The rights of internally displaced persons to vote or political interests - what will win at the local elections?

On August 21, 2015, a group of MPs registered the bill #2501a-1, which aims to ensure the voting rights of internally displaced persons.

The Bill “On amendments to some legislative acts on ensuring the right of internally displaced persons to vote” was developed jointly by the deputies and the experts from NGOs that deal with election issues and the rights of IDPs. The authors include non-affiliated deputy Sergei Taruta, representatives of the parliamentary faction of the party “Union “Samopomich” Natalya Veselova, Hanna Hopko, Ostap Yednak and Victoria Ptashnyk, Oliksiy Ryabchyk and Alena Shkrum from the deputy faction of political party “All-Ukrainian Union “Batkivshchyna”, as well as Firsov Egor and Oksana Yurynets from the faction “Block of Petro Poroshenko”. As we can see, the deputies with Donetsk residence registration, who personally face the need for non-discriminatory policy on internally displaced persons, were joined by other MPs. In addition, local organizations like OPORA, Donetsk regional organization of the NGO “Committee of Voters of Ukraine”, the Institute of Social and Economic Studies, “The East SOS” and “The Crimea SOS” also joined to the process of creating this bill.

The Constitution of Ukraine and international standards clearly define equal rights of all citizens, in particular in the issues like the right to vote. Article 24 of the Law of Ukraine “On ensuring rights and freedoms of internally displaced persons” notes that under the Constitution, laws and international agreements of Ukraine, internally displaced persons enjoy the same rights and freedoms as other citizens of Ukraine, permanently residing in Ukraine. It is prohibited to discriminate against them in exercising any rights and freedoms on the ground that they are internally displaced.

The UN Guidelines on the movement of persons within the country, the Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and PACE Recommendations define the obligation of States to ensure by law equal rights of displaced persons during elections, including the local ones; however, these rules were not taken into account by the Verkhovna Rada.

“Ukraine has registered 1,437,967 internally displaced persons, who have the same rights as other citizens of Ukraine and need to be provided with equal conditions to participate in the life of local communities where they have settled. By providing them with an opportunity to vote and to influence the decision-making of local authorities, we are able not to ignore but to integrate our fellow citizens into those communities where they actually live”, the MP Hanna Hopko, co-author of the new bill, thinks.

After the enactment of the new Law “On Local Elections” public representatives have repeatedly stated about the need for submitting a separate bill to provide the persons who were forced to leave their homes as a result of Russian aggression with the right to vote. Similar concerns about the IDPs right to vote were even reflected in the report of the OSCE on the assessment of needs to organize monitoring mission for the elections on October 25. In particular, the interlocutors of the OSCE mission, whose purpose was to assess the pre-election situation and to prepare for local elections, expressed their “concern that the right to vote of these people (IDPs-auth.) must be respected and ensured”.

The ability of IDPs to vote at local elections was included into the alternative draft law “On Local Elections” (#2831-2), which did not pass the first reading. Appropriate edits were made to the second reading of the draft law “On Local Elections” (#2831-3), but they were all rejected by the relevant Committee on legal policy and justice and were not reflected in the text of the new law.

Now the Verkhovna Rada has two bills registered which should ensure the right of internally displaced persons to vote, but in different ways. The main bill #2501a, which was submitted on August 12, 2015, by a group of MPs from “Party “Vidrodzhennia” Viktor Bondar and Vitalii Khomutynnik, enables IDPs to participate in the next local elections by changing the place of voting. According to experts, the bill is “raw”, the proposed solution to the problem is groundless and, most importantly, it does not regulate the part of procedures which are essential to avoid manipulations.

“A one-time change of the place of voting without changing voting addresses enables a voter to vote again during the next election (e.g., out of turn, after the unification of communities). It will be incorrect from the point of view of the nature of local government. One person cannot simultaneously belong to multiple local communities”, as the analyst of Civic Network “OPORA”, Alexander Klyuzhevpid, stated at the press conference “Equal right of the citizens to vote – more than political motives”.

Instead, the bill “from the public” suggests to allow internally displaced persons, no later than 15 days before national or local elections, to change their voting address by a personal application to the Department of the State Register of Voters at the place of actual residence. It is proposed to define a new voting address of the IDP by one’s place of residence mentioned in the certificate of person’s registration as internally displaced.

Authorities conducting the State Register of Voters will verify the grounds for IDP to change voting addresses through an appeal to the body authorized to keep the records of internally displaced persons.

According to the initiators of the bill #2501a-1, this principle to change voting address will not create organizational difficulties for the electoral process and will prevent potential manipulations.

In addition, the authors of the bill suggest to establish restrictions on changing voting address for those IDP-voters who have already changed their voting address based on the certificate of registration a person as internally displaced.

“That IDP-voter who has already changed the voting address can submit a new application to the Register maintenance body to change the voting address not earlier than 365 days after the date of registration of the previous changes to the voting address of such a voter. Moreover, the voting address of such voter can be changed only if the certificate of IDP registration, which contains the address his/her actual residence, was received no later than six calendar months before the election day of the next national or local elections”, as mentioned in the text of the draft law.

In the case of official decision to appoint early, intermediate or repeated national or local elections at the time when such voter submits an application to the Register maintenance body to change the voting address, then the voting address of such voter cannot be changed. These restrictions will apply to the voters who will plan to return the voting addresses, which are currently defined as temporarily occupied territories.

“When we have manipulations, bribery of voters and other violations of election laws during each election campaign, we do not cancel elections because of that but we fight against violators. Our bill contains levelling manipulations; these are a declarative principle and a certain moratorium for the second change of voting address”, the executive director of the Donetsk regional organization “Committee of Voters of Ukraine”, Serhiy Tkachenko, stated.

Consequently, the civil society and MPs have offered the best mechanisms for preventing manipulations with the votes of IDPs, while insisting that it is not allowed to discriminate against this category of citizens in any case.

“Political expediency, electoral expectations, estimates of some political forces should not be more important than human rights. The Parliament must provide IDP voters with the right to elect local authorities in the communities where they live. Otherwise, it will be a clear discrimination, which will not help to integrate these people (rightful citizens of Ukraine, whose fates were destroyed by the military conflict) into the local communities”, a co-author the bill, MP of Ukraine, Ostap Yednak, said.

But, unfortunately, certain politicians do not have internal belief that the rights of citizens are above political interests and fears. The fate of the bill, which will ensure equality of the constitutional rights and make the manipulations impossible, is still unknown.

According to another co-author of the bill, a non-affiliated deputy Sergei Taruta, “we need a public pressure, because now everything depends on one person – the President. And the President should make a very important decision for himself: either he as the guarantor of the Constitution will provide those guarantees or he should honestly say that sees some circumstances and then it is necessary to change the Constitution in this regard”. Hence, we will see what will win – fundamental rights or temporary political interests.

The article was also published on Висновки.