Ukraine made history last week with its first elections since mass protests drove former President Viktor Yanukovych from office. An IU Kokomo professor and administrator was there to watch, as part of an international effort to ensure the elections were on the up-and-up.
Kathy Parkison, professor of economics and interim vice chancellor for academic affairs, served as an official monitor for the election, working as a volunteer with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and representing the U.S. State Department.
“It’s a commitment to democracy,” she said. “I don’t have the skill set to go somewhere and help set up a court system, for example. But I do believe strongly in democracy, and this is a way for us to help.”
Parkison was assigned to monitor polling places in Khmelnytsky, an agricultural region in west-central Ukraine that’s a six-hour bus ride from Kiev. Her husband, Rob Pfaff, an administrator at Saint Joseph’s College, also served as an election monitor, working in a neighboring oblast, or province. They were among more than 1,200 observers from 49 countries who worked the Ukrainian election.
Their placements were fortunate; they were far from the fighting in Eastern Ukraine. The OSCE lost contact last week with two election monitoring teams, one in Donetsk and the other in Luhansk. The teams are thought to be held by pro-Russian separatists. Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the mission, told news media today that the organization is working to secure their release.
The election took place Sunday, May 25, and it made for a long day in which the monitors observed procedures, questioned poll workers and marked a checklist to indicate whether proper procedures were followed. They observed the opening of one polling place, visited about a dozen more during the course of the day and watched at another precinct as poll workers tabulated voted totals.
“This was all on paper,” Parkison said. “There were 21 presidential candidates; they dump the ballot boxes and you’ve just got piles of paper.”
Observers spent several days in the regions where they worked, and Parkison described Khmelnytsky as similar to Iowa or northern Illinois, with rich, dark soils and large fields.
“It’s a beautiful country with lovely people,” she said. “They were very nice, very hospitable.”
But as in most of Ukraine, economic conditions are harsh: Per-capita income is $200 to $300 a month. Villages lack indoor plumbing, industrial facilities sit idle, and roads are in deplorable shape.
As for the election, international authorities said it was largely fair and successful, aside from the disruptions that made voting difficult if not impossible in parts of Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s Central Election Commission put turnout at 60 percent. Billionaire chocolate tycoon Petro Poroshenko won the presidency with a reported 56 percent of the vote.
Parkison said election monitors are discouraged from discussing what they observed, because each team sees only a small piece of the picture. But a preliminary OSCE report praised the conduct of the election and reported only minor problems through most of the country.
“This election proved the democratic spirit of the people of Ukraine, who had the opportunity to genuinely express their will at the ballot box, and seized it in high numbers,” João Soares, the leader of the OSCE election observer mission, said in a statement.
Parkison began monitoring elections when she was studying as a Fulbright Scholar in the Republic of Georgia and had a chance to volunteer as an election observer in Azerbaijan. She subsequently served on monitoring teams in Macedonia, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan was well as Ukraine.
Each election, she said, brings an opportunity to meet and get to know people from around the world. In Ukraine, she spent time with monitors from Canada, Germany, Austria, Poland, Sweden and Norway.
“You really get to learn about history first hand,” Parkison said. “It’s a fascinating way to see the world.”