Ukraine’s local elections proved to be the dog that didn’t bark.
Despite widespread anxiety about massive fraud, intimidation of opposition parties, and massive media manipulation, Ukraine’s most recent vote—while a step back in terms of best practices– was hardly a descent into managed democracy or political tyranny.
The verdict of international observers—some 500 in all– was that the elections were marred by significant flaws. The new election laws adopted hastily in July were filled with questionable practices and major opposition parties were significantly underrepresented in local elections commissions. However, it is also clear that nationwide, the combined effects of these trends were not sufficient to have prevented a more or less accurate reflection of voter sentiments in Ukraine on October 31st.
Results in several important localities, nevertheless, appear to have departed from the findings of exit polls, most notably in Kharkiv’s mayoral race and in Odessa, where popular incumbent mayor Eduard Hurvitz, appears to have been victimized by electoral fraud involving thousands more votes were cast than official ballots handed out.
The results in Lviv and Kyiv municipal and regional elections were also marred by internecine conflicts among leaders of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna Party that opened the door to questionable rulings depriving Ms. Tymoshenko’s approved candidates of a place on the ballot.
Yet the reality was that, on balance, the election results tablulated reasonably well with exit polling data and party preferences as expressed in a series of exit polls conducted by well known polling groups and sponsored by independent media and opposition political groups.
Roughly speaking, on a nationwide basis, exit polls show that the Party of Regions showed it commands the support of 35-40 percent of voters (the rough equivalent of first und support registered for President Yanukovych in the first election results from January 2010). While the Regions Party held on to its past levels of support, it made notable gains in Right Bank Central and Western Ukraine and emerged as the leading candidate for the mantle of Ukraine’s first pan-Ukrainian party capable of serious reach throughout the country. But to make lasting inroads and build on these local gains in Central and Western Ukraine, the Party of Regions and President Yanukovych, in particular will need to shed their pro-Russophone stance and adopt policies and rhetoric capable of uniting the country’s East and West.
This task can be made easier by the presence in the Party of Regions of new voices representing Ukrainophone regions who should be given greater hearing and voice in the ruling councils of the party.
Most importantly, these inroads and results make it clear that politicians in Ukraine can adopt fiscally responsible policies such as increases in utility fees, and still escape the wrath of Ukraine’s voters.
Orange Peels: Opposition Fragmentation
Equally significant was the growing fragmentation in the former Orange camp. The poor results of Yulia Tymosenko’s Batkivshchyna Party, which polls suggest polled between 10-15% nationwide are not only the consequence of its absence from the ballots in Lviv and Kyiv or to the fact that election laws meant it cold not run as the Tymoshenko Bloc. The reality is that the party has seen a drop-off in support since the presidential vote. This drop in support was further augmented by the unreported secret of these elections: the fact that Ms. Tymoshenko campaigned lightly for her slates in the municipal and regional elections and her central party apparat spent almost no money on billboards and advertising in the weeks leading up to the vote.
That choice, no doubt, was dictated by the limited impact of local legislatures on budgetary decision-making and policy, which are primarily determined now by the President and the government. But it was a choice that appears to have been consciously made with catastrophic results.
The Puppy that Yelped
If no dog barked over voter fraud, one political puppy did yelp. Arseniy Yatseniuk’s Front Zmin, leapt into third place nationwide, in large measure the byproduct of hard work around selecting attractive and competent professionals and civic leaders as local candidates. In this effort, Mr. Yatseniuk outpaced Sergiy Tyhypko, whose strong third place showing in this year’s presidential vote did not open the door to further gains at the local level.
The Mutt that Howled
The Svoboda ( Freedom) Party of Oleh Tyahnybok was the political mutt that howled during the local vote. Svoboda is a hybrid party with roots in the fascist Social-National party and members recruited from disaffected members of the right-wing of Ukraine’s numerous national democratic parties. The party’s emergence as the largest political force in Ukraine’s West was troubling proof that the extreme policies pursued by Ukraine’s education minister Dmytro Tabachnyk are contributing to the radicalization of significant portions of Ukraine’s electorate.
Yanukovych at a Political Crossroads
It is also an important reminder that after these local results, Viktor Yanukovych stands at a political crossroads. He has consolidated central power and has seen his government’s main political base –the Party of Regions—do well in the local elections.
How will he use his strong powers in the weeks and months ahead?
First, will he and Ukraine’s central authorities act to guarantee due process in the Kharkiv and Odessa elections.?Whatever the ultimate results, given the widespread evidence of local machinations in vote tabulation, a transparent review of these controversial results would contribute to President Yanukovych’s legitimacy and allay concerns about authoritarian drift in Ukraine.
Second, will the President and his team be ready to migrate from their comfort zone electoral base among Russophone Ukrainians and adopt a tone and narrative that helps bring Eastern and Western Ukraine together?
Thus far President Yanukovych has been able to sustain his political support on the basis of decisiveness, consolidation of power, administrative competence in practical problem solving, and policy improvements. But running a country–even one with strong presidential powers — requires a cohesive citizenry. And national Ukraine’s cohesiveness cannot be sustained solely with the glue of economic improvements. Economies expand and contract, but the polity and public must prove resilient to withstand crises and downturns. To do so requires elaborating a unifying national idea.
Mr. Yanukovych cannot escape that fact that he is a founding father of the young Ukrainian state With the 20th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence on the horizon, he and his team have the opportunity of developing a narrative that can bind together the noble traditions of Kyivan Rus, the Cossack’s era’s determined defense of local autonomy, the noble attempts to establish a democratic Ukraine after the fall of the Russian Empire, the millions of Ukrainians martyred by the Stalinist and Nazi juggernauts, Ukraine’s rich contributions to music, film, and literature, and the struggle for independence waged in the 1970s and 1980s by dissidents, workers, and restive intellectuals.
Third, will he build upon the first steps he has taken to stabilize the economy, reduce bureaucratic regulations, combat local corruption, and restore fiscal equilibrium? And this means creating a far more investment friendly country that tackles pesion reform, ensures a transparent environment for international investors, and revamps a judicial system to ensure the strict application of the rule of law.
If President Yanukovych takes these steps, the worrying setbacks seen in this election will be a blip on the political radar screen.
Whatever he does, Ukraine’s citizens –and the international community –will be looking. With power and authority firmly in the President’s hands, they will know who to praise and who to blame.
Adrian Karatnycky is a non-resident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Relations program at the Atlantic Council and Managing Partner of Myrmidon Group LLC, a New York based consultancy. This article was originally published at the KyivPost.