Fraud and security fears swirl around Ukraine's presidential election

Far-right violence and Russian hacking among a host of concerns for Sunday's vote

With their fondness for camouflage and black masks, members of Ukraine's far-right National Militia make unlikely election monitors, but their presence at polling stations on Sunday will be just one unpredictable element of the country's vote for a president.

As the main contenders fight an increasingly grubby battle for power, fears over threats ranging from ballot fraud to Russian hacking add to the uncertainty as president Petro Poroshenko struggles to secure a second term.

Surveys put him well behind comedian and impresario Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and neck-and-neck with former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in a battle to join the popular political novice in a run-off scheduled for April 21st.

In a country where corruption is rife and proximity to power can offer wealth and legal protection, the stakes are high for the main candidates and their political and financial backers, while public trust in the election process is at rock bottom.

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Opora, a Kiev-based democracy watchdog, says studies suggest more than 80 per cent of Ukrainians expect the vote to be rigged, reflecting a widespread feeling that politicians will bend and break the rules to succeed.

Impunity

Critics of Poroshenko say the elite's impunity shows that Ukraine still lacks the rule of law five years after its Maidan revolution, encouraging radicals such as the National Militia to take matters into their own hands.

“I’ll say it straight: if we need to give someone a punch in the face for the sake of justice, then we’ll do it without hesitation,” the group’s commander Ihor Mihailenko said in January about its plans to monitor the election.

Militia spokesman Ihor Vdovin later told Radio Free Europe: "If law enforcers close their eyes to clear violations and don't want to register them, then we'll do as the commander said," adding that he had in mind not election officials but "random people who might stuff ballot boxes or bring troublemakers to polling stations".

Andriy Biletskiy, leader of the ultranationalist National Corps party to which the militia is affiliated, later played down the threat of violence, but not before Ukraine received a warning from the US ambassador to Kiev, Marie Yovanovitch.

“Only the independent central election commission should administer the election and count the votes,” she said. “Civil-society observers and campaign staff should not be intimidated or harassed. Official, apolitical security should ensure that ‘titushki’ [paid hooligans] or other armed groups do not stop voters from expressing their will.”

Olha Aivazovska, the chairwoman of Opora, said any trouble caused by the National Militia's 200 registered observers could not wreck an entire election in a country of 30 million registered voters and 30,000 polling stations.

“But they could do enough to present a picture of violence and chaos on election day for the foreign media – particularly in the Russian media – that’s why it is dangerous and I hope the police will prevent such situations,” she told The Irish Times.

The Kremlin casts a shadow over this election, which is Ukraine's first national ballot since it turned decisively to the West after the Maidan revolution, and Russia responded by seizing Crimea and fomenting war in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow says relations will not improve until Poroshenko is replaced, and suggests it may not recognise the result of an election that will not be open to Ukrainians in Russia and will not be monitored by Russian observers.

More than 134,000 Ukrainian police officers will be on duty on election day and cybersecurity specialists will be working around the clock.

“On the eve of the election and during the counting of votes there will be cyber attacks on certain objects of critical infrastructure. This applies to the work of the polling stations themselves, districts, and the CEC [Central Election Commission],” said Serhii Demediuk, the head of Ukraine’s cyber police.

“From what we are seeing, it will be manipulation aimed at distorting information about the results of elections, and calling the elections null or void,” he told the AP news agency.

Kiev is working with western states to boost its cyber defences, and it knows that election disruption and disputes would feed into Russia’s narrative that post-Maidan Ukraine is a dangerous and undemocratic place run by illegitimate leaders.

“The most sensitive question is how fake news may be used on election day and afterwards,” says Aivazovska. “Up to now, we’ve seen preparations in some media to undermine trust in the central election commission, other election institutions, the database of voters and so on. That looks like preparation for a [disinformation] attack.”

Vote buying

Ukraine’s politicians might sully its election without foreign help, however.

Poroshenko and Tymoshenko accuse each other of planning large-scale vote buying, while the former premier is also under scrutiny over dubious campaign donations, and the president has claimed credit for hikes in pensions and other payments to millions of Ukrainians that happen to coincide with the election.

The campaign has fuelled tension between Ukraine's law-enforcement agencies, with the SBU security service and prosecutor general appearing to target Tymoshenko on Poroshenko's behalf, while powerful interior minister Arsen Avakov, who controls the police and national guard, queries the president's camp.

“On one hand this competition is dangerous, but it’s also preventative,” says Aivazovska.

“It shows everyone that if they spend lots of money on [buying] votes, then one of these agencies will publish the information and open a criminal case . . . Maybe it will stop the candidates crossing a red line when it comes to bribing voters.”

Zelenskiy has avoided such scandals, but deep concerns remain over his links to oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy, whose 1+1 television channel broadcasts the challenger’s comedy shows while lambasting Poroshenko – who now plans to sue the station over a string of lurid and unsubstantiated claims.

This week, 1+1 will launch a new series of Sluga Narodu (Servant of the People), in which Zelenskiy plays a teacher pitched into the role of president.

Then on Saturday, a "day of silence" when campaigning is banned, the station has scheduled several shows featuring Zelenskiy, including a particularly timely documentary in which he narrates the life story of Ronald Reagan – the actor who became US president.