Ukraine will hold a presidential election on October 31st. The conduct of the electoral campaign and voting will largely determine the country’s future.
If Ukraine wants to accelerate its membership in Euro-Atlantic institutions and take its rightful place among the community of democracies, it needs to hold elections that meet international democratic standards. That means the government must immediately take steps to create a level playing field and uphold its commitments as a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. These commitments require all participating states to “provide that no legal or administrative obstacle stands in the way of unimpeded access to the media. . . .for all political groups and individuals wishing to participate in the electoral process.”
Unfortunately, the electoral campaign has been rife with irregularities that, if continued, could threaten a credible, democratic electoral outcome. Independent broadcasters, such as the Channel Five TV station, continue to face major obstacles to providing alternative sources of news. Radio Liberty remains off important segments of the F-M band in Ukraine, despite months of promises from Ukrainian officials that access would be restored. The government continues to instruct the media what to cover and how to cover it, and to harass, intimidate and close down independent media outlets.
Ukrainian authorities have conducted illegal searches of opposition candidates’ offices and disrupted presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko’s meetings with voters. State resources have been used to fund Prime Minister Yanukovych’s campaign. There have been instances of misconduct by election commission members to the detriment of the opposition. All these actions have created a very uneven playing field. It also raises serious doubts about whether or not the outcome of the election will truly reflect the will of the Ukrainian people.
There is a great deal at stake in the Ukrainian election. A vote that meets O-S-C-E standards would send a signal that Ukraine is committed to developing into a democracy with strong ties to Europe. A flawed election would seriously undermine the democratic credentials of the next president, slow down or halt Ukraine’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, and would prompt the U.S. to consider measures to hold accountable those responsible for electoral violations.