Ukraine Presidential Election, 31 March 2019 - ODIHR Needs Assessment Mission Report: 20-23 November 2018

I. INTRODUCTION

In accordance with its mandate and in anticipation of an official invitation to observe the 31 March 2019 presidential election in Ukraine, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) undertook a Needs Assessment Mission (NAM) from 20 to 23 November. The NAM included Alexander Shlyk, Head of the ODIHR Elections Department, and Ulvi Akhundlu, ODIHR Election Adviser. The ODIHR NAM was joined by Francesco Pagani, Chief Political Adviser of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

The purpose of the mission was to assess the pre-election environment and preparations for the presidential election. Based on this assessment, the NAM should recommend whether to deploy an ODIHR election-related activity for the forthcoming election and, if so, what type of activity best meets the identified needs. Meetings were held with officials from state institutions as well as with representatives of political parties, media civil society, and the international community. A list of meetings is annexed to this report.

ODIHR would like to thank the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for its assistance and co-operation in organizing the NAM. ODIHR would also like to thank all of its interlocutors for taking the time to meet with the NAM and for sharing their views.

II. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

On 26 November, the parliament of Ukraine voted to schedule the presidential election for 31 March 2019. The president is elected for five years through a nationwide majoritarian system. If no candidate wins an absolute majority of votes in the first round, a second round between the top two candidates will be held three weeks later. The presidential election will take place in a difficult political, economic and security environment against the backdrop of continuous challenges to Ukraine’s territorial integrity that started in 2014. All ODIHR NAM interlocutors attributed great importance to the upcoming presidential election, perceiving it as an important test for Ukrainian democracy and the country’s ongoing reform efforts and modernization aspirations.

The legal framework has not been changed substantially since last presidential election, and many previous ODIHR recommendations remain unaddressed, including those on the harmonization of the electoral legislation, the appointment of election commissions, and the complaints and appeals process. Many ODIHR NAM interlocutors opined that the adoption of certain technical changes was still necessary to harmonize, simplify or clarify certain procedures related to candidate registration, voter registration and identification, as well as the procurement of election-related materials.

Presidential elections are managed by a three-tiered administration headed by the Central Election Commission (CEC), whose composition was renewed in September 2018. It remains to be confirmed how many of the 225 District Election Commissions (DECs) and some 30,000 Precinct Election Commissions (PECs) will be formed given the impossibility of organizing the presidential election in certain regions of the country that are not under control of the Ukrainian authorities.

Although women remain underrepresented in political life, nine of 16 CEC members are women, including the chairperson and the secretary. With an expectation of a high number of candidates, a number of ODIHR NAM interlocutors noted that DECs may face challenges due to a high quorum requirement, as well as difficulties in establishing PECs and later a high turnover among PEC members, which can impact on the efficiency of election commissions in administering the election day. Several ODIHR NAM interlocutors particularly underscored the need to follow the tabulation procedures.

The CEC informed the ODIHR NAM that election preparations were ongoing, including logistical arrangements and drafting of instructions and the election calendar. Responding to a range of potential cybersecurity threats, the CEC is undertaking special measures to strengthen overall cybersecurity of the electoral process by upgrading its information technology infrastructure and promoting safe and responsible cyber behavior.

Voter registration is passive and continuous and is based on the centralized State Voter Register.
The number of registered voters is around 35.9 million. Voters are able to check their records online and can request amendments to their records with the Register Maintenance Body at their current residence. Some ODIHR NAM interlocutors noted concerns about the accuracy of the voter lists, specifically referring to the data on internally displaced persons, internal labour migrants and citizens living abroad.

Candidates should be older than 35 years, be a citizen of only Ukraine, have the right to vote, have resided in Ukraine for at least 10 years prior to election day, and have command of the Ukrainian language. Candidate registration begins from the official start of the election process (31 December for this election) and lasts until 55 days prior to election day. ODIHR NAM interlocutors did not expect issues to arise regarding the inclusiveness and transparency of the candidate registration process.

The election law contains provisions aimed at ensuring equal campaign opportunities for all contestants, including access to campaign premises and designated locations for political advertising. While parties confirmed to the ODIHR NAM their ability to campaign freely, many stakeholders raised concerns regarding biased coverage by private media, potential pressure on voters and vote-buying, as well as possible misuse of administrative resources.

The legal framework for party and campaign financing has been amended since the last presidential election, addressing many previous recommendations of ODIHR and the Group of State against Corruption of the Council of Europe (GRECO). Key changes include the introduction of direct public funding of political parties, restrictions on private donations, increased reporting requirements, and introduction of oversight by the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption (NAPC). While the majority of ODIHR NAM interlocutors recognised that these amendments seek to ensure a higher degree of transparency, some had concerns regarding their effective implementation and the ability of the NAPC to perform its mandate independently and professionally.

Ukraine has a wide range of media outlets both at national and regional levels. However, most of ODIHR NAM interlocutors noted that concentration of media ownership may affect pluralism and contribute to political polarization of reporting. The presidential election law provides for equal conditions for all candidates in state and private media, including free airtime on state broadcast media. The state-owned National Television and Radio Company has been transformed into a public-service broadcaster in 2016, but remains severely underfunded. Some of the ODIHR NAM interlocutors opined that the media regulator lacks sanctioning authority and resources to provide effective oversight.

The right to appeal decisions, actions, or inactions of election commissions and other authorities involved in the process is granted to all participants in the election process. They can submit their complaints and appeals to both the commissions and courts in the format that is strictly regulated by the election law.

The law provides for observation of the election process by international and citizen observers.
Several citizen organizations informed the ODIHR NAM of plans to implement a range of electionrelated activities, including voter education, media and campaign finance monitoring, parallel vote tabulation activities and country-wide long-term election observation efforts, including the deployment of a large number of observers on election day.

All interlocutors that the ODIHR NAM met with underscored the need for an ODIHR election observation activity for this election and encouraged a sizable full-scale election observation mission to be deployed well in advance of election day. In considering an observation activity, the ODIHR NAM has taken into account the various findings outlined in this report, status of implementation of previous ODIHR recommendations, and the views expressed by stakeholders.

Aspects that could merit specific attention by an ODIHR election observation activity include efficiency of election administration, including on election day, the legal framework and its implementation, including campaign finance oversight, media coverage of the campaign, as well as possible voter intimidation, vote-buying, and the potential misuse of administrative resources during the campaign.

On this basis, the ODIHR NAM recommends the deployment of an Election Observation Mission (EOM) to Ukraine for the 31 March 2019 presidential election. In addition to a core team of experts, the ODIHR NAM recommends the secondment of 100 long-term observers from OSCE participating States to follow the electoral process countrywide, and 750 short-term observers to follow election day proceedings. In line with ODIHR’s standard methodology, the EOM would include a media monitoring element. Once a decision is taken on the administrative-territorial units where the presidential election will not be held, ODIHR may adjust its deployment plan accordingly