On Elections and Symbols
The fates of Europe and Ukraine converge on May 25th, as both societies go to the polls.
On May 25th 2014, Europeans go to the polls in one of the most significant elections in the continent’s history. Of course, I am not only referring to the European Parliamentary elections, but also the presidential elections that are taking place in Ukraine – a country whose people have decided on a European path.
In 2014, symbols have become incredibly important. If Ukraine is successful in organising and carrying out a free and fair presidential election, it will send a strong signal to the world that the EuroMaidan Revolution was in fact about real change in the course of European history. But it will also be very symbolic to the people of Ukraine, who toppled the Viktor Yanukovych regime after the Ukrainian society could no longer tolerate rampant corruption, the consolidation of centralised power and a lack of hope for a future. The symbol of a free and fair presidential election will show Ukrainians that there can be a future. The elections will also symbolise an achievement of the revolution, and a new start – as long as the new post-Maidan leader does not repeat the same behaviour as his predecessor. The fact that there was an open and honest debate of the candidates on May 12th 2014, one that many Ukrainians were pleasantly surprised to watch, could be a sign of things to come.
Despite the Crimean annexation and the fact that there remains a violent separatist movement in Donetsk and Luhansk (not to mention the Russian military keeping guard on the other side of the border), Ukrainians see these elections as a chance to unite the people. If the elections are successful, there is hope that unity can be achieved. The actions of Rinat Akhmetov (an oligarch with significant wealth in eastern Ukraine) and his support for unity is another important sign that Ukraine may finally be able to move on from post-revolution to a country in transition. Shedding its Soviet skin may continue to be a bloody affair, but in 10 or 20 years from now, we may be looking back at this moment as one of the key turning points in Ukraine’s (in fact Europe’s) history; very similar to how Poland looks back 25 years from now at the Round Table talks and the first semi-free elections leading to the fall of communism.
Nevertheless, Ukraine’s optimism for a brighter future will also be seen in its turnout on Sunday. One watchdog group predicts that turnout will be at least 70 per cent and possibly as high as 80 per cent. This sadly contrasts with the other critically important elections in Europe – the European Parliamentary elections, where one European think tank believes that turnout in this year’s EP elections could be 40 per cent or even lower.
Even more troubling is the fact that apathy towards the EU as a democratic institution representing the collective European peoples’ interest is at an all-time high. A recent Pew Research Centre Poll found that a median of 71 per cent of respondents (across seven EU countries polled) believes that his or her voice does not count in the EU and only a median of 36 per cent of Europeans have a favourable view of the European Parliament.
But this is not just to contrast the two elections. The low turnout in the EP elections may actually have a direct impact on Ukraine. With a low turnout in Europe, this gives a chance for the far-right parties to mobilise their electorates and send anti-EU candidates to Brussels. This includes France’s National Front, the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik. What’s concerning here is the strong role that many see Russia play in influencing Europe’s far-right parties. There are concerns that a new far-right coalition, led by France’s National Front, could form in Europe; and this coalition would “form a pro-Russian bloc in the European Parliament or, at the very least, amplify previously marginal pro-Russian voices,” says one Hungarian think tank. Some of this pro-Russian sentiment in Europe is built upon anti-American foundations; but Ukraine should not become a victim.
If Ukraine loses its European support, its elections this weekend could be in vain. Russia prefers to see Ukraine remain in limbo, if the European allies manage to disconnect the EU from Ukrainian affairs, Russia would be much closer to realising this objective. And that is why this weekend’s elections to the European Parliament are important. Without EU support, Ukraine cannot be successful.
However, elections alone do not make a country (or a Union) a full democracy. It requires an open, civil society, strong institutions (working in the public interest) and the ability to be inclusive and representative of all people. This is a lesson that not only Ukraine needs to keep in mind when it goes to the polls this Sunday, but the Europeans as well.
Adam Reichardt is the editor-in-chief of New Eastern Europe.