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Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections: Half-way between false and true

October 29, 2012 - Yegor Vasylyev - Bez kategorii

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As the initial results of the Ukrainian parliamentary elections held on Sunday emerge, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's party was on course to secure a parliamentary majority, although will face an opposition boosted by Svoboda and Vitaly Klitschko's UDAR. Yegov Vasylyev,an analyst specialising in politics and transition of post-Soviet states, discusses the impact of the election.

A very thin line

On Sunday October 28th 2012, Ukrainians voted in parliamentary elections which were seen as a major electoral test for the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych.

A crooked and dirty electoral campaign saw no magic change on elections day. Many devices from a seemingly forgotten 2004 tool-box were invoked to influence the results. “Carousels” – when the same people are transported from one station to another and vote multiple times, “throw-ins” – when packs of ballots are illegally put into the vote-boxes by a commission member, “vanishing ink” in pens at polling stations, and direct vote-bribing has succeeded “charity” initiatives realised for months by wealthy pro-authority candidates in their constituencies.

The last minute choice of almost one million voters to cast their ballots at home due to illness has suspiciously reminded a major trick of 2004 falsifications, when piles of requests written with the same hand allowed for ballot-stuffing away from ballot stations. And indeed, some voters coming to the stations on Sunday were quite surprised to find out that they had already voted at home.

The Ukrainian authorities seem to walk a thin line between complex manipulations and outward falsification. The most blatant fraud is allegedly taking place in Kyiv and Kyiv district, where the favourites of the authorities are trying to turn their losses into wins at district commissions, which are under their control.

The official results must come close to the National Exit-Poll, according to which the Party of Regions received 28.1 per cent of the vote, Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) 24.7, Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR 15.1, the right-wing Svoboda 12.3 and the Communist Party 11.8.

These results give a clear majority and 122 out of the 225 seats in parliament to opposition forces. But having prevailed in party lists, the opposition was massively outnumbered in individual constituencies, obtaining no more than 60 seats out of another 225 (although still exceeding expectations). Even if opposition candidates would manage to arrange for an alliance in their full cast, the fate of the majority is in the hands of 40 to 45 “independent” elected candidates. As most of them were in fact unofficial candidates of the authorities, they are highly unlikely to turn to another side than the Party of Regions.

But why is there such a difference in the outcomes?

How to win lost elections: Ukrainian know-how

1. It is a common fact by now that all three branches of government are dominated by President Viktor Yanukovych, his cronies, those of his son and representatives of clans, allied under the umbrella of the Party of Regions.

A new election law, initiated by the authorities and adopted in November 2011, created the matrix for manipulation. It has reintroduced elections in constituencies which provide for a number of apparently progressive norms (like comprehensive definition of indirect vote-bribing or extensive rights of local observers) to appease the international standards’ watchers.

Never mind that the last campaign in the constituencies in 2002 was widely acknowledged as being distorted by excessive use of “administrative resource”, unequal access to media and other authority-led violations, especially in the East and South of the country, particularly in Donbass, whose acting president, incidentally, was its governor at the time.

To see this drift away from the 2006-2007 parties-only elections as aimed at improving the electoral system would be next to naïve. Progressive democratic norms rather predictably fell foul of Ukrainian reality – who oversees the implementation of law is by far more important than what it says.

Two of the opposition leaders stayed in jail upon inconclusive allegations. The courts and law enforcement officials turned a blind eye to direct and indirect vote-bribing by open and clandestine (so-called “independent”) pro-authority candidates. Use of administrative resources was widespread and pressure on the media, opposition candidates and their campaigners was widely exerted.

The formation of election commissions was mayhem: massive replacement (overall, more than 50 per cent) of district and precinct commission members led to chaos in their work. The lotteries allocated places to bogus parties who had no intention to campaign and subsequently were replaced by other people – allegedly those, controlled by the authorities.

2. Parliamentary opposition, led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, legitimised the matrix at the very first stage by voting for the law. Their main excuse, that the Party of Regions would have gone for a less democratic law and opened the way for even more falsifications, lacks credibility.

Some allege that Batkivshchyna has in fact “surrendered” many constituencies in Central and even Western Ukraine, let alone the East and South, by placing nominal, unremarkable candidates. An in-depth analysis upon announcement of their candidates in constituencies revealed that, along with Svoboda, they were capable of winning around 50 seats. This left no hopes of an overall majority. The party’s old vices of recruiting one-timers from amongst the “big purses” and former Kuchmists, as well as its overall lack of ideology, led to a lack of credible candidates and even allegations about entering into a secret pact with the authorities.

3. Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR party sparked competition on the opposition field by refusing to agree on single candidates in constituencies with Batkivshchyna and Svoboda (the deal reached was largely insufficient). This has led to cross-fire between their candidates in many constituencies and seats lost by both.

4. “Baiting” – the nasty art of gift-giving at a certain period of time, or in other words, vote-buying proved effective enough in many constituencies. It is hard to blame people for their choice and it is also clear that part of population sees nothing wrong in the president and his party’s methods of governance, including the way they run elections. It's possible that they might see selling their votes as a part of the system.

What next?

Those who orchestrated the “campaigns” of the 2004 presidential, 2010 local and 2012 parliamentary elections are, essentially, the same people. Their vision of elections has hardly undergone any evolution, the current one is evidently the mildest version of the same pattern, imminent to their life and political experience in Soviet and immediate post-Soviet times.

Further on, Yanukovych is likely to need a constitutional majority of 300 MPs in Verkhovna Rada in order to secure a next term in office through parliament (either as president or prime minister who would acquire the full scope of power).

It is suspected that some of Vitali Klitschko’s political newbies along with Batkivshchyna’s least devoted ones might give him a hand. UDAR is a company of people, summoned from very different backgrounds at the very last moment. They are united not by an ideological platform (although Klitschko himself insists that he is a Christian Democrat), but a shining brand of the world boxing champion and extremely good funding. One might call it a technical project, usual for post-Soviet politics, staged to hover “third force’”votes to the oligarchs’ ends – and will hardly be wrong.

As Klitschko draws his support from part of the former “orange” electorate, such a turn might effectively ruin the boxing champion’s political career (in terms of public support), as it has happened lately to previous arduously promoted “third-force” Serhiy Tihipko.

For many, Svoboda is the biggest surprise of these elections. The party walked a long way from the margins to an agitated 30,000 march in Kyiv on October 14th, which, contrary to the ugly tradition of recent times, was by no means fake. Their reputation of being the only ideological party in Ukrainian politics, as well as uncompromised critics of the Yanukovych regime, oligarchs and the whole post-Soviet system scored highly, not only in Western Ukraine, but also in the capital.

More than 20 per cent in Kyiv, as recorded by some observers to be sensational, is not that surprising given the growing frustration with the regime, perceived as anti-Ukrainian, and the ruling party’s fiasco in Kyiv. Svoboda is likely to pursue their main virtues – “genuineness” and “Ukraine-ness” – to consolidate more of the opposition electorate around them. If they manage to withstand the usual temptations of Kyiv's corridors of power and discard any compromise with the regime, they might establish themselves at the core of the opposition to an increasingly authoritarian president.

Staying as meek and unconvincing as it is, Batkivshchyna might continue losing support. It needs to either reform itself or follow "Our Ukraine's" way to oblivion.

The vote has highlighted the country’s internal differences and in particular the growing dissatisfaction in its Western and Central parts. The perception of Ukraine as a place which will stay in the grips and at the disposal of a handful of clans is widespread, if not dominating, in Europe. However, this system also seems to be the source of increasing radicalisation within the country. While Yanukovych and his close circle seemed to have secured the majority in parliament, its factual divergence from the real picture of electoral preferences in the country achieved through a series of manipulations might turn out to be a time-bomb for him and his family system.

Severe delays in the count are now being observed at many constituencies in Western and Central Ukraine, which is supposedly due to the pro-authority heavyweights facing unexpected defeat from opposition candidates.

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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