Ukraine Goes to the Polls: Another Year, Another Crisis?

Commentary

After years of political stagnation, 2008 will be a key year for Europe and the Ukraine

Three years after the ‘Orange Revolution' that captured the world's headlines in 2004, there is a growing sense of ‘Ukraine fatigue'. Ukraine has mostly had a bad press since, with more recent headlines declaring the revolution over before it really started, and depicting Ukraine as returning to a predictable cycle of political deadlock, backsliding on democratisation, and policy underachievement. The ‘orange' parties based mainly in western and central Ukraine bickered constantly with the ‘blue' parties, mainly the Party of the Regions, representing the Ukrainian east.

The ‘Orange Revolution' was indeed a paradoxically self-limiting affair. As a result of the compromises made to settle the street protests against a rigged election, Viktor Yushchenko won the presidency in a repeat vote in December 2004, but only enjoyed full powers until the next parliamentary elections in March 2006. Constitutional reform then shifted power to the new parliament. However, the ‘orange' parties blew the chance of forming a government by arguing amongst themselves. Yushchenko was forced to accept as Prime Minister none other than Viktor Yanukovych, the man he had beaten for the presidency in 2004. Yanukovych's Party of the Regions was in a revanchist mood and aggressively sought to remonopolise power, until Yushchenko took an uncharacteristically bold step by ordering the dissolution of the new parliament in April 2007, only a year into its five year term.

A predictable standoff ensued, but agreement was finally reached in May to hold new parliamentary elections on 30 September 2007. As in 2006, the result was again extremely close, and ultimately rested on tiny percentages and the performance of smaller parties. The big three parties finished in the same order (Regions, the Block of Yuliia Tymoshenko, the first orange Prime Minister whom Yushchenko sacked in September 2005, and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party); but one new party scraped in and one dropped out. The new party was led by Volodymyr Lytvyn, who was chair of parliament in 2002-6, and hoped to regain the same job. The one notable loser was the Socialist Party, originally an orange party, but which defected to Regions to allow Yanukovych to become Prime Minister in July 2006. The Socialists saw their tally see-saw dramatically either side of the necessary 3%, providing the main drama in the count, before they finally missed out by just 0.1%.

The result was far from an action-reply, however. Yanukovych's Party of the Regions has renewed its mandate as Ukraine's largest party. Tymoshenko, the ‘orange princess', has revived orange fortunes with a dramatically-improved second place, while Yushchenko's own party, Our Ukraine, has stagnated.

 

Vote                            Seat Projection (out of 450)

Party of Regions                                              34.1% (+2% on 2006)                        173 (-13)

Tymoshenko Block                                         30.8% (+8.5)                           156 (+27)

Our Ukraine - People's Self Defence              14.3% (+0.3%)                                     73 (-8)

Communists                                                    5.4% (+1.7%)                                      27 (+6)

Lytvyn Block                                                   4.0% (+1.6%)                                      21 (+21)

Socialists                                                         2.93% (-2.7%)                                        0 (-33)

Others                                                             5.8% (-12.8%)                                        0

Against All                                                      2.7%

 

Note: A minimum of 3% is necessary to win seats under the national proportional

representation system.

A first key question, given all the controversy that has raged since President Yushchenko first tried to dissolve the old parliament in April, is will the results stick?

Turnout, although low at 57.9%, is above the legal minimum. All six main parties took part in the election. On the other hand, they have spent most of September preparing potential legal challenges to the vote, and the actual constitutional legitimacy of the whole process is still in doubt. The orange parties set a dangerous precedent in the summer, when Yushchenko's original dissolution decrees were being challenged in the Constitutional Court, by choosing the alternative fiction of parliament's ‘self-dissolution'. Once more than 150 of their number had given up their seats, the parliament of 450 was deemed inquorate (a quorum being one third). Both sides will have more than 150 seats in the new parliament. Either could repeat the stunt. Finally, the ‘old' parliament ‘met' in early September, providing the Party of Regions with a final reserve strategy of reanimating the old parliament if they do not like the new.

In other words, if either side wishes to substitute legal chaos for coalition-building, by any of the above methods, they can.

This would be a huge step back. The elections were not quite held to the standard set in 2006, but Ukraine is still an exemplar for democratic standards in the region. The most important regress was at an institutional level. Instead of an independent Central Election Commission and legal system, Ukraine has drifted into a system of partisan balance. Both sides shared nominations to the Election Commission this summer, and there is a justifiable fear that each have looked after ‘their' regions. There are, for example, fears that Regions may have ‘loaned' votes to the Communists and, if ultimately unsuccessfully, the Socialists, with an implausible late surge of votes for the latter in Donetsk, the home-base of the Party of Regions. There were also worries this time about absentee voting, about ‘dead souls' on voting registers, and about provisions for the voting of migrant voters.

There was also a revival of ‘political technology' methods. Both sides ran ‘clone' parties to steal the opposition's votes. The ‘Communist Party of Ukraine (renewed)' was allegedly backed by businessmen close to the Tymoshenko Block in the attempt to deprive Regions of the mainstream Communist Party as a coalition partner. ‘Freedom', a fake nationalist party, and the ‘Free Democrats' were allegedly run by Regions against the orange parties; while ‘Ukraine Regional Active' was supposed to take votes off Regions.

But Ukraine has become a lively, if boisterous, democracy since 2004. A now free media was on the tail of every story of voting fraud, and voters are now much harder to fool with ‘political technology'. There were twenty one parties in the election, but only one of the smaller parties won more than 1%.

Still, Ukraine is left with another knife-edge result. What are the likely coalition options? Parliament has 450 members, so 225 are necessary for a majority. Having lost the Socialists, the Party of Regions cannot govern in the existing ‘small coalition' with the Communists. The Lytyvyn Block could hold what Ukrainians call the ‘golden share'. Although posing as a neutral ‘third force', it was founded by a motley crew of business friends of former President Kuchma. These have now dispersed, but the party's main financier is Vasyl Khmelnytskyi, a member of Regions. Behind the scenes, however, the presidential administration has been struggling to bring Lytvyn on board. Early results indicate that the block picked up most of its votes in west and central Ukraine, and on the current forecast Regions plus the Communists plus Lytvyn would still have only 221 seats, so Lytvyn may have a longer term future with the orange parties. Or, most likely of all, he will drag out his moment in the sun.

Now that the campaign is over, a government of ‘all the businessmen' is also possible. Business figures on both sides brokered the May agreement to hold new elections, and thought they had an agreement going forward that they would all be in the next government. The big story to emerge from the election would therefore be a ‘historic compromise' between Our Ukraine and Regions, between Yanukovych and Yushchenko, and between Ukraine east and west. Some have sold this as a practical compromise to prevent either side monopolising power. Others have talked of a ‘Nixon in China' moment: if a compromise with Regions was negotiated over NATO and with Our Ukraine over the issue of the Ukrainian versus the Russian language, then either side could sell the compromise to their respective electorates.

Tymoshenko, however, has won big, upsetting these calculations. Moreover she won precisely because she ran on an anti-‘oligarch' platform. Our Ukraine only dragged itself back up in the polls, albeit only to where it was in 2006, by sidelining its Regions-friendly businessmen and selling itself as ‘new orange'. There would be a heavy electoral price to pay in the future if Yushchenko rejected the chance of a fresh start for the orange forces. But Our Ukraine would have to eat a lot of humble pie in an orange coalition in which it would be a clear junior partner. Without Lytvyn, the two orange parties might have a bare majority of only 229. Moreover, the moderate businessmen in Regions who negotiated the summer compromise did so because they are used to having their hands on the economic levers of power. Opposition would he hard to take. The president faces some tough choices as he thinks about his own reelection campaign in 2009 or 2010.  

The EU can congratulate Ukraine on running an election that was marred, but not derailed, by fraud. On the other hand, realpolitik has often triumphed over constitutionalism and the rule of law in 2007, and prolonged political crisis has left Ukraine without effective government. 2008 will be a key year for the EU and Ukraine, with renegotiation of both the PCA and Action Plan, as well as the long-running, and overlapping, saga of the reforms necessary for WTO entry. It will be hoped that a new government emerges quickly this autumn, without the four months of argument that followed the elections in March 2006.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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