Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Exit Polls Are Great. This Opinion Valid in the Eastern Hemisphere Only.

Here’s this past Sunday’s column, which due to the publishing deadlines brought on by the Thanksgiving holiday, had to be written Tuesday night and submitted by Wednesday, November 24. So I feared it might be a bit dated, but the crisis in Ukraine has continued unabated. The column is a summary of how the Nov. 21 runoff election was conducted, or more accurately mishandled and stolen, by the ruling party. The Supreme Court heard arguments about election fraud allegations on Monday, Nov. 29, but it’s not clear if and when the court will issue a decision. Also on Monday, current president Kuchma said that a new vote -- which would be held on Dec. 12 -- might be the only way to resolve the dispute, which (if he meant it) might be a signal that both sides might begin to see a do-over as the only possible resolution.

You can view the current situation in Independence Square in Kyiv through a television station’s webcam (Channel 1 + 1) here. The square was basically empty last night in Phoenix, which was 5 am in Kyiv, but last time I checked 2 hours ago it was filled with people again. Also, the newspaper version of my column is available at the newspaper’s website.

But enough international politics; I know what you really want to know is, how did Louis’s bar mitzvah go? If you want to know, email me at sam at cgson dot com for the full report.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 28, 2004

       Ukraine held a bad election -- but the so-far peaceful protests, reminiscent of the “Rose Revolution” which followed a similarly-flawed election in the Republic of Georgia, could lead Ukraine to a better democracy in the end.  The world must hope that the demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of outraged Ukrainians lead the various factions to recognize their mutual interest in to a more democratic and transparent political process.

        The election didn’t have to go so badly.  Many observers thought that despite myriad problems, the election still might meet recognized international standards.  International monitors even noted some improvements before the Nov. 21 runoff.  Media coverage improved and appeared more balanced -- but as the campaign rhetoric got more heated and less issue-oriented, the noise drowned out any improvement.

        But the runoff saw more election irregularities.  The number of absentee ballots and “mobile votes” increased, creating both greater opportunities for ruling party hanky-panky and greater doubt in the officially-announced results.  In some voting districts in eastern Ukraine, the home region of ruling party candidate Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, turnout supposedly increased by 21 percent to an absurd 98.5 percent.  An international observer, with a taste for understatement, called that jump “unrealistic and highly suspicious.”

        International observers saw an election less transparent and orderly than not just the 2002 parliamentary elections, but also the initial Oct. 31 balloting.  Reports abounded of intimidation, some isolated violence, and unauthorized persons interfering with voting.  The counting process itself appeared less well-organized and less secure.  And the problems appeared worse in the central and eastern regions, Yanukovych’s base -- and where the ruling party would be more likely to use fraud and force to tip the national results in its favor.

        The official Central Election Commission gave Yanukovych a narrow lead over challenger Viktor Yushchenko, leading to mass demonstrations in Kyiv and other major cities.  Some Ukrainians were surprised by the lack of military and security personnel in the capital, especially after major military parades prior to the Oct. 31 first-round voting.  But the size of the demonstrations seemed to catch the government by surprise, and may force some kind of negotiations or coalition that would have greater public legitimacy than the officially-announced results.

        After our recent elections, some Americans might be hesitant to condemn official election results because they didn’t conform to initial exit polls (which, while favoring Yushchenko, disagreed significantly on his margin).  Also, in U.S. terms, the larger cities and more European-oriented western areas, where Yushchenko’s support was greater, are Ukraine’s “blue states” often lectured by more rural and conservative areas as not representative of the “real” Ukraine.

        And don’t forget the George Soros factor, who put resources into trying to defeat Bush here and support Yushchenko there, which the Bush administration opposed here but supports there.  It’s amazing how somebody who gets it exactly wrong here somehow gets it exactly right overseas.  And vice versa.

        Moreover, Americans should criticize foreign elections with more humility these days.  We might not be the very best model of media coverage, use of state assets in campaigns, and voting procedures.  On Nov. 2, the last Arizona voter cast a ballot at 11:55 p.m. -- after five hours in line.

        Our elections don’t meet recognized international standards largely because of the Electoral College and because we let partisan elected officials count the ballots.  We wouldn’t let one of the kids running for office count the ballots for high school class president, but we allow the Secretary of State and county recorders to oversee counting of ballots for elections in which they themselves (or their political allies and patrons) are candidates.

        But despite the institutional problems, our elections reflect public sentiment within the terms of our legal structure.  In Ukraine, both domestic and international observers -- and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians -- saw a flawed election process that did not.

        Ukraine now must decide on the soundtrack for its future.  Is it “Back to the USSR,” or instead “Georgia on My Mind”?  In this case, let’s pray it’s Ray and not the Beatles.

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