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Ukraine: Last Elections in a Divided Country?

Ukraine gained independence in 1991 and political scientist Andrew Wilson has famously called the Ukrainians “an unexpected nation”.

September 25, 2012 - Yegor Vasylyev - Articles and Commentary

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In 2012, however, the country is still mired in a post-Soviet swamp of unaccountable and corrupt governance amidst low quality of life and widespread poverty.For many in Western Europe it remains a grey, if not dark, place somewhere on the outskirts of Russia.

But what British journalist Lancelot Lawton called “the Ukrainian question” in his 1935 address to the House of Commons Committee is as topical as ever. Each election in Ukraine is deemed crucial for the country’s statehood, and whilst it is usual for the regions of a country to be divided on ideological lines, here such a division is at its widest.

Polls show that opinions about the past, the present and the future of the country differ significantly across its regions. More than half of respondents in the country’s east and south grieve the split with the Soviet Union and would opt for integration with Russia, as well as the introduction of Russian as second state language. In its central and especially western areas, however, the mood is different: most people are not Soviet-nostalgic, and favour European integration and the Ukrainian language.

A divided country?

Public dispute about the country’s possible federalisation, let alone separation, proves unpopular. An argument from novelist Yuriy Andrukhovych about the possible divorce of Ukraine’s regions sparked thundering comments from all sides of the political spectrum and cultural establishment. Despite visible divisions, both feel positive about each other and are quite reluctant to let the other one go.

So it stays, unitary and divided at the same time, to face the October parliamentary elections. The electoral map is symbolic of the country’s specifics: the opposition has landslide support in Western and Central Ukraine, whilst the ruling Party of Regions and their partners from the Communist Party prevail in the East and South.

With two of the opposition leaders in prison, the campaign fully fits into what dominates throughout all parts of the country: post-Soviet standards in politics and governance. This means proficiency in using tricks and deception of all sorts to imitate democratic procedures and lure the needed result. So-called “political technologies” have an impressive embrace on most of the country’s constituencies.

Local “barons”, “landlords”, runners of business schemes and other wealthy (and thus powerful) candidates have taken a massive turn towards charity. Registered as the heads of charity funds, they have for months been providing material support to would-be voters in their chosen constituencies. The list of gifts is impressive: honey – on religious holidays, bicycles – to postmen and village doctors, supermarket discount cards – for the elderly, and essentials – sugar, flour, teabags – for everyone.

But according to the authorities and the courts there has been almost no sign of vote-bribing. There is also nothing wrong when candidates of the ruling party show-off state-funded projects on renovation or improvement of social infrastructure as their own noble dedications to the beloved voters and constituencies.

Other useful technologies include “bogus candidates” – those nominated by parties unknown to the wider public, who have little intention of running any campaigns. Their supposed role is to secure places at election commissions for “necessary” people – necessary for other candidates, a top gun and favourite of the authorities.

The formation of district electoral commissions was arranged through a lottery, in which luck was on the side of “unknown parties”, leaving the opposition, Svoboda and Vitaly Klychko’s UDAR – real contenders for the seats in the parliament – without a single district commission member throughout the 225 electoral districts.

Changes to the law

The way precinct commissions are formed was also suddenly changed last week by the Central Election Commission (CEC), just a few days prior to the deadline. Now it presupposes a single lottery for all precinct commissions within a district. It remains to be seen how many of their members will be allocated to opposition parties and candidates – presumably, not a lot. Cameras, installed at polling stations, will broadcast the vote live on the web, but, as approved by the CEC, will go off-line during the count.

The country is likely to be flooded with international observers. However their legal rights, and of course, language skills, are limited compared to local ones, nominated by candidates, political parties and civil organisations. Interestingly enough, the list of civil organisations entitled to register observers by the CEC is as stuffed with strangely unknown ones as the list of political parties is.

One might suppose that once the commissions and observers in certain areas are under control, there would be no need for massive ballot fraud or the intimidation of voters, something which would be noticeable for international observers. It is easy to put the necessary numbers, whatever the voters’ will in the ballots, into the final protocol, and no one will check.

The pressure on the media and opposition campaigners is reaching full steam. TVi, the only opposition television channel, was cut from more than 60 television networks in the country, loosing access to an audience of millions. The media, in particular, the main political website Ukrayinska Pravda, report that opposition campaigners are regularly beaten up in Kyiv by police and members of the Party of Regions, and even by the brother of parliament’s speaker, Volodymyr Lytvyn, in rural districts of Zhytomirska Oblast, where the speaker seeks re-election.

New fruit from a diseased tree

These techniques are likely to bear fruit. Under the new law, half of parliament (225 members) will be elected by vote for party lists, and another 225 – for individual candidates in single constituencies. Under a fair count, three opposition parties might well be capable of securing a majority in the party vote. However, judging from the way the campaign is unfolding, 50 of its candidates elected in single constituencies would be a tremendous success.

From this perspective, the future Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament – editor’s note) comprises of roughly 270 pro-Presidential MPs (the Party of Regions, communists and “independents”) and, at best, 180 from the opposition. It is therefore easy to see that such a composition is not exactly reflective of the public’s political preferences.

Still, even this picture stops short of the 300 seats required by the pro-Presidential force to make constitutional changes – a popular tool in Ukrainian politics. Nevertheless, this deficit might not pose a serious challenge for the Party of Regions’ negotiators, as they have already proved that they have ways of convincing opposition members to join them.

But to achieve an immediate 300, the ruling party’s campaign leaders will need a real strain of their “election system” – somewhat akin to the memorable 2004 presidential elections. For many opposition voters, this will be a sure sign that no proper elections should be expected anymore. Vastly distorted results are likely to bring protests to the streets of Kyiv. Will the citizens of Kyiv be as eager as they were in 2004 to oppose the way the authorities treat their votes? And how ready the official leaders of the opposition are to lead them, is an open question. If voters choose to rebel, it is still only likely to be in one part of the country.

So far, Ukraine continues to stay united under murky and corrupt ways of semi-authoritarian and non-ideological post-Soviet governance – supposedly, tolerated in one region, and at the very least disliked by the majority in the other. The country’s future depends on its ability to put an end to these patterns and the ability of its regions to find a common language without them. 

Yegor Vasylyev is an analyst specialising in politics and transition of post-Soviet states. He holds an LLM in European Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he was a British Chevening Scholar in 2009-2010, following five years in the Ukrainian civil service.  

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