Final Curtain for the Rada's "Piano Players"

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Final Curtain for the Rada's

Rada Finally Moves to Abolish Multiple Voting

(Photo: Ukrainska Pravda

In a little noted act on March 2, the Ukrainian parliament took a serious step towards curtailing one of the most shameful and controversial - even illegal - practices that has plagued the Ukrainian legislative process almost since independence: multiple voting by individual deputies on behalf of their absent colleagues.

It has been a common sight over the years to see a sparsely populated chamber magically deliver more than the minimum 226 votes needed to adopt legislation as so-called "piano players" shuffled along rows of empty seats voting for missing members. This behavior also took place on a more modest scale with deputies simply voting for their immediate neighbors. (Occasionally, registration cards were not even required to perpetrate a fraud as deputies who were abroad on official business learnt that they had still somehow managed to vote.)

So persistent was the objection from all sides to curbing this abuse (and for different reasons; the opposition, for example, suspected that the system would be manipulated by the majority while in truth the lax regime suited everyone at different times) that it's worth noting that the sensor-based system which was finally activated was actually installed in 2008.  

Abuse of the vote occurred irrespective of whether the regulations governing parliamentary practice existed in the form of a resolution or law - or were enshrined in the Constitution, Article 84 of which states voting on legislation shall be performed "in person." In fact, it would not be outlandish to suggest that very little if any legislation has been passed by the Rada since the early 1990s that was not tainted by this shameful practice.

During its thirty years of working on Ukrainian issues - including a comprehensive, multi-year Parliamentary Development Program in the 1990s - the Foundation regularly raised this issue with visiting parliamentarians from across the political spectrum. Even representatives of parties who claimed that an effective and transparent parliamentary process was one of the cornerstones of Ukrainian democracy, had no qualms justifying the practice. The somewhat sheepish rationale was that "someone" had to make sure that there were enough votes to pass much needed legislation. (One of the more memorable exchanges along these lines was with a pro-Orange Revolution chairman of the Rada committee on regulations and deputies' ethics, no less...)

Brazen abuse of the voting process is a reflection of the chronic weakness of the Rada's institutional culture - including the lack of trust - and the shortcomings of Ukrainian political parties. It's no secret that in most cases these simply represent the interests of big business. While the leading party figures are usually quite well known, party lists have invariably been padded out by pliable voting ballast - much of which has historically shown little interest in professional development, let alone the rule of law. (Ukrainian journalists and NGOs have performed an admirable service for interested voters in identifying and analyzing the often curious composition of party lists and biographies of candidates.)  Clearly, while systematically abusing the vote contributed to maintaining party discipline the practice clearly did nothing to bolster the Rada's popular image.

The situation changed somewhat unexpectedly on January 13, when President Zelensky signed a law criminalizing the practice of "button-pushing" during parliamentary votes, theoretically putting the piano players out of business. A month later, on February 11, the Prosecutor General charged a deputy with several suspected violations during a vote on amendments to the land market law. Interfax-Ukraine identified the alleged culprit as Vladyslav Poliak, a member of the "Dovira" group - which ironically translates as 'trust' - who thereby distinguished himself by becoming the first ever member of the Verkhovna Rada to be thus charged.

That the practice had become subject to widespread ridicule meant that the issue could no longer be ignored, especially by a president with populist appeal. Yet as with many progressive Ukrainian laws it remains to be seen how effectively - not to mention selectively - the January 13 law will be enforced; and whether their new voting technology will be viewed by the deputies themselves as a means for enhancing the long-term credibility of the Rada - or as an obstacle to business-as-usual to be overcome.