Ukraine's Paradoxical Election
Ukrainian voters elected a new parliament Sunday but already the initial results point to a modest rebuke for President Viktor Yanukovych and his ruling Regions Party.
The independent watchdog Committee of Ukrainian Voters, which deployed thousands of monitors nationwide, indicated that the number and scale of election violations were not dissimilar to past elections under the Presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, all of which were judged free and fair.
While international observers, through the OSCE, drew a more critical conclusion, few can deny that despite significant problems with the fairness of the vote, Ukraine’s election results demonstrate that pluralism and political opposition remain powerful forces in the country’s life and that elections in Ukraine are very different from those in such places as Belarus, Russia, or Kazakhstan.
The likely outcome (as indicated by an average of 6 different exit polls) reveals a highly competitive political environment. Around 31 % of votes were cast for the Regions Party and 12% for its ally, the Communist Party—yielding a total of 43 % for the ruling team. The exit poll average also showed around 24 % for the United Opposition Fatherland Party of imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, 14 percent for boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko’s moderate Democratic Alliance, and 12 percent for the xenophobic Freedom Party; giving anti-government forces around 50 percent of the vote.
But the party preference vote will not drive the Regions Party from power. This is because only half the Rada’s 450 deputies are elected on the basis of party preference.
By common agreement between the opposition and the Party of Regions, the other half of deputies are elected through local contests waged in 225 local districts. And here, the Regions Party is accumulating a large advantage, in some measure as a result of the use of administrative resources.
As a result, Mr. Yanukovych’s party, should end up with more than 190-200 seats in the 450 seat parliament, together with the support of 30 Communists another 30 or so independents, mainly businessmen who need a good relationship with those in power, this eventually should yield a pro-government bloc of more than 250.
Still, it appears the new pro-presidential majority will be narrower and more fissiparous than in the last legislature. This is not only because the electorate strongly backed opposition parties, but also because major oligarchs have ensured that their loyalists will be well represented in the legislature. Indeed, one informed estimate suggests that as many at 100 legislators will have direct associations with the country’s 10 wealthiest businessmen.
Problems in the local vote count remain. These seem confined to a handful of closely contested districts, where candidates with a reputation for corruption, are seeking to nullify the public’s choices
But several things are already clear:
- Despite the use of administrative resources and a far from level playing field, political pluralism is alive and well in Ukraine
- New political forces (both constructive—the Democratic Alliance—and worrying—the Freedom Party) have emerged
- Ukraine enjoys a highly active civil society, an open campaigning environment, a freewheeling internet and relatively open political debate on television.
In the aftermath of the elections, President Yanukovych’s next steps are far from clear. But this is par for the course, as during the Yanukovych presidency Ukraine has been something of a paradox. The president has been effective in building a stronger infrastructure for his country, helping reduce the country’s budget deficit while cutting taxes, preserving Ukraine’s sovereignty by building new relationships with China and Asia, instituting concrete reforms that are required for closer integration with Europe, and withstanding Russia’s pressure to integrate. Moreover, despite caricatures of Mr. Yanukovych as another Putin or Lukashenko, under his watch rival political parties have been able to conduct vigorous campaigns with the benefit of generally open campaigning, vigorous debates on television, and through a wideranging internet.
Still, his rule has often been tone deaf to the will of the Ukrainian people and to the friendly counsel of Europe and the U.S. His government has been dominated by the interests of the country’s extant and aspiring billionaires, and evidence of cronyism and corruption abounds,. Moreover, conspicuous consumption by the ruling elite is rampant in a relatively poor country. Most importantly, under President Yanukovych, the judiciary’s independence and impartiality has been severely eroded, impeding foreign investment and resulting in tensions with the West over the Tymoshenko case.
In the end, Mr. Yanukovych will have to make some fateful choices in the coming weeks and months. These choices will determine whether Ukraine resumes its path toward integration with Europe, becomes increasingly isolated, or succumbs to Russian hegemony. Most importantly, given the election results, Mr. Yanukovych will not be able to make these choices without taking into account the views of Ukraine’s voters and Ukraine’s powerful economic elites. And that gives reason for cautious optimism.
Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow with the Council's Transatlantic Relations Program and is managing partner of the Myrmidon Group LLC.