Department of Psychology
Department of Psychology

Spring 2019 Newsletter — Life as an International Election Observer

Sun, June 2, 2019
Spring 2019 Newsletter — Life as an International Election Observer
Tamara (left) and her partner Beata, from Poland, in Rivne, Ukraine

Psychology's communications coordinator Tamara Kowalski traveled to Armenia and Ukraine this year as an international election observer for the OSCE.



Tamara Kowalski became a volunteer international election observer this year with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), traveling for 1.5 weeks to Armenia in December for "snap" Parliamentary elections and again to Ukraine at the end of March for the first round of their Presidential elections.

“It was an amazing experience and I felt honored to be able to observe the election process in these two countries,” she says. “Given my background in political science, it was exciting to watch as polls closed and election committee members cut the seals on ballot boxes and started counting the paper ballots. After the count is completed, we are required to follow the ballots as they are delivered by car, with police escort, to the District Election Committee headquarters, so as to ensure they are not tampered with on the way. That, too, was a thrill, despite it being in the wee hours of the morning."

Having previously traveled through Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, Lithuania, and just last summer to the neighboring Republic of Georgia, this was Tamara’s first time in Armenia. “The Armenian people were excited about this election, joyously telling me about their peaceful 2018 revolution, which happened, I was told, while singing and dancing in the streets. It was great to see ­­their enthusiasm for the democratic process, and on top of that, they were just such a warm, friendly, hospitable people,” she says. After a two-day orientation in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, most of the 250 STOs, or "short-term observers," were sent in groups to their assigned regions across the country, while some remained in Yerevan to observe the elections. Tamara and her group were taken by bus to the furthest southern region of Armenia to observe. The long drive provided a beautiful view of the snowy, mountainous region, and on the return trip, they were rewarded with a glimpse of the smaller Mt. Ararat (the larger, she explains, was hidden behind clouds the entire trip).

Armenia election observation team in mountainsOnce at their destination, a mining town called Kapan, she and her team had the day before the election to scout out the 10–12 polling stations they would observe in their assigned area on E-day (each team is given their own local driver and interpreter and is assigned a particular area within that region to observe on "E-day," or election day.) Teams usually consist of 2 STOs, each from a different country, but in this case, Tamara ended up on a three-person team with one member from France and the other from Russia. The international threesome became fast friends and had a great time working together. One memorable adventure was when they drove across a heavily snow-covered mountain range (pictured, right)—stopping momentarily for a snowball fight on the way—to look at polling stations in a town on the Iranian border. Once there, they had to remove their winter coats, hats and gloves due to the surprisingly warm and balmy climate.

The "snap" election (one called earlier than expected, usually in a parliamentary system) had been called after Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian announced he was resigning from his post. This would, according to the Armenian Constitution, dissolve the parliament and force early elections—a desirable outcome for consolidating power since his party was expected to win in a landslide, as they had in the Yerevan mayoral race one month earlier. You see, before being appointed as acting prime minister, Pashinian had led weeks of protests that forced the previous prime minister, Serzh Sarkisian, to resign. Sarkisian’s party still held a majority in parliament, however, and they voted against Pashinian's nomination to acting prime minister. According to the law, snap elections can only be called if the prime minister resigns and the parliament fails to replace him or her within two weeks. (New elections must be held no more than 45 days after that happens.) So, when Pashinian’s party nominated him a second time within the week, they knew it would not be accepted again and that they could force snap elections. His party, My Step Alliance, did indeed receive 70% of the vote and won 88 of the 132 seats in parliament.

Ukraine Presidential Election — First Round

Ballot box in UkraineAfter arriving in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, for an orientation on the election, Tamara was assigned to observe with a Polish partner in Rivne, a charming town in the western part of the country. Rivne, like much of Western Ukraine, has less Russian influence culturally and historically than the eastern part of the country. Tamara says she was excited to see this region of Ukraine, as she had been to Ukraine several times before—to Kiev, Crimea, Odessa, and a few points between, as well as the further-west city of Lviv—but not to Rivne. The small city did not disappoint, as it has beautiful historic architecture, parks and nature, and a wide variety of cuisines in its lively restaurants.

This presidential election was regularly scheduled (as opposed to snap), as the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, had completed his first five-year term. One of the so-called “oligarchs,” Poroshenko had been swept into office on a platform of anti-corruption and Western-facing-values following the turbulent Euromaidan protests of 2013–14 that ousted his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych (who then fled to Russia). But after five years, the people of Ukraine felt he had succumbed to corruption himself and not made enough of a difference.

Among the 44 candidates running for president of Ukraine this year (reduced to 39 by election day), was Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian who is well-known in Ukraine, who owns his own TV production studio (and is claimed to be backed by yet another oligarch), and who had launched a TV show starring himself, called, Servant of the People. Auspiciously, his sitcom is about an earnest school teacher who was surprisingly elected president after a student secretly posted a video of him ranting about corruption that subsequently went viral. The sitcom shows his various challenges and successes in fighting back against corrupt oligarchs and members of parliament who together run the country’s government. (Season one is available on Netflix with subtitles.)

Riding on the success of the show and his general popularity, Zelenskiy ran for president in real life, even naming his newly established party the name of the sitcom, "Servant of the People." From among the 39 candidates, he won 30% of the vote in round one of the elections that Tamara observed. Poroshenko came in second with 16%. Because Ukraine’s constitution requires one candidate to receive at least 50% of the vote, a run-off was required. In the second round, which occurred 3 weeks after the first elections, Zelenskiy won against Poroshkeno by 73% of the vote.

Despite the landslide win, and similar to what happened in Armenia, Zelenskiy faced a parliament full of the previous president's supporters. Parliamentary elections had been originally scheduled for next October, but minutes after he took office on May 20th, Zelenskiy announced a snap parliamentary election for this July 21st. He hopes the election will consolidate his power and help him deliver on campaign promises to end widespread corruption and the prolonged separatist conflict in Eastern Ukraine.


The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) began monitoring elections in the 1990s, when the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were "facing the immediate challenges of democratic transition after 1989," according to their website. The ODIHR mission is to “assess the extent to which electoral processes respect fundamental freedoms and are characterized by equality, universality, political pluralism, confidence, transparency and accountability.” Since the early days, their realm of interest widened to encompass Western Europe and the US, as well, but after establishing that there were few issues in those states, the focus returned to the original Eastern nations.

There are 57 OSCE member states in Europe, Central Asia and North America, all of which are required to invite the ODIHR to observe their elections. Once it is decided to observe an election, member states are selected to nominate and send an allotted number of STOs from among their citizenry (each state pays to send its own observers). The US generally sends 10% of the requested STOs in any observed election.

Aside from her work at Psychology, Tamara also works in UT’s Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies, and has a background in the region. She is currently waiting to hear if she will be invited to observe elections in Albania this summer.



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