KIEV, Ukraine – It's called "piano voting" — after lawmakers pushing different keys as if playing the piano. And in this illegal tune, Ukrainians are virtuosos.
Under the scam, lawmakers who are too busy running businesses or vacationing to bother showing up for work ask fellow legislators to vote for them. It's a violation of the Constitution and several laws — but that hasn't stopped it from being rampant in Ukraine.
This week a local watchdog named dozens of Parliament's biggest violators, saying that multiple voting undermines this ex-Soviet republic's shaky democracy and efforts to move closer to the European Union. Some legislators promised to get their act together — others just laughed.
Even though Ukraine's Constitution obliges each lawmaker to vote on bills individually, many legislators, most from the ruling Party of Regions, don't bother. They give their electronic voting cards to their colleagues and have them vote in their place.
And while the practice is unlikely to change the outcome of any vote — as it's done by fellow party members — it has angered many Ukrainians, who already see lawmakers as corrupt, overpaid and having too many perks.
"Ukrainians have delegated their powers to specific lawmakers and when one lawmaker votes for someone else, he betrays his voters and violates the basic law of the country," said Inna Borzilo, spokeswoman for Chesno (Honest), a civic group funded by Western donors that has deployed photographers and activists to the Ukrainian parliament to keep track of multiple voting.
The phenomenon has generated a lot of satire: Parliament has been alternately dubbed a "music conservatory" or a "yoga studio" — a nod to how lawmakers stretch their limbs to reach their colleagues' desks to vote.
The practice of multiple voting was so widespread during the Parliament's previous term in 2007-2012 that bills were often passed in a half-empty session hall. A handful of legislators raced around the chamber and frantically pushed voting buttons at absent lawmakers' desks. According to Chesno, only one lawmaker in the previous assembly of the Verkhovna Rada never resorted to piano voting — the other 449 all did. One former legislator from the Party of Regions, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, was seen in the Rada only once in the course of his five-year term — while his voting card was used in hundreds of votes.
Pro-government lawmakers claim that they cannot attend all Parliament sessions because they are busy working in their constituencies across the country. Legislators are prohibited from owning businesses or serving in most other jobs to prevent a conflict of interest. But many of them in fact run commercial empires through family and friends and have little time to spare for Parliament duty.
"They simply don't go to work at the Rada. For them, the (parliamentary) mandate is necessary to defend their business interests," Borzilo said.
The country's three main opposition parties have campaigned hard to end multiple voting and even proposed to introduce a prison term for those who do it. This winter, opposition lawmakers barricaded themselves inside Parliament for nearly three weeks of round-the-clock protests in order to force the ruling party to stop piano voting.
The protest has had some success, with Parliament holding a revote on several occasions when multiple voters were caught on cameras, but the practice has continued.
In its report, Chesno said that 83 lawmakers, or nearly 20 percent of Verkhovna Rada members, have been caught either voting for someone else or having colleagues vote for them since the new Parliament was sworn in in December. On Wednesday, Chesno activists handed out postcards to lawmakers with photos showing them voting at several desks.
But many piano voters remained unrepentant. Regions lawmaker Yaroslav Sukhiy, a top button pusher according to Chesno, boasted that he's become so skilled at that practice that he would never be caught red-handed. Indeed, one video shows him covering his hand with a stack of papers as he voted at a colleague's desk. In another video, an overweight man stands near an absent lawmaker's desk, covering the voting button with his big belly — while Sukhiy reaches underneath and pushes the button.
"I vote with three, if necessary, four buttons," Sukhiy quipped, "but no way in hell you will ever (catch) me doing this."
His colleague Tetyana Bakhteyeva, also named as a top piano player, admitted that she has voted for a colleague, but only because he had to leave the session hall briefly due to an emergency.
"Maybe he felt ill, or maybe he had to do something personal, that is why he asked me and I did this," Bakhteyeva said, adding that she will try to refrain from this practice in the future.
Even four members of the biggest opposition party, which had proposed to send piano voters to jail, have been caught doing it, according to Chesno. Party spokesman Tetyana Zolotaryova declined to comment on the specific allegations.
Lawmakers in the European Union, which Ukraine aspires to join, say multiple voting is undemocratic and would not be tolerated in their Parliaments. In Poland, two members of Parliament have been expelled from their party and ridiculed in the media for voting for their colleagues. In Germany, where voting for someone else in Parliament is also strictly forbidden, one lawmaker resigned after being criticized for a poor attendance record in Parliament and in his constituency.
Polish legislator Jaroslaw Gowin, a former justice minister, said: "This is punishable. You can lose your seat in Parliament if you vote for someone else."
But Mikhail Chechetov of Ukraine's Party of Regions does not see much of a problem.
"What matters is that decisions that the country needs get passed," Chechetov told reporters. "You go relax, girls, go and dance."
Monika Scislowska contributed to this report from Warsaw, Poland and Frank Jordans from Berlin.