By means fair and foul, the ruling Party of the Regions came out top in Ukraine’s recent parliamentary election but President Yanukovych still needs a majority to control parliament. The concessions he will have to make will cost him dear.
Ukraine’s parliamentary election took place on 28 October. In Western democracies election results are announced on the next day, but in Ukraine this process takes 2 weeks, so the results were only published officially published at the end of the first week in November.
Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions (PoR) received 30% of the vote – the first time a ruling party has won in a parliamentary election in Ukraine.
Five reasons for gloom
Contrary to expectations, however, this victory was not greeted with the loud popping of champagne corks, but with a deafening silence. Firstly because the PoR share of the vote was less than expected. Secondly because support for the party has fallen by 2 million votes over the last 5 years, which represents about 5% of the electorate. Losses like these are a real blow in the period before the main electoral battle, the presidential election in 2015, which will decide a great deal more than this parliamentary election.
A third cause for gloom is the success of the opposition. The ‘Fatherland’ party, which was led by Arseny Yatsenyuk while Yuliya Tymoshenko remains in prison, secured 25.5% of the vote. This is hardly the crushing defeat of the opposition intended when Tymoshenko was originally put in prison. Indeed, the opposition actually won in the party list seats (of the 450 seats in the Ukrainian parliament, 225 are taken by deputies from party lists and the other 225 deputies are elected in single-member seats). Together with boxer Vitaliy Klitschko’s ‘UDAR’[strike] party and the nationalist Svoboda [‘Freedom’] party, ‘Fatherland’secured 50% of the vote.
A fourth discouragement for PoR is the defeat of its satellite project, Natalya Korolevska’s ‘Forward, Ukraine!’ party, which failed to get into parliament and lost tens of millions of dollars in the attempt. Andriy Shevchenko, former Chelsea forward, ended his football career to become the frontman for this project and is now an unemployed VIP (though the other day he did receive an offer to head up the Ukraine national football team).
A fifth reason to be downhearted is the scandal that accompanied the vote count. The day after the election the OSCE observer mission described the parliamentary campaign as ‘a step backwards’, flouting democratic standards. And the abuses during the next few days relating to determining who had won in the constituencies were another stain on the reputation of the Ukrainian authorities in the eyes of Western observers. US Vice President Joe Biden even telephoned Yanukovych to appeal for honest counting of the votes.
Opposition candidates declared that their victory had been stolen by the government in a dozen constituencies throughout the country. It took more than 10 days to count the votes in the very centre of Kiev, where former regional boss Viktor Pilipishin, supported by Regions Party headquarters, lost to the opposition in the person of the young nationalist, Yuriy Levchenko. This resulted in a recount, during the course of which it emerged that more than 1,400 ballot papers ‘for’ Levchenko had several marks – a tick had been put next to other names as well as his. Spoiling ballot papers favouring opponents in this way is a classic fraudster move in Ukrainian elections.
In another constituency on the outskirts of Kiev, Tatyana Zasukha (PoR) stole the election from the opposition candidate by simply getting a court to annul the results of 30% of the votes.
President Yanukovych is himself up for reelection in 2015. The results of this month’s parliamentary elections suggest that he will find it a difficult task. (photo: www.president.gov.ua).
So as not to lose face, the government agreed to re-run the election in 5 constituencies, though it made sure not to lose sight of its interests: in the constituency where ruling party candidate Valentina Zhukovskaya lost by more than 15%, the results were annulled. This was because she has a high-ranking patron, the oligarch Dmitry Firtash (who also happens to be a sponsor of the University of Cambridge).
One thing the government can be pleased about is the success of its relatives in securing themselves places in parliament. The sons of the President, the Prime Minister and the Prosecutor General have all become deputies, as have the sister of the head of the Presidential Administration, her common-law husband, and the chauffeur of one the richest Ukrainian oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov.
But even the most well-protected support system will not be able to guarantee the PoR what is was aiming for i.e. a majority of deputies in parliament. Just exactly what its sister party, ‘United Russia’, wanted to achieve. The presidential party may have united the country’s oligarchs, but it doesn’t have a majority, even when it lines up with its traditional allies the Communists. Incidentally, on paper the Communists are at loggerheads with the oligarchs, but in actual fact they are hand in glove with them and have been for some time. Another paradox of Ukrainian politics!
For parliament to be able to function, President Yanukovych will need the support of the so-called independent candidates, which is why the fighting was so dirty in the dozen or so constituencies when the voting had finished: Viktor Yanukovych needs every vote he can get his hands on.
Yanukovych in search of a majority
The fate of the future government depends on a majority. The current Prime Minister Mykola Azarov suits Yanukovych in every way: his way of expressing himself is redolent of a Soviet-era bureaucrat and his exhortation from the parliamentary rostrum to the opposition to (euphemistically) take a running jump has branded him for ever as a boor.
Ignorance of the language of state deprives Azarov of any political prospects, which is to say that he will never be able to compete with Yanukovych and this is exactly why the current president likes him. What is bad, however, is that under Azarov reforms are not making any headway. The West is counting on a change of personnel in the government, as the EU commissioner Stefan Fule made very clear in September.
So Yanukovych is pondering: the Constitution obliges him to change the Prime Minister after the election, but as yet there are no votes in the ruling party for a new PM. Confirming a new head of the government will only be possible when the appetites of various non-PoR pressure groups have been satisfied.
Andriy Klyuyev, head of PoR campaign headquarters and secretary of the National Security Council, is extremely keen to take the place of the archaic Azarov. But his appointment as Prime Minister would upset the power balance, giving too much power to one of the clans. Besides, Klyuev’s own none too brilliant performance at the election is hardly grounds for his appointment to this elevated post.
A new oligarchic group, formed around the President’s elder son Oleksandr and going by the name of The Family, would be only too happy to make their own proposal for the post of PM. Their candidate would be the head of the Central Bank, Sergii Arbuzov, who has shot up the career ladder over the past few years, having started out as the head of a small Donetsk bank which belonged to the President. Arbuzov recently strutted his stuff for the first time in Washington, but apparently failed to make an impression. His reputation could also be tarnished by the weakening of Ukraine’s national currency, which started immediately after the election. Another ‘Family’ candidate would be the Finance Minister, Yuriy Kolobov, who is not a public figure and has no real experience.
Very soon the PoR will be concentrating on creating its majority, which is likely to be ad hoc, with the votes being ‘paid for’ by affording independent candidates access to the budget. Or forcing them to cooperate by bringing in the ministers heading up the national security, defence and law enforcement ministries.
This is the only way Viktor Yanukovych will be able to achieve a vote with the necessary result, but the nearer this is to the presidential election in 2015, the less stable will his majority be. Ukraine has already been in a similar situation, before the Orange Revolution 8 years ago, when the pro-government deputies started drifting towards the opposition.
Yanukovych realises that he will have difficulties in being re-elected for another term, so he’s taken steps to insure himself. Immediately after the election, the old parliament passed a law to permit a new Constitution to be adopted after a referendum. The opposition caught on and accused Yanukovych of trying to transfer the presidential election into parliament, so as to get himself elected for a second term by his tame deputies.
As Former PM Yulia Tymoshenko remains in prision, former Ukrainian Foreign Minister and Speaker of Parliament Arsenyi Yatsenyuk headed the opposition Fatherland party list. It is no secret that he intends to become the unified opposition candidate at the 2015 presidential elections (photo: frontzmin.ua/)
Second place in the election was taken by the ‘Fatherland’ party whose leader, Yuliya Tymoshenko, went on hunger strike in protest against the fraudulent election. The sad truth for her is that her influence on politics is not what it was.
The combining of the opposition forces for this election resulted in Arseny Yatsenyuk becoming head of the ‘Fatherland’ party list. He is a former Minister of Foreign Affairs and parliamentary Leader of the House, who competed with Tymoshenko at the 2012 presidential election. Then she disdainfully described him as a puppet of the oligarch Firtash, but now she has had to let him take control of her political party. Yatsenyuk has put into parliament about 30 of ‘his’ people from the Tymoshenko list, which represents a third of the opposition coalition.
Yatsenyuk intends to become the single opposition candidate at the 2015 presidential election, when there will be all to play for.
It has more than once been clear that Tymoshenko from her prison cell has not supported decisions taken by Yatsenyuk, but there’s nothing she can do about that. A year ago she protested against the passing of the election law, which changed the way parliament is elected. She wanted her party list for the election to be headed up by the poetess Lina Kostenko, rather than Yatsenyuk with his presidential ambitions. After the election Tymoshenko went on hunger strike in protest at the rigging of the election, calling on the opposition to protest actively, but Yatsenyuk chose the more peaceful route of election re-runs.
Tymoshenko’s influence is waning and her voice is harder to hear in the political arena, the more so because there is now a new radical and charismatic force on the scene, the nationalist Svoboda party, which also opposes President Yanukovych.
In the spring the radical nationalists got the showing of the Oscar-winning film ‘Milk’ cancelled because they considered it advocated homosexuality. Who then could have imagined that in 6 months these people would become deputies in the Ukrainian parliament? The Svoboda ‘ result became the sensation of the election. They got into parliament with 10.5% of the vote, exceeding the 5% electoral threshold twice over, in spite of the fact that in the run-up to the election the sociologists predicted they were on the verge of collapse.
Svoboda began life as the Social-National Party with a symbol that was very reminiscent of the swastika.
8 years ago the party renamed itself Svoboda [‘Freedom’], though its programme bans abortion, advocates nuclear weapons for the country and calls for the ‘promotion of sexual deviation’ to be a crime.
The radical nationalist party, Svoboda, began life as the Social-National Party of Ukraine in 2004. Back then, it made little attempt to camoflauge or hide ultra-right views. Indeed, its campaigning logo bore more than a passing resemblance to the Nazi swastika
The party leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, made no attempt to hide his nationalist views and was not very popular. Even at the last presidential election less than 3 years ago, Tyahnybok only secured 1.5% of the vote. But Viktor Yanukovych’s policies have radicalised the mood in Ukraine, which enabled the ‘Freedom’ party to emerge from the niche of marginal parties. Now it has a voice in parliament and its representation will be even bigger than that of its main ideological enemy, the Communists.
This is the fault of the government. When Yanukovych was elected president, Svoboda, which was not popular at the time, started being invited more frequently on to TV channels under the control of President Yanukovych’s oligarchs. This gave rise to suspicions that the government was intentionally ratcheting up the popularity ratings of the radicals so as to present the President, by contrast, as the guarantee of peace and stability.
But history decided otherwise. No longer a tame bogeyman, Svoboda has become a player in parliament, securing impressive electoral support even in Kiev. People voted for them in protest, wishing to take their revenge on the government. Given the other politicians’ lack of definition, Svoboda was able to inspire the belief that it would be able to stand up to the Regions Party.
Frankenstein too lost control over his creature. Yanukovych will have his work cut out controlling the parliament as it stands now. This is how the President of Ukraine, who fell out with Russia and the West, is embarking on his new political term.
Sergii Leshchenko is Ukrainian investigative and political journalist. He is deputy-editor-in-chief of Ukrainska pravda, a widely respected investigative online newspaper.
Article courtesy of Open Democracy