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It's Vote If You Dare Under Tough Rules in Ukraine

PITY the voters in Ukraine's capital. No one warned them that democracy would be so demanding.

They went to the polls three times last year to pick their parliamentary representatives - six times if you count the runoffs. But three quarters of Kiev's constituencies still have no deputy, and another trip to the voting booths looms in December.

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In all, 56 seats in Ukraine's 450-member parliament have been vacant for more than a year. The culprit is a two-year-old law that has turned elections here into a national joke without a punch line.

The law invalidates elections if the turnout does not exceed 50 percent. It requires candidates to garner an absolute majority of votes to get elected. And it lets voters reject all of those listed on the ballot.

If Ukraine's parliament rewrites the rules, as it is expected to do later this year, the country will have gotten off easy. A similarly worded election law in neighboring Belarus temporarily left that country without a parliament earlier this year, allowing its president to seize near-dictatorial powers.

The ex-Soviet republics have their ruling elites, many left over from communist days, to thank for this state of affairs. They suspected that free elections could sweep them from power and wrote election laws designed to handicap their opponents.

Ukraine does not have proportional representation in parliament based on national party lists as many European governments do, which has stunted the evolution of democratic movements into proper parties.

The rules also give local officials a big edge in their own election districts, says Serhij Odarych, a reform-minded political consultant. ''Broadly speaking, under the current law the [local] administration can literally appoint a deputy, given its influence over the election commission, the printing of campaign literature, and local media outlets,'' he says.

Another section of the law legitimized campaigning in the workplace by allowing employees to nominate candidates. That gave a leg up to the numerous factory and collective farm directors who populate the current parliament.

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Independent candidates, on the other hand, had a hard time getting their message out. Current law limits campaign spending to a few hundred dollars.

In Kiev, where voters tend to back reform candidates, the conservative city administration even offered bus rides to the country on the day of one election last year. Rides back were harder to come by. ''The Communists ... did everything they could to make sure the election didn't come off,'' says Roman Dyakiv, a reform candidate last year in one of Kiev's districts.

Mr. Dyakiv's experience is educational. He sat out the first election round in March while a former defense minister and head of a national lawyers' association battled it out in his district. But neither one won an outright majority in the runoff, disqualifying both from running again under a creative provision of the election law.

In the second round, held in the midst of the summer vacation season, Dyakiv finished second. He had hardly campaigned, expecting that a low turnout would invalidate the election, and was proved right. Dyakiv finished first in November, outpacing a Justice Ministry official who drew heavy support from a local jail. But he still needs a visitor's pass to get into parliament: The election was voided because only a third of the district's voters had turned up.

Dyakiv plans to run next time around, when the turnout threshold and other catches of the current system will likely no longer apply. Even the Communists in parliament agree that the rules must change.

''Any time you have to have four or five elections to fill a parliament, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to recognize that there are some problems with the law,'' says Daniel Ebert, an American who heads the nonprofit National Democratic Institute in Kiev. ''So there is consensus on the fact that there needs to be a new law.''

The legislation to be debated later this month will set aside half of the seats in parliament for deputies drawn for party lists. The other half will continue to be decided in constituency contests.

The new law should turn Ukraine's nascent parties into something more than debating societies. It could reduce their number by requiring a party to receive 5 percent of the votes to qualify for proportional representation. And it will spare conscientious voters from trudging to the polls every two months.

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