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The Ukrainian Opposition: United or lost?

April 10, 2012 - Svyatoslav Khomenko - Bez kategorii



The opposition in Ukraine is making its strongest attempt to date at coordinating efforts in preparation for the upcoming parliamentary elections. Whether or not they can actually get their act together still remains to be seen.

When describing the style and methods of the Ukrainian opposition, Kyiv’s political experts and publicists often use an aphorism from the famous Ukrainian politician and writer Volodymyr Vynnychenko: “Democrats unite five minutes before their execution.” And indeed, as has happened many times in Ukraine’s recent history, ideological forces and methods that are far from democratic have acted as a consolidated and united front in the political sphere. Meanwhile the democratic, pro-European parties, no matter whether they are in power or in opposition, never seem to find a common language in tactical and strategic matters, wasting time and valuable resources on internal disputes, and only find common ground for joint activities when there is actually no need to unite.

It seems that the modern Ukrainian opposition has had enough practice of falling into the same trap, and the upcoming parliamentary elections later this year may offer the chance for a fruitful interaction of the opponents of President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions. This possibility can at the very least be suggested, taking into account the recent activation and relative success of collaboration in the opposition environment. However paradoxical it may seem, the Ukrainian government has become the main factor in uniting the opposition.

Post-Yanukovych: Opposition in crisis

Immediately after the 2010 presidential election, Viktor Yanukovych, the newly-elected President of Ukraine, faced a strong opposition in the political field led by the experienced, popular and charismatic leader Yulia Tymoshenko. It is no exaggeration to say that crippling their opponents was one of the major tactical tasks of the new government during the early stages of its rule. From almost his first day in office, Yanukovych made generous promises to cooperate with the opposition. Such promises would, however, remain only on paper.

Up to a certain point, the actions of Ukrainian officials to marginalise the opposition could be cynically evaluated as effective. Yanukovych and his new regime skilfully used the disappointment of their opponents, which prevailed after losing the presidential election, as well as exaggerating the differences between certain individual opposition representatives. They also took active steps to accelerate the collapse of some of the opposition parties’ “unstable” regional organisations in order to force them out of the media spotlight, which was almost entirely dominated by ruling officials in the early months of the Yanukovych presidency, and eliminate the financial base of the opposition parties. In addition, they also initiated judicial prosecution of some of the opposition leaders.

At first, this tactic was very effective (for the authorities, of course). The number of opposition fractions in parliament declined rapidly. The elections of local authorities held in October 2010 resulted in a stunning defeat of the “old” opposition parties, except for The All-Ukrainian Union “Freedom” (Svoboda) – a radical right-wing party in western Ukraine. Failed efforts to establish a common platform for the opposition often looked like an attempt to legitimise the leadership of Yulia Tymoshenko in this segment of politics. The trials against Yulia Tymoshenko as well as the former Minister of Internal Affairs and head of the opposition party People’s Self-Defence (Narodna Samooborona), Yuriy Lutsenko, have in fact isolated the strongest and the most popular opposition leaders from society. As a result, the Ukrainian opposition is faced with a full-scale crisis of personnel, ideology, institution and, ultimately, finances.

Given the determined actions of the ruling officials towards restoring the presidential republic model in Ukraine, initiating dozens of reforms and actively continuing to set the agenda for political life, the chances for any initiative of the opposition have, up until now, appeared to be minimal.

Opposition unite

The first factor which helped to change this situation was the detention of Yulia Tymoshenko on August 5th 2011. Ukrainian politicians and experts had earlier made the assumption that the Yanukovych regime would not dare to imprison the second most popular politician (and a world-famous politician) in the country with obviously politically motivated charges. But by doing so, the Ukrainian opposition, frankly frightened by a similar fate of imprisonment, had little choice but to create a common coordinating structure. The Dictatorship Resistance Committee became such a structure, founded on the day of Tymoshenko’s arrest. The committee was established by representatives of more than twenty political parties and public organizations including some of the strongest opposition parties in Ukraine.

The second factor that set the opposition on a path to unite was the adoption of a new law regarding parliamentary elections on November 17th 2011. It had two main components: firstly, the return of Ukraine to a mixed electoral system under which half of parliament is elected in simple majority (winner-take-all) districts, and the other half according to lists of political parties; and secondly, raising the minimum election voting threshold for parties from three to five per cent.

Actually, the need for coordinated actions aimed at overcoming a rather high threshold, and the desire to avoid a confrontation between opposition representatives in the winner-take-all districts has led to the transformation of the Dictatorship Resistance Committee into a discussion platform for determining the strategy and tactics of the opposition during the parliamentary elections in October 2012. Negotiations between the leaders of the opposition parties, which have taken place on this platform for several months, eventually led to the signing of the January 22nd 2012 document called the “Agreement on Joint Actions of the United Opposition”. Since then, the war between members of the opposition, in which each one called itself “real” and the rest “secret partners with power”, has started to recede. In addition, the opposition has even begun, albeit with a certain amount of irony, to speak of the opposition in the singular.

No joint lists

However, the mere declaration of a united opposition does not equal a common understanding on the format of a united front against Yanukovych. In one of her letters from prison, dated December 20th 2011, Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister and leader of the party Fatherland (Batkivshchyna), described her own vision of this association. In her opinion, “Only uniting with a joint party list on the basis of a neutral party and a single list of candidates for parliamentary seats is realistic.”

Tymoshenko's idea to form a joint list for the 2012 elections was accepted without much enthusiasm by leaders of the opposition parties. So far, however, serious negotiations regarding the creation of such a list have not even started. According to Ukrainian experts, the refusal of those in the opposition to work towards a joint list is fully justified from a technical point of view.

“Everything that happens now in the process of unifying the opposition stays within the political and technical logic. The leaders of opposition parties behave quite reasonably, but do not meet the wishes of Tymoshenko to unite one and all, to make it easier to fight the common opponent. It is clear that more votes can be won by going to the elections in three, or maybe even four groups,” says Mykhailo Pohrebinsky, Director of the Kyiv Centre for Political and Conflict Studies.

As of today, we can quite confidently predict that Ukrainian voters will be able to choose between at least four lists of opposition parties in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Among the opposition parties (according to data compiled by the Razumkov Centre in December 2011) Yulia Tymoshenko’s party Fatherland has the highest rating, with 15.8 per cent of Ukrainian voters’ support. This party’s principal asset is, in fact, its imprisoned leader, who has attracted the attention of almost the entire world. On top of this, Fatherland is the second-largest political faction in the Ukrainian parliament and has a network of regional organisations. These organisations have taken a bit of a battering recently, but are still more or less ready to participate in the elections.

The second most popular opposition force in Ukraine, with 9.6 per cent approval is Front of Changes (Front Zmin), the party of the former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Speaker of Parliament, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Yatsenyuk comes from the political milieu of the former president Viktor Yushchenko, positioning and marketing himself as the “Ukrainian Obama”. His party has shown relatively good results in the local elections in 2010, and today demonstrates a positive increase in its number of supporters.

On the verge of the election threshold, with a rating of 5.1 per cent, is the party STRIKE (UDAR), headed by the famous heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko. Although his previous engagements in politics were limited to his participation in the mayoral elections in Kyiv, Klitschko has a good chance of forming his own faction in the next parliament. The rise in popularity of Klitschko’s party in recent months can most probably be explained by the disappointment of Ukrainian voters in the “old” opposition forces. The ideological base of Klitschko and the other personalities on STRIKE’s list of political candidates still remains unknown.

Finally, the radical ultra-right party Svoboda still has a chance of overcoming the election threshold (with current support of 3.6 per cent). During the last election it showed some incredible results in western Ukraine, although its nationalist ideology has not found the same large-scale support in the rest of the country more recently. A large number of smaller opposition parties now face a choice: either they try for an independent and virtually hopeless campaign or join another party on the lists of the “major” opposition forces. The latter is the case for People’s Self-Defence and the party Reforms and Order (Reformy i Poryadok) who announced that their candidates will be on the list of the Fatherland party, while the party For Ukraine! (Za Ukrajinu!) has decided it will participate in the elections together with the party Front of Changes.

Process of division

The coordinated division of the opposition parties in the winner-takes-all districts holds good prospects. The Ukrainian media has repeatedly stated that this process of division, which will enable the opposition not to compete against one another in any of the 225 electoral districts, is entering the home stretch now. Indeed, there are at least two reasons motivating the opposition to bring the process of constituency division to a conclusion. Firstly, the experience of previous Ukrainian simple majority election campaigns between 1990 and 2002 has shown that all too often the division of votes among two or more opposition candidates has been the major cause of victory for the pro-power candidate.

Secondly, a common problem for the Ukrainian opposition is the lack of properly trained, charismatic, and wealthy politicians who are able to win elections on their own under conditions of strong administrative pressure on anti-regime candidates (nobody has any doubts that this pressure will take place). Volodymyr Fesenko, the Director of the “Penta” Kyiv Centre for Political Studies says, “Actually, due to a lack of strong ‘majoritarians’, the opposition has decided that it is better for them not to compete with each other, but vice versa, to achieve a greater total effect by dividing their interests into various districts.” However, no one dares to make a prediction regarding the successful distribution of districts between the parties. There are too many risks that accompany this difficult process.

First and foremost, there is no consensus among the opposition as to the way in which candidates for a particular district will be determined. There appears to be two ways of how it will play out. Part of the opposition (in particular the party Fatherland) favours the distribution of the entire simple majority (winner-takes-all) districts between specific opposition parties (the more popular parties would have a larger number of districts and vice versa). Having an entire district at its disposal, the party would receive the right to nominate its own candidate without any collaboration with its partner parties. In this case, other opposition parties would not be entitled to nominate their candidates in this district. Klitschko, on the other hand, favours holding primaries in every simple majority district of the country, during which voters could choose the most popular candidate from among the nominees offered by all of the opposition parties, and then the chosen candidate would become a full participant of the parliamentary elections.

Secondly, in most parts of western Ukraine where the opposition is strongest, we can expect fierce competition between opposing political forces, regardless of any signed agreements between them. As the results of recent local elections have shown, the local electorate, frustrated with the passivity and weakness of the “old” opposition, is ready to unconditionally support radicals from the Svoboda party. Experts have stated that the party’s leader Oleh Tyahnybok and his colleagues are fully aware that the party has the best starting position in Galicia and may suddenly decide to use it at some point.

“I wonder why Svoboda, which, for example, is able to win in all districts of the Ternopil region, should give up some of its quota in favour of, say, Klitschko. It seems a bit irrational to me. Therefore, it appears unlikely that they will agree,” states Mykhailo Pohrebinsky. Svoboda even has a legitimate reason to break the agreement with the opposition union: nationalists can say that they don't want to cooperate with the opposition, because of their unwillingness to support the provisions of lustration (the government process regulating the participation of former communists in civil service positions – editor’s note), as well as the prohibition of privatisation of strategic enterprises and agricultural land, which are crucial issues for the party.

Ideological reasons may actually affect the consolidation of the opposition in another way. Despite the fact that party ideology has never significantly influenced the political preferences of Ukrainian voters, who tend to focus on the personality of a given leader, due to its radicalism, Svoboda appears to be so distinct against the general background that it may cause problems in how moderate voters perceive its candidates. “The polls show that, for example, in the Galician regions about 65 per cent of voters are ready to support the candidate from the opposition. But many of the Batkivshchyna and Front Zmin voters are not ready to vote for this opposition candidate if it is turns out to be a representative of Svoboda,” says Volodymyr Fesenko.

Finally, it is extremely unclear how the political forces of the opposition can work in a climate of constructive cooperation in these simple majority elections. They will compete for the same votes and will probably act fiercely against one another in the competition for party lists. Some of the characteristics of a dirty campaign among the various opposition forces can even be seen in the Ukrainian media currently. We can only guess on what kind of scale it will happen as we get nearer to the elections.

Exaggerated confidence
However, despite the many risks of the “united opposition” project, the opponents of Yanukovych have not abandoned their declared goals: getting a simple majority (226) in the next parliament. What enlivens these expectations is not so much the unity of Yanukovych’s opponents, but rather the catastrophic dynamics of the approval ratings of his Party of Regions. Since the beginning of President Yanukovych’s government, its rating has decreased almost three-fold from 39.1 per cent in April 2010 to 13.9 per cent today. Evil tongues say that even Viktor Yushchenko’s party, Our Ukraine (Nasha Ukraina), never got such a low rating. If this tendency continues in the future, the opposition will win be able to pull off a victoryin the parliamentary elections, say the bravest opponents of Yanukovych.

Kyiv political experts don’t share this exaggerated confidence. “According to my calculations, in order for the opposition to win a majority in parliament, all four opposition parties actually have to enter parliament. Moreover, they need higher ratings than they currently have now,” says Fesenko. “The Party of Regions isn't simply going to fall in the ratings, but might appear in the next parliament without its allies. Ideally, the opposition will have to get about 160 seats on party lists and 70 seats in the simple-majority districts, which is going to be very difficult to achieve. If the elections were held now, the opposition would win about 130 seats, and between 30 to 35 more in the districts. As a result, it would have more than 150 deputies in parliament, which is more than they have now, but not enough for a majority. It looks like the opposition is going to have to sweat.”

Mykhailo Pohrebinsky is even more sceptical. “Of course, the situation is worse for the government now, but if it keeps deteriorating at its present rate, the opposition will have no chance of getting a majority.”

However, even if the opposition somehow manages to get 226 deputies into parliament, it does not mean that it will be able to dismiss the government, adopt their own laws and make Viktor Yanukovych’s blood boil in other ways. Firstly, we should remember the lessons that the democratic forces learned after the 2006 parliamentary elections. Back then Yulia Tymoshenko, Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine and the Socialist Party won more seats than the Party of Regions and its Communist allies. However, post-election negotiations between the “winners” regarding the redistribution of quotas in government lasted so long that the socialists simply moved to the opposite political camp. The result was the election of Viktor Yanukovych as prime minister and the beginning of a major political crisis in Ukraine, which eventually led to the early parliamentary elections in 2007.

Nobody can be certain that the same situation won't be repeated in 2012, with the opposition, having received their long-awaited victory, potentially fighting over undecided government seats.

Moreover, the government has another card up its sleeve which nobody seems willing to discuss out loud for the moment: the option to reschedule the parliamentary elections to 2015, for example, or declaring them invalid after the event. Given the imperfections in electoral law and the apparent fear of the Yanukovych administration losing absolute control over parliament, such a scenario is not all that unlikely. Will the opposition be able to counter anything in the event of any of these scenarios? This will depend primarily on its ability to unite in the face of this threat. In other words, it will depend on the success of the current efforts to build a common opposition against the government.

This article originally appeared in New Eastern Europe Issue 2(III)/2012.

Svyatoslav Khomenko is a Ukrainian journalist and Lane Kirkland Scholar at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.

Translated by Olena Dmytryk

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