Voters in Ukraine headed to the polls on Sunday. But with opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and other critics of President Viktor Yanukovych still in prison, observers warned that the vote could be undemocratic.
At first glance, everything looked to be working as it should in a democracy: There was an election campaign with more than 20 parties vying to lead the country, and the opposition was strong and confident of a victory.
The parliamentary election in Ukraine on Sunday (28.10.2012) would be "transparent and democratic," President Victor Yanukovych said. Following an example from Russia, Ukraine had webcams installed in all polling stations for maximal transparency.
But that first glance was misleading. Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) could for the first time since 2004 call an election in Ukraine undemocratic and unfair. The organization sent 635 election observers to the country - more than ever before. In total, some 3,800 foreign observers were monitoring the vote.
The interest is especially big because many deem the country to be on the path to an autocratic system since Yanukovych won the presidency in 2010. At least that's the way the opposition sees it. Experts and the European Union are concerned about the development in a country that was once seen as a beacon of democracy in the post-Soviet era.
Tymoshenko still in prison
'The most prominent example is the leader of the opposition and former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. For the first time since 1998 she was not able to take part in the election. The 51-year-old, who played a leading role in the 2004 Orange Revolution, has been in prison on a conviction for abuse of office for over a year.
A court in Kyiv sentenced her to seven years behind bars for signing gas deals with Russia when she was still prime minister. The trial drew widespread international condemnation. Other opposition figures, like Tymoshenko's former Interior Minister Yurij Lutsenko, are also in jail and were excluded from the vote.
The European Parliament issued a resolution describing the incarceration of opposition members as an attempt to eliminate political opponents from the democratic process. Some European parliamentarians expressed their doubts about the election.
"If the opposition can't run with their leading figures, then this is not a free election," said Elmar Brok, a German conservative MEP, before the vote. Wolfgang Thierse, the deputy head of Germany's Social Democrats, agreed. "In as far as political opponents are excluded from this election, the fairness of the poll is in doubt," Thierse told DW last week.
Boxing champ for opposition
Tymoshenko's absence from the political scene was clearly felt, said well-known Kyiv columnist Serhij Rachmanin. The election campaign had been unspectacular without any strong personalities, heated debates and new topics, he said. Many of the voters, he added, had been simply resigned.
According to opinion polls, there were four parties likely to surpass the 4 percent threshold required to make it into parliament. The strongest party seemed to be the incumbent Party of the Regions with about 23 percent. The United Opposition, a coalition founded on Tymoshenko's Fatherland party, stood at around 17 percent before the vote. That's almost exactly as much as the UDAR party of boxing world champion Vitali Klitschko. In some polls, Klitschko's party even came in second.
The party is new and its popularity is still on the rise. After the vote, Klitschko has said he wants to join forces with Tymoshenko's party, but he refused to sign a coalition deal ahead of the vote. The fourth strongest party will most likely be the Communists, who were expected to win around 10 percent of the vote.
Extremists in parliament?
The outcome of the election, however, remained difficult to predict as 38 percent of voters had not yet decided whom they would support, according to a DW poll last week.
It could be that for the first time, extreme right-wing party Swoboda ("Freedom") will make it into parliament. Tymoshenko's party has already signed a coalition deal with Swoboda. Some experts, including Wilfried Jilge of Leipzig University, see this as a dangerous move.
Jilge described Swoboda as anti-European, anti-liberal and a party with neo-Nazi tendencies. The governing Party of the Regions used Swoboda in their election campaign do discredit the entire opposition, Jilge said. The pro-Western opposition would, according to Jilge, have been better advised to stay clear of the likes of Swoboda.
Manipulations in the run-up
But even if the opposition parties should together get more votes than the governing party, Jilge said he does not believe there will be a victory for Yanukovych opponents. He said "manipulations in the run-up" to the vote likely influenced the outcome.
The most important one: Yanukovych reintroduced the mixed election system. That means that half of parliament will be decided from the lists of the parties, while the other half will be directly elected. Those latter MPs could switch sides and in parliament use their vote to back the president. In the Ukraine, these defecting MPs are called "Tuschki." The word means "slaughtered animal" and plays on how the potential defectors can all be bought with money.
The last election with the mixed system took place in 2002. The opposition won, but the then President Leonid Kuchma managed in the end to still win the support of the majority of the MPs.