By Sen. Zach Nunn
Over the past week, as an International Election Monitor, I watched Ukrainian voters throw out decades-old political parties, elect an unprecedented majority of novice candidates and turn decisively toward a pro-Western path of freedom and democracy.
As Iowans, we recognize the importance of our role in elections — but sometimes it is easy to forget how accessible our election process is for voters.
Rookie candidates win “biggest turnover” since Soviet times
Serving as a witness to Ukraine’s seismic shift towards greater democracy, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reaped a landslide victory and turned the tables on plutocratic politicians. Zelensky is not your average Head of State. The host of his own Netflix series and a Ukrainian of Jewish heritage, he starred as a fictional President in the TV series “Servant of The People” (think “West Wing” for Ukraine). Within six month of announcing his candidacy, Zelensky unseated the incumbent President and won an unthinkable 73 percent of the vote. Moreover, 60 percent of seats will be filled by first-time candidates for Parliament.
The wake of the election marks the biggest turn-over in Ukraine’s politics since separation from the Soviet Union. Establishment parties on both sides were decimated — the pro-Russian party and recent President Poroshenko’s party have become spectators.
Election day: Free & fair, but threats still remain
In joining with US State Department’s USAID effort to support free and fair elections across Ukraine, I aimed to showcase America’s greatest export — freedom. As an Iowan, accustomed to the multiple candidates vying for our first-in-the-nation caucuses, I was impressed by the commitment of Ukrainian voters toconsider more than 50 candidates and parties on the parliamentary ballot.
Polling stations were managed effectively, voters were validated with ease and ballots were hard-copy certified. About 90 percent of the polling sites I visited, both mega-housing blocks and rural school gymnasiums, were efficiently managed by women — a historic first in a country only recently emerging from male-dominated politics.
Threats to the electorate remain. I witnessed first-hand ballot manipulation and physical attacks between party members. In Russian separatist regions, eighteen polling stations were closed due to landmines placed near voting sites and weapons fire deterred even the most hardened polling officials from remaining in-place.
Attack of the Clones
Particular election ballot manipulation occurred through creating “fake candidates” to confuse voters. For the equivalent of $4 US dollars, a person can legally change their name to match a candidate on the ballot. In Uzyn, there were four “Guzdenkos” with first names Viktor or Vitaliy — only the first was a real candidate.
The intent of clone candidates is to dilute a front-runner’s advantage by intentionally confusing voters. More worrisome was that tens of thousands of dollars and rubles were being paid to clone candidates to sacrifice their name on the ballot. While Ukrainian courts have upheld the right for all people to appear on the ballot, the impact of the clones was limited — this time.
Freedom Rests with Electorate
The wave of newly elected MPs revive hopes for combatting corruption, ending the conflict with Russia, and moving Ukraine closer to Western democracies.
The International Republican Institute has polled Ukrainians for nearly twenty years, and found pessimism about the country’s future dropped from 71 percent to 39 percent, and nearly two-thirds of the electorate actively want a closer relationship with the West.
As we all brace for the heated political races taking shape across the United States, it is worth recognizing that our democratic system here in America is something to be proud of, and it continues to serve as a model for peoples across the world.
Sen. Zach Nunn represents Jasper and East Polk Counties and serves as Chair of the Senate-House International Relations Committee, Iowa Legislature.