we had to fax observation-report forms to OSCE headquarters in Kyiv,” Liber says. “The OSCE leadership team in Kyiv issued its first public assessment of the fairness of the vote within 24 hours after the polls closed. The OSCE based its overall reports on our observations at the local level.”

Election observers with the OSCE observed close to 3,500 election precincts, or approximately 10 percent of all election precincts in Ukraine. Twenty-five million men and women — or 69 percent — of all eligible voters participated despite temperatures between minus-10 and minus-15 degrees Celsius. 

The Ukrainian election was split into two parts — the primary, which was held Jan. 17, when 18 people vied to be president, and the runoff, held Feb. 7. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych emerged from the primary as the two major candidates for president. Yanukovych won 49 percent of the vote to Tymoshenko’s 45.5 percent with 4.5 percent voting “None of the Above.” The OSCE election-monitoring mission approved these results.  

The OSCE placed team leaders on the ground four months prior to the election so they could watch television news, read newspapers and assess the amount of airtime each candidate received. This helped provide a long-term perspective on election fairness.

The OSCE then sent short-term election observers into the country. The short-term observers were split into teams A and B. Team A consisted of election watchers who observed the precinct election commission’s final preparations before the polls opened at 8 a.m. They then visited 10 other election precincts during the next 12 hours, writing reports on each one. The B team observed the end of the election period at 8 p.m. in a precinct election station, watched the local election commission count the paper ballots, saw the final paperwork completed and accompanied a delegation from the local precinct to the district election headquarters as they registered their election results. At the district election headquarters, Team B members observed the acceptance of up to 125 precinct election results per district. The district election commission often completed this process in the afternoon of the next day.

Liber was a member of the B team in the primary and the A team for the runoff.

Liber says he never directly observed or heard of any problems at the polling places he observed in the Odesa Oblast in January or the Kyiv Oblast in February.

“I had a very pleasant experience,” Liber says. “Everyone I encountered acted quite civilly and very nicely. I heard of some incidents in East Ukraine in which police officers harassed OSCE election observers by constantly demanding to examine their official election-identification cards and their passports. And there were other rumors, of course — rumors that people were paid $30 to vote for a particular candidate. But these are things which can’t be proven, and the scale of such bribery is difficult to gauge.”

One of the 20 election watchers on Liber’s team in Kiev reported an incident of disappearing ink on some ballots at his location. The watcher said the official pens that were to be used to mark ballots were replaced with pens that appeared to mark ballots, only to have the ink disappear a few minutes later.

Liber said the precinct election commission handled the incident appropriately.

“When they started to count up all the ballots they put aside the ones that were blank, and after they counted up all of the election ballots with real pen marks on them, they examined the ballots with no visible markings,” Liber says. “They looked carefully and lifted them up to the light, and they noticed the indent on the ballots where the votes were originally cast. They then took a vote and decided that the ones they could recognize the indent they would count the ballot.

“They accepted each ballot they could read, and I think that’s to the credit of that precinct election commission.”

The voting process and the counting of the votes in Ukraine is completed by hand. Ballots are placed in clear boxes so there can be no false bottoms where ballots fall through and disappear.
The secretary of the precinct election commission then counted the ballots when the polls closed. Liber says the vote count was fascinating to watch.

“I watched them toss all of the ballots out of the boxes onto a table and the precinct secretary would count them one by one,” Liber says. “Luckily, in my experience, the secretary who counted was superb. She was fast. She counted 1,200 ballots and then she divided them into piles for each candidate, and then she counted each pile. Once this was a done a form was filled out saying the total number of ballots that were received, the total number of ballots filled out and the total number of disqualified ballots. The process where we were went smoothly and quickly. I heard that in one polling station in another district there were only 350 ballots, and it took five hours to count them.”

In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko accused authorities of rigging the run-off election in favor of Yanukovych, which led to massive protests nationwide. The results of the runoff were eventually annulled and a re-vote was ordered by the Ukrainian Supreme Court. The OSCE and other international election observers declared that the second runoff was fair and free. The final vote showed an eight-point victory for Yushchenko. He went on to make promises to fight corruption during his time as president, but Liber says the corruption actually increased during the past six years, which made the need for election observers for the 2010 election all the more necessary.

“Ukraine is still very much a struggling democracy,” Liber says. “There has been no real implementation of the rule of law or the introduction of efforts to fight corruption over the past six years. So while Ukraine is formally a democracy, it is still very much a flawed one.”

The election officials he observed, Liber says, sought to make the election as fair as possible.