Civil society in Ukraine seizing the momentum for real reform

by and
Presidential candidates in Ukraine

It looks like this is the week of elections amidst political unrest. Two of the world’s most fragile democracies, Egypt and Ukraine will elect their new presidents this Sunday and their situation bears a striking resemblance: Revolution in both countries started with a protest against acute corruption, perceived as very high in both societies, and each of these protests were fueled by the Internet. Besides the many similarities though, there is at least one significant difference: While transparency is far from becoming a reality in Egypt, civil society in Ukraine might be winning an important battle — though certainly not the entire war — for more accountable politics.

Early presidential elections in Ukraine are a sequel of the past few months’ dramatic events, including the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych. Despite the worries of an imminent Russian invasion and a crisis of separatism that might make it difficult to even set up polling places in certain areas, Ukraine’s Central Election Commission (CEC) is conducting the election as usual. An election that, many believe, has the potential to make or break the new government’s legitimacy.

And legitimacy is indeed a big issue for Ukraine these days.

Widespread corruption and the complete lack of trust in their political elite is one of the main reasons why Ukrainians decided to get rid of their former government. But whoever steps into the shoes of Yanukovych, the infrastructure to combat rampant cronyism is not yet there: The country’s anti-corruption regime is seen as one of the weakest in the world, with the unregulated flow of money in politics playing a significant role in its acute problems.

As the latest GRECO evaluation notes, Ukraine’s political finance regime is a complex mix of different laws passed at different times and on different conceptual bases, creating a lot of inconsistency and opacity. Though financial statements of presidential elections do have to be published by the election commission, there is only very general data — the aggregated amount of individual donations and the campaign expenditure — available in those public records, and even that information is hard to access. The more detailed descriptive data is submitted to the election commission only, and not surprisingly, the CEC has no capacity to conduct independent investigations and audits. No campaign finance information is made public before the polls close, making public control impossible prior to the elections, and while the law requires all electoral subjects to open a separate account for their election funds, the major part of the funding is believed to come through offshore companies or in suitcases.

Ukrainian laws set no limits on the total amount of contributions that go to a presidential candidate. There is an official ceiling for individual donations (up to 400 times the current minimum wage), but it does not apply for funds coming from the nominating political party or from the candidates themselves. Not surprisingly, top candidates are almost all billionaires, let alone oligarchs. As noted by the New York Times, the front runner, Petro Poroshenko is

“… a member of the clique of very rich businessmen who have been at the root of the corruption of Ukrainian government. So are two of his rivals in the race — Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who made a fortune in energy deals, and Sergey Tigipko, a banker and member of Parliament.”

In the 2010 elections, more than $1 billion was estimated to be spent on the campaign, but whether it was enough for then candidates (Tmyoshenko and Yanukovych) to use their personal fortune or they had to raise the necessary money from their friends, family members and business connections, was very hard to tell in the absence of complete disclosure.

Which is exactly why this time around, transparency activists in Ukraine have decided to step in and unveil influence themselves.

In the past few weeks, the Chesno movement, a larger coalition of Ukrainian civil society organizations working towards fair elections, have been campaigning hard to reveal the size and sources of the funding, as well as the scope of spending in the presidential elections — before voters go to the polls. With the election only two days away, five presidential candidates — including Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko — have already agreed to disclose some information on their finances, thanks in part to public pressure and a potential hope to look more transparent than their predecessors.

“Who finances the candidates?” – Campaign reports from Ukrainian presidential candidates

Not surprisingly, none of the top runners have fully complied with the methodology put forth by Chesno, who called on candidates to open up their full donor lists with detailed data on contributions and campaign costs. Many of the candidates, however, did publish parts of their donor and contractor lists, and though this may not reflect the full picture, such a level of transparency is still unprecedented in the country and might send a strong message for reformers. Besides the public campaign, Chesno has also been busy drafting a new legislation to reform the financing of presidential candidates, and while the parliament refused to pass the bill in time for the 2014 elections, watchdogs are poised to resume their advocacy efforts and push hard on their new political elite.

After the successful adoption of a new public procurement law that is supposed to shine a light on the future administration’s contracting choices, and a few other promising reforms to restore trust to the country’s judicial system, Ukrainian civil society seems to have decided to seize the momentum the transition has created. Hopefully these are only just the first steps for the country’s larger victory over secrecy and state capture.