Ukraine's Elections Will Be Free and Fair

By Mikhail Okhendovskyy

With Ukraine's Oct. 28 parliamentary elections just a few days away, the country is making final preparations to ensure that they are credible and transparent. The stakes are high. Ukrainian authorities have made it clear that European integration is a top priority and therefore, the international community will be watching closely.

We welcome the scrutiny.

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As a member of the independent Central Election Commission (CEC), it is my job to ensure that the elections are deemed free and fair. My prediction, as I told U.S. government representatives and non-governmental organizations during a recent trip to the American capital, is that, notwithstanding some reservations concerning a few technical details, this fall's elections will not just meet but exceed international electoral standards for fairness and transparency.

This is in large part due to new legislation that was designed with assistance from the Venice Commission and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The new law was supported by international and domestic experts, and the people of Ukraine. It was adopted by more than 80 percent of Ukraine's parliament members, including representatives from every faction - both the ruling coalition and the opposition.

The new election law re-introduces a mixed electoral system under which half the country's 450 representatives are elected in single-member districts and half through proportional representation in a single nationwide constituency. The law lifts the election threshold from three to five percent, prohibits parties from running together in electoral coalitions, and removes the option of "vote against all" as a choice on the ballot.

While the law includes important reforms, several provisions thereof were ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of Ukraine in April 2012. Those rulings created two serious legal gaps in the law.

First, there is no procedural basis to incorporate tallies from 115 out-of-country polling stations, representing some 439,000 voters living abroad, in the final results of elections, which is to be prepared by the CEC by Nov. 12, 2012. Secondly, invalidation of the rules allowing one individual candidate to run simultaneously on a party list and in a single mandate district opened way for a candidate to run in two or more districts.

While the CEC is trying to resolve the first problem through a resolution, the second problem will obviously remain a challenge. In May 2012 the CEC unanimously supported a number of important technical amendments necessary to fill in the gaps created by the Constitutional Court's rulings and submitted them to parliament. To our disappointment, the parliament failed to pay adequate attention to that initiative.

Regardless of such uncertainty, the CEC has prepared and passed more than 50 resolutions needed to clarify the law and ensure the uniform application thereof by all stakeholders. Roughly 99 percent of these resolutions were passed with a unanimous vote of all 15 commission members. And on April 28, the redistricting process was finished -- deemed to be one of the most sensitive issues, much like it is in the U.S.

Furthermore, Ukraine has spent considerable time and resources developing a database of registered voters that is automatically updated on a regular basis. As a result, we can be 99.9 percent confident that every eligible voter in any precinct is on the list and their vote is counted once, and only once. We are proud to say that our voters' registration system is one of the best and most efficient in the world.

With just weeks to go, the CEC still has a lot of work to do. For one, we aim to have webcams at all 32,188 regular polling stations so that anyone in the world with Internet access can watch the elections in real time - an unprecedented level of transparency. What is even more important - the webcams will record the entire counting process at each regular polling station thus enabling the CEC to use the respective data for consideration of possible complaints.

We must also prepare for thousands of international and domestic election observers, including those from the OSCE and, of course, Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. We welcome and encourage the participation of as many observers as possible to help ensure that Ukraine's electoral process is honest and credible. We really want non-partisan, unbiased observers on the ground who can accurately tell the story of this election to the world. We're confident it will be a good one.

The road to a strong democracy is not always straight and although our journey has been imperfect, we have come a long way. In 2010, the presidential election was pronounced clean and transparent -- a major accomplishment as this was only Ukraine's fifth presidential election since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.The CEC will do its best to do even better for the upcoming parliamentary elections. In this regard, we continue to rely on the support and the constructive criticism of all American and European institutions during both the pre- and post-election period.

This is a pivotal moment for Ukraine. We plan on seizing it.

Mikhail Okhendovskyy is a member of the Ukrainian Central Election Commission, an independent body comprised of 15 members, who are each appointed to a 7-year term by Ukraine's parliament to supervise and conduct presidential, parliamentary, and local self-government elections, as well as national and local referenda.

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