Ukrainian voters went to the polls on Oct. 26, 2014, in a snap election to replace the parliament elected two years before under President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country in February 2014 during the Euromaidan demonstrations. In late May, Ukrainian voters elected businessman Petro Poroshenko as their new president. Early parliamentary elections were called to remove holdovers from the Yanukovych era. The outgoing parliament was unable to agree on a new electoral law, leaving in place a mixed electoral system in which half of members are elected in single-member districts and the other half through the proportional representation of parties. Elections did not take place in parts of two eastern provinces — Donets'ka and Luhans'ka — which are controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Western leaders, international organizations and journalists have voiced uniformly positive assessments of Ukraine's early elections. These assessments are founded on two claims that we believe are misleading. First, that Ukraine's October 2014 parliamentary elections met "Western standards." Second, that the main outcome of the election was the victory of "pro-Western" parties.


International election observers noted great progress over previous elections. Election monitors from the influential Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) wrote on the organization's Facebook page that the "[t]he 26 October early parliamentary elections marked an important step in consolidating democratic elections in line with international commitments, and were characterized by many positive aspects. ..." Regrettably, we cannot fully share their enthusiasm. Having followed Ukrainian politics since the 1990s, we see as much continuity as change in the conduct of the elections. The elections showcased many of the creative voting irregularities that have plagued elections in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states for decades. The Ukrainian media documented many of these, including: vote buying; multiple voting or "carousels"; smear campaigns and threats on candidates; the presence of fictive candidates, who share leading candidates’ names — or "twins" in post-Soviet parlance; the distribution of government resources; the takeover of electoral commissions; the falsification of electoral results; and the manipulation of voting in state institutions, including prisons and psychiatric hospitals.

On Oct. 27, Ukrains’ka Pravda — a muckraking news outlet — published a detailed analysis of two instances of voting irregularity in the 182nd district in southern Khersons'ka province. Based on the account, thugs (titushki) tried to kick out election observers and candidates from the electoral commission while the ballots were being counted. Only a few hundred votes separated the two front-runners in the district race — Yuryi Odarchenko from former prime minister Yuliia Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party, and Oleksandr Spivakovs'kyi from the Petro Poroshenko Bloc. In the end, Spivakovs'kyi narrowly won the district, with the help of the inmates of prisons No. 61 and 90, 70 percent of whose ballots were suspiciously cast for the candidate from the president's party.

Much attention has been paid to the victory of "pro-Western parties." We believe that the "pro-Western" label is misleading. First, the label creates the false impression that Ukrainian voters were voting primarily on foreign policy. Despite the ongoing conflict with Russia, domestic concerns were more likely to have influenced their vote. Second, Ukrainian political parties are generally not ideological, but leader-driven. The Petro Poroshenko Bloc is the new pro-presidential party in parliament, replacing Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions. The People's Front ran on the leadership record of the incumbent prime minister, Arsenyi Yatseniuk. Self-Help (Samopomich) is very different in this sense, as it brings together civil-society leaders and activists from the Euromaidan demonstrations. We'll have to see if these novice politicians survive the rough and tumble game of Ukrainian politics.

We also believe that the focus on winners overshadows other important aspects of the election — which parties lost the election and which voters stayed away from the polls. There were a number of important losers in the contest. The Ukrainian extreme right had a weak showing despite the undeclared war with Russia. The Freedom (Svoboda) Party failed to cross the 5 percent threshold in the party vote necessary to gain seats and secured wins in only seven district races. And Right Sector — Russia's other bogeyman — gained less than 2 percent of the party vote. Yanukovych's Party of Regions — represented by two offshoots — lost one quarter of the vote share that it received in 2012 in the six eastern and southern provinces of Kharkivs'ka, Dnipropetrovs'ka, Khersons'ka, Zaporiz'ka, Mykolaivs'ka and Odes'ka. The Communist party — previously the other prominent option for voters in the east and south — lost 60 percent of its vote share in these same provinces. Finally, Ukrainian voters withdrew their support from Yuliia Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party, which received 25 percent of the party vote in 2012. In 2014, it won a mere 5.7 percent. The demise of Fatherland can also been viewed as an important effort in house cleaning. Tymoshenko is a divisive figure and her party is chock-full of business interests.

It is also important to look at who did not vote. Turnout declined some 10 percent nationwide from 58 percent of eligible voters in 2012 to 52.4 percent in 2014. Turnout dropped, however, by 15 percent in the six provinces of eastern and southern Ukraine in which voting took place. While some voters in these regions turned their backs on the parties of the old regime, others decided not to go to the polls. The drop in turnout in these regions raises serious concerns about the level of disaffection and allegiance of these populations.

In short, Ukrainian voters have cast their votes for mainstream parties that at least rhetorically support the ideals that the Euromaidan protestors died for. As in the May 2014 presidential elections, the people of Ukraine have undermined the Russian narrative of a country ruled by a neo-fascist junta. Yet to blindly assume that two elections in five months will somehow usher in a democratic, pro-Western regime means accepting a narrative grounded more in wishful thinking than sober realism.

Bloom and Shulman are associate professors of political science at Southern Illinois University.