Civic Engagement on the Global Stage: Bard's Jim Ketterer Observes Elections in Ukraine
Thinking globally is all well and good, but studying, working, and volunteering abroad are better. As director of international academic initiatives at Bard’s Center for Civic Engagement
(CCE) and senior fellow at the College’s Institute for International Liberal Education
(IILE), Jim Ketterer encourages students to be active on the global stage, and he leads by example. Since the 1990s, he has monitored elections in Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Bosnia. On May 25, Ketterer was part of the U.S. delegation to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission that observed Ukraine’s first free elections since the country was thrown into upheaval late last year.
The OSCE mission to monitor Ukraine’s presidential election was the organization’s largest ever, consisting of almost 1,000 people. This was due in part to the size of the country, but also to the election’s importance as a global political issue. “It is high profile, involving key political actors—the United States, Russia, western Europe, and the European Union—so there was a real interest in ensuring the correct number of observers to really do a good job.”
Ketterer was one of the mission’s short-term observers, of which there were 900. A smaller group of long-term observers had already been on the ground in Ukraine for about three months, and they briefed their newly arrived colleagues in regional meetings before everyone took up their election-day posts. Ketterer’s team in the northwestern city of Kovel included an observer from the Czech Republic, a translator, and a driver. They worked alongside another team with observers from Germany and the United Kingdom.
The team began its work the day before the elections, visiting polling stations, observing preparations, and meeting with local officials. On the day of the election, they began early in the morning, ensuring that ballot boxes and materials were prepared at a select polling place. They watched the polls open and then moved from site to site, making unannounced visits and observing at locations around the city. In the evening, Ketterer’s team found a station at which to observe the closing of polls and counting of ballots. They then traveled with the ballots to the district election commission, arriving after midnight. For the next 24 hours, they worked in shifts with the other team to provide constant OSCE observation of the tabulation of votes, which involved both hand counting and entering data into a computer system.
Voter turnout was high, and the OSCE found
that the election largely met with international criteria in most of the country. The exception was the eastern region, where violence interfered with the election process. Ketterer did not witness any unrest while carrying out his duties. “As observers, it’s our job to technically follow the guidelines that the OSCE sets out for us and always to be mindful that we’re just seeing one very small piece of the puzzle,” he says. “It’s clear from media reports that there was fighting going on; there were very dangerous and intense situations in certain parts of Ukraine. That was generally in the east and the southeast in Donetsk and Luhansk, and it was difficult to deploy short-term observers in those areas.”
The presidential election was a clear victory for wealthy entrepreneur Petro Poroshenko, avoiding what would have been a runoff election weeks later if no candidate had received more than 50 percent of the vote. “People really wanted there to be one round, a decisive round, and a sense of unity coming out of these elections,” Ketterer says. The high level of popular support gives the new president “the best possible chance to be able to deal with the very difficult underlying causes of the tensions within Ukraine, between Ukraine and Russia, and more broadly, between Russia and the United States of America and western Europe.”
What is the next step for this nation in transition? The new government needs to act quickly to deescalate the armed conflict in the eastern region of the country, Ketterer says. “It’s difficult to address the broader questions of how to best integrate all the parts of the country if there’s still ongoing fighting,” he observes. He hopes for a solution for Ukraine that doesn’t keep the country “torn between Russia on one side and NATO on the other side.” Poroshenko needs to have productive conversations with world leaders that advance Ukrainian security and independence.
At Bard College, the Center for Civic Engagement and the Institute for International Liberal Education actively seek out partnerships in emerging democracies. “Being out in countries that are in the midst of these crises is not only something we don’t shy away from, it’s something we very much try to do,” Ketterer explains. The College’s academic exchanges and global service projects serve its international partners as well as Bard College in Annandale in the spirit of mutual growth, education reform, and international cooperation.
Jim Ketterer has been observing international elections for more than two decades, and there are likely more to come. “Being involved in this not only draws on my own background of working in government and development, but also working in academia. It is part and parcel of Bard’s strong position on civic engagement; we not only have a Center for Civic Engagement, but that Center has a global reach and it very much encourages this kind of involvement.” He adds, “As I met Ukrainians and I met observers from all the various member states that make up the OSCE, Bard is well known; Bard’s reach around the world is well known and I think that means something is going right.”Read more: Dan Cline ’08 tells his story of volunteering with the Peace Corps in Ukraine and being evacuated during the conflict.