Ukraine Parliamentary Elections - A Bid for the Future

Posted in Europe | 02-Mar-06 | Author: Dmitry Udalov

Ukrainians are eager to elect their future
Ukrainians are eager to elect their future
It might seem that political stability has abandoned Ukraine. Since the Yushchenko victory in 2004, the country has not had a stable government, and political and economic crises have occurred with amazing regularity. Many analysts and government officials expect the country to become more stable after Ukrainian parliamentary elections take place on March 26th.


The importance of these elections for the country’s future is crucial for many reasons. First, the elections signify the total transformation of the Ukrainian political system. As was settled during the political crisis of 2004, Ukraine should change from being a presidential-parliamentary republic and become a parliamentary-presidential republic. This means that the Ukrainian parliament will play a far more significant role. Constitutional reform eliminated the country's previous institutional system, a system that is typical for most post-Soviet countries. The main advantage of the transformation is that the new model provides better guarantees against the threat of a new authoritarian regime.

The post-Soviet-Ukrainian presidential republic gave too much power to the president and his administration. It was evident during Kuchma's rule that this type of over-centralization provoked unprecedented corruption and red tape. The idea of a reform was to establish a better system of checks and balances, to limit presidential domination and to enhance the role of parliament. Thus, the prime minister of Ukraine representing the parliamentary majority will be the head of government but will also share a lot of responsibilities with the president of Ukraine. Most security issues are the president’s responsibility, while all other issues will be mainly under government control.

This political reform should be considered a serious step in the right direction, as it will establish a more transparent and flexible political system that first of all grants more power to the Ukrainian people.

The transparency of elections is a key-issue
The transparency of elections is a key-issue
However, the reform is also a big challenge for Ukraine. The question arises whether Ukraine's diverse political forces will be able to find a stable compromise and form an efficient and professional government after the March parliamentary elections. It is common knowledge that parliamentary democracy - being a more complicated and sophisticated form of government - requires a maximum of skill from parliamentarians to control and demand a lot from government and also manage to avoid being snowed under with political scandals and intrigues. It also requires the Ukrainian people to be more precise in choosing their representatives. To put it in a nutshell, an effective parliamentary democracy is based on advanced political culture. Britain and Germany are examples of the most efficient parliamentary democracies with stable, well-recognized parties. Ukraine will need a long time to develop a relatively stable party system. Today, Ukrainian parties come and go to be replaced by new ones. The party chaos is a very serious challenge for Kiev. Besides, Ukraine as well as most post-Soviet states cannot boast of a progressive and innovating political culture. In Weber’s terminology, traditional political legitimacy prevails.

From this perspective, the success of Ukraine will depend on the nation’s ability to adapt to the new system having overcome a difficult political heritage. If it proves to be successful, the Ukrainian example will be something other peoples of post-Soviet republics will be eager to follow.

The second challenge for Ukraine is the procedure of elections themselves - the way they will be held. Transparency and openness are vital and not everyone is convinced that the scandals of the 2004 campaign will not arise again. For example, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is the leader of the bloc of political parties with the same name, predicted a hard and dirty campaign for the parliamentary elections in 2006.

Thus, the way elections will be held is a serious test for the Yushchenko government. The poorly organized elections in 2004 and the frauds that were uncovered at the time helped Yushchenko to provide a better impression on his voters than Yanukovich, whose association with the former regime didn’t assist his chances of winning.

While Tymoshenko supposes that a number of political forces are tempted to use dirty political tactics, today fair elections are vital for Ukraine to show what direction the country is moving and to demonstrate that the democratic transition brought in under Yushchenko is strong enough not to be substituted by oligarchy or political chaos. The real results of Yushchenko's rule will perhaps be clearly seen during the elections. First, he must realize his responsibility and secondly, it is a unique chance to show his countrymen and the whole world the real virtues of Ukrainian democracy. Yushchenko must prove that neither the political squabbles we’ve witnessed nor strained relations with Russia can deprive Ukraine of Democracy.

Ukrainian Central Election Committee is responsible for transparent elections
Ukrainian Central Election Committee is responsible for transparent elections
The new parliamentary election system awards seats solely on the basis of proportional representation (with a 3% threshold). Polls show that about 30% of the voters support the opposition Party of Regions led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, About 18 % support Yulia Tymoshenko's bloc and 12% are for the pro-presidential People's Union "Our Ukraine." Other parties that stand a fairly good chance of making it to parliament are the Socialist Party of Ukraine, which enjoys the support of approximately 6% of voters, Natalia Vitrenko's bloc "People's Opposition" (4.8%) and the Communist Party (3.7%). It is possible that a number of other less popular parties will also gain seats as their present rating is around 2%, and the cutoff is very low at only 3%. Polls also show that the candidate “against all” will also be a significant player this time. Out of many parties taking part in the elections, 20% of the voters still haven’t decided for whom to vote. A relatively significant number of respondents do not support anyone at all.

The final picture of the distributed seats in a new parliament (Verkhovna Rada) will probably look as follows:

It is clear that in order to oppose Yanukovich, the Orange Coalition of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko must be revived. As it was reported, the Our Ukraine Party, Narodnyi Rukh of Ukraine, Ukrainian People's Party and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc are prepared to create a single political bloc with the Our Ukraine People's Union in order to participate in the elections while maintaining their parties as independent organizations. The development of the Ukrainian political process that we have witnessed recently helps us to understand that this coalition is temporal, united by the most basic common ideas and aimed at halting today’s opposition, i.e. Yanukovich and his team. Should it be necessary, the Socialist Party of Ukraine will join the Orange bloc.

So the new parliament may have a highly complex composition. As it appears, although no single party in the Orange Coalition is likely to win the elections, all together they succeed. Thus, there is no visible voter disappointment in the Orange democratic forces as some analysts predicted in summer 2005.

Two sides of opposition: Yanukovich and Tymoshenko

The brave and fearless Ukrainian iron lady without whose efforts the Orange revolution probably would never happened is today in vigorous opposition to Yushchenko. She is leading several political forces, uniting them in a single bloc named after her. It proves that her image is very popular and that despite all allegations, she continues to be the symbol of new reforms to modernize Ukraine to European standards.

As the situation is really very difficult in Ukraine, political parties focus their campaigns mostly on criticism. So as it was predicted, Tymoshenko actually gained a lot from being ousted as prime minister. She consistently excoriates the president’s gas deal with Russia and accuses him of economic and political failure.

Her program is based on social justice and above all, democratic values and human rights. Concerning foreign policy she speaks little about Russia, emphasizing the importance of joining the EU and establishing partner relations with the West.

Yulia Tymoshenko's adversary and leader of the Party of Regions – Victor Yanukovich, whose forces are also named as a new opposition - also made criticism the main weapon of his political campaign. He attributes all of the country's economic failures to Tymoshenko’s “dilettantish and populist” policy, probably forgetting that the roots of economic crisis largely originate from Kuchma’s rule. To tell the truth, both sides contributed to it: First Kuchma along with his prime minister, Yanukovich, in an attempt to establish a positive economic environment before the 2004 elections raised salaries. This caused inflation that the new government had to deal with. But Tymoshenko’s policy of re-privatization, tax and administrative reform caused the investment decrease. Moreover, it not only affected the quantity of investment but also the investment climate.

Julia Timoshenko - back as Ukrainian Prime Minister???
Julia Timoshenko - back as Ukrainian Prime Minister???
Undoubtedly, Yanukovich also focused on the gas scandal with Russia. While Tymoshenko accuses the Russian side of having “imposed unfair conditions on Yushchenko,” Yanukovich blamed the president and Tymoshenko for “unconstructive and unreasonable political behavior” and the inability to preserve friendly relations with Russia. In general, foreign policy issues are slightly less important then in 2004; most voters are more concerned about internal economic stability than any other issue.

Another issue where Yanukovich and Tymoshenko hold different views regards the Russian language. Yanukovich defends the rights of Russian speaking minorities, promising his voters that he will make Russian the second official language in Ukraine. These Slavic languages are very similar; linguists say the difference between them is less evident then between the Bavarian dialect and High German. The Russian language is understood almost everywhere in Ukraine, but the rights of the Russian-speaking minority are increasingly being infringed upon because of the inability of this minority to speak and write well in Ukrainian. Yanukovich used this matter in the 2004 elections to attract more political support from Russia as well. Russians caught this hook, having forgotten that when Kuchma was reelected and needed Russian support for his campaign, he also promised to make Russian the second official language but never touched upon this matter after successfully being reelected.

The inflaming language dispute may cause a burst of nationalism Russian is de facto the second Ukrainian language, but it might cause severe disputes to legally establish its status as the official second language of Ukraine. The example of Kazakhstan might be useful, where as stated in Article 7.1 of the Kazakh Constitution in order to stress the nation’s identity: “The state language of the Republic of Kazakhstan shall be the Kazak language.” But article 7.2 adds: “In state institutions and local self-administrative bodies, the Russian language shall be officially used on equal grounds along with the Kazak language.” This compromise might be used in Ukraine, where it might not be that necessary to give the Russian language the official status. It's more important that those who speak Russian are not discriminated against.

As polls show, the geographic distribution of voters is likely to be the same as in 2004, when we had a quasi-divided country where the western part supported pro-Western politicians and the eastern part gave its support to pro-Russian political forces. But the geographic rift between east and west Ukraine is less evident. In 2004, there were two antagonistic alternatives. Today, according to information from the Ukrainian Central Election Committee, 45 parties and blocs will take part in the elections. 7,709 candidates are bidding for 450 parliamentarian mandates.

Coalitions of willing

There is no doubt that on March 26, none of the parties will get an overwhelming number of seats to form its own majority government. Consequently, the winners will have to form a coalition, uniting with their former opponents whom they do not trust and expect to act unpredictably.

The situation will probably resemble the one we saw in Germany in 2005. Some analysts proposed that a grand coalition between Yushchenko and Yanukovich might be formed. It’s possible in case of equal results and the inability of any force to gain a majority in parliament. In this case, as it was in Germany, wrangles over concrete positions will be vigorous and quite long.

The Orange Coalition is not a miracle, nor is the Blue one (Yanukovich's party symbols are blue). Everything will depend on the final results and the political game of the main actors, since this time all sides have a lot of room for maneuver. All of them are not ideal from the voter’s point of view. So political technocrats are ready for the big game. Some smaller parties might also be very influential in this game. For example, Yanukovich is trying to seek a stronger alliance with the Ukrainian Communists, while Yushchenko continues to consider the Ukrainian Socialists in case they’ll be helpful. Tymoshenko is attracting other even minor parties to join her bloc but ironically, her personal rating of 30% is higher than the rating of her bloc. It means that voters who vote for other parties still want to see her back as Ukrainian prime minister.

Anyway, the time after the election will be quite complicated. Despite political difficulties some structural ones are also expected, as the country has to adapt to a totally new system and new ways of cooperation between different branches of government within constitutional changes. In addition to changes provided by new constitutional regulations in the functioning of higher executives, the whole bureaucratic system is to be renewed as well. New functioning ties and common habits are to be established and reestablished. Even in developed democracies, this costs precious time and money. In Ukraine with its still unstable system, it is likely to take more of both.

NEW officials to define country’s future.

Russian is not a foreign language as
WE’re not foreigners!
Russian is not a foreign language as WE’re not foreigners!
Whoever wins the 2006 election will have to deal with several serious challenges at once. The insufficiently considered effect of Ukrainian politics on the eve of new parliamentary elections led to a decline in economic performance. 2006 will be crucial for the Ukrainian economy. Although the Kuchma government benefited from 12% economic growth in its last year, its measures of increasing salaries and pensions created a deficit of $3.7 billion for the 2005 budget. The Tymoshenko cabinet ordered a new draft of the state budget. However, by increasing social payments themselves, her cabinet increased the deficit to $6.3 billion. The gas dispute with Russia will make matters even worse, as one of the greatest advantages of Ukrainian economy – cheap energy from Russia - is no longer in effect. Foreign investments also slowed in 2005; hopefully, political stabilization will change it for better in 2006. The Ukrainian agricultural industry is also expected to face serious difficulties. The extremely cold winter will decrease the crop capacity. The bird flue virus H5N1 was already discovered in Crimea, and Russia and a number of other countries had to restrict Ukrainian pork, milk and poultry imports because of sanitary regulations. This is a big problem for the former “main granary of the USSR.”

Moreover, Ukrainian challenges, both in domestic and foreign policy, reflect the split in society and the elite, where one part of Ukraine strives for a fast Euro-Atlantic integration and the other chooses the opposite, eastern direction. Today Ukraine is following the path chosen by Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the early 1990s. At that time, politicians in these countries actively debated whether it would be best to stay out of NATO and the EU. This debate will undoubtedly be heard in a new parliament as well.

The present Orange leadership has repeatedly stated its position, voiced by acting Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk, who said that Ukraine would definitely work toward joining NATO and the European Union.

NATO membership is viewed in Kiev as a real goal that will later help to achieve the second one - EU membership. NATO is also seen as the best guarantee for Ukrainian independence from Russia. Also, NATO membership is certainly in the interest of Ukrainian bureaucracy, including military bureaucracy. Besides, their motivation is very strong, because the Ukrainian military has seen how their counterparts in Slovakia, Poland and Hungary have benefited from joining NATO.

It should be noted, though, that not everyone in the military and security establishment supports the accession. The Ukrainian Security Service and other departments understand that joining NATO will mean cleansing their ranks. There is another side to the accession issue that touches upon the interests of many more people. One of the most sensitive issues for Ukraine as well as for Russia is the issue of the future of Ukraine's defense industry, which has important links with Russia and Belarus, receiving a significant amount of components from Russia. The weapons they produce comply with former Soviet standards as they were designed before the collapse of the USSR. Interoperability with NATO standards will be a complicated and costly problem. Thus, the Ukrainian defense industry is unlikely to survive if the country becomes a member of NATO. Europe and the US are not interested in preserving a strong rival in the arms market. Russia will take a tough position on this issue. Ukrainian public opinion does not support joining the Alliance, and this should also be taken into account. As for Russia, it doesn’t expect that Ukraine will rapidly join NATO, since the agreement on the Russian naval base in Sevastopol is valid until 2017. This agreement is part of the Ukraine-Russia broader agreement on friendship and borders. So if Ukraine were to denounce this treaty, its border with Russia would automatically be denounced, too. The present status quo is expected to last for the next 10 years.

EU membership was declared a national goal. However, as has been stated repeatedly by European officials, the accession of Ukraine to the EU is currently not on the agenda. This is a matter for the distant future. Today, Ukraine is preparing for a long wait, becoming Turkey's rival. However, Ankara is at an advantage because it has already launched official accession talks, and it’s already a NATO member. Although one can say that Turkey is moving toward Europe, the final result is still uncertain. This is true, but the very process impedes Ukraine because the European Union will obviously not be able to admit two large countries whose economies, social structures, legislation and security forces are so different from those of its key member states. Besides, their aggregate population is 120 million people (70 million in Turkey and 47 million in Ukraine). Their simultaneous admission would threaten to drastically reduce the EU's living standards and even plunge it into a deep recession with unpredictable consequences while at the same time the EU would be still busy modernizing its new members after the 2004 enlargement.

Ukrainian society does not want to give up. President Yushchenko and other Western-oriented politicians try to explain that the EU is not a big charitable foundation to support every nation; he tells the Ukrainians that the EU has a set of values and principles that Ukrainian society must share if it wants to be admitted to the European family. Today the challenge is not to convince Europeans of the need to accept Ukraine, but to change the country so drastically that the Europeans wouldn’t need to be convinced of Ukraine’s ability to be a truly European country.

After the failure of the previous regime’s use of administrative resources and falsifications in the 2004 presidential campaign, it is also clear that the new election will basically reflect the preferences of the Ukrainian electorate. The continued support of international organizations for free and fair elections, the building of a civil society and a free mass media will further benefit Ukrainian society.