Ukrainian Darth Vader ran to become mayor of Odessa. He campaigned for votes from atop a van while accompanied by stormtroopers. (Erik Herron/The Washington Post)

Over the past week, as Ukraine held local elections across most of the country, Darth Vader emerged as a direct threat to democracy.

Darth Mykolaiovych Vader appeared on the ballot for mayor of Odessa , and the Darth Vader bloc ran for seats on councils in the Odessa region. The Sith lord campaigned in costume, often accompanied by stormtroopers on the roof of a van blaring “The Imperial March” and blasting pyrotechnics. Traditional and new media broadcast quirky click-bait stories of a Soviet-era Lenin monument converted into a statue of Darth Vader, Darth Vader’s election campaign, and the detention of Chewbacca (who was working with Vader).

But the real story is how the fake Vader represents the actual dark side of Ukrainian contemporary politics: election fraud and manipulation.

It is not a coincidence that most of this tale happens in Odessa, Ukraine’s lovely, corrupt port city, and traditional capital of humor. Odessa politics have been dirty historically. “Star Wars” mania at election time is a part of this corruption. The city featured a contentious fight for mayor, pitting the incumbent Gennadiy Trukhanov against Sasha Borovik, who is an ally of the current governor and former Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili; Eduard Hurvits, a former mayor; Sergey Kivalov, the former director of the Ukrainian Central Electoral Commission; and a cast of also-rans and so-called “technical candidates.”

Technical candidates and parties officially appear on ballots, but are not trying to win elections. Instead, they participate in elections to help their patron — a candidate or party that is actually trying to win — gain extra representation in Ukraine’s election administration. Those arethe people who count the votes and certify the results. They’reorganized into commissions in every polling station, city and region. In principle, each party or candidate participating in the election has the right to have a representative on the commissions. When the commissions do not have enough positions to accommodate all the parties and candidates, a lottery determines which specific parties and candidates are represented. This system provides an opportunity for mischief. Real competitors work with technical ones to win extra seats on commissions through the lottery so that they can influence what happens in their favor.


In Odessa, Lenin is replaced by Darth Vader. (Erik Herron)

Darth Vader, as mayoral candidate and head of a local “party,” is probably one of these technicians, with his minions in the camp of the incumbent mayor. In recent research about presidential and parliamentary elections, my colleagues and I analyzed the role of technical parties in Ukraine, showing that they allow major contenders to “stack the deck” on electoral commissions and capture more votes. The work of my colleague Nazar Boyko’s organization, CIFRA, has publicized the issue in Ukraine.

I was in Ukraine during the local elections to conduct research and serve as an accredited observer. On Election Day, I went to the Odessa City Election Commission with a fellow observer from the Committee for Open Democracy to complain about a documentation problem in the polling sites.

Ukraine’s law requires commissions to provide stamped and signed protocols — the formal announcement of results — to observers and representatives of candidates and parties. Protocols are important documents because they certify the vote count in every polling station. If the results are altered anywhere in the process, the protocol serves as evidence that the votes were manipulated. Polling station protocols can be an important piece of evidence to support allegations of fraud and challenge results in the court system. We discovered on Election Day that the local election administration did not provide enough copies to distribute to observers. None of the observers would receive protocols unless enterprising polling station commissioners found a solution.

By election day’s end, exit polls (which can be unreliable in Ukraine) had suggested that a runoff was likely. Meanwhile, election observers reported evidence of improper behavior in many parts of the city. On Tuesday, the Odessa City Electoral Commission announced that Trukhanov received 51.93 percent of the vote with all ballots counted — just enough to avoid a runoff election. Now the second-place candidate, Sasha Borovik, is challenging the results due to alleged falsification by the incumbent mayor’s supporters.

This brings us to Lord Vader and the protocols. When we questioned the City Election Commission officer about potential solutions to make sure that every observer who wanted a protocol could receive one, it was clear that he and the commission were unwilling to systematically resolve the problem. While he would provide us with additional copies of protocols, thousands of observers might not receive them, reducing the paper trail needed to challenge the results.

The official blamed finances, saying that the commission did not have enough money to print more protocols. However, the Committee for Open Democracy’s observers elsewhere in Ukraine did not report this problem.

For some reason, documents that could facilitate challenges to election results were not available in Odessa, and we were stonewalled by an official.

Who did this official represent on the electoral commission? Vader.

The recently dedicated Vader monument and other antics are designed as a diversion. While election fraud was occurring on the streets and in the electoral commissions of Odessa, the world was instead paying attention to the oddly charming Vader story. I too was seduced by it. I posted video of a Vader event on Twitter and visited the now-famous statue.

Star Wars “news” from Ukraine requires a second, deeper look. It can be an amusing anecdote about the worldwide appeal of Star Wars and a way to drive traffic to websites.

But it’s a trap. Vader’s appearance in Odessa is probably not a joke, although it follows a familiar plot line: a power-hungry would-be emperor using back-door machinations and diversions to help engineer an illegitimate victory and deprive citizens of free and fair elections. Only this time it’s not in a movie, but in Ukraine.

Erik Herron is the Eberly Family Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University.