03 November 2014

The Ukrainian Elections- A Vote for a Western Path

Annabelle Chapman, Warsaw based journalist and contributor to The Economist, considers the results of the recent Ukrainian parliamentary election. She notes that while the elections brought many positives, the broad victory of pro-Western parties does not detract from the very real challenges Ukraine faces in the months and years ahead. “Going forward,” she writes, “one trend to watch will be the salience of local interests and power struggles.”
“Elections: there is hope!” declared the front page of a local newspaper the day before Ukrainians headed to the polls, with a photograph of smiling protesters standing on Kyiv’s Independence Square last winter. And indeed, despite the usual response of doom and gloom, Ukraine’s parliamentary elections on October 26th brought many positives. At the same time, the broad victory of pro-Western parties does not detract from the real challenges ahead.
Assessing the Results
With polls closed and votes counted, three notable factors became immediately apparent. First, the elections went largely as they should have. In its preliminary statement after the vote, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the elections “marked an important step” for Ukrainian democracy despite the situation in the country’s east. This declaration left Moscow, which sent observers as part of the OSCE mission as usual, with very little to add.
Second, no single party dominated. Ahead of the election, the Poroshenko Bloc – led by President Petro Poroshenko who was elected in May with 54.7 percent of the vote – was viewed as the favorite. In the run-up to the vote, some independent candidates even tried to pretend they were affiliated with the President’s party, hoping this would boost their results. Yet the narrow win by the People’s Front, led by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (22.14 percent, compared to 21.82 percent), means that the potentially dangerous concentration of power by a single party is less likely.
In total six parties made it into Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkovna Rada, based on the result of the party list vote (the other half are elected in single-member districts). Some observers have bemoaned the lack of “unity” in the result, but as Balázs Jarábik has argued, perhaps it is time to appreciate the diversity among Ukraine’s pro-Western parties. Whether they will be able to push through tough reforms going forward is another matter.
Third, October 26th was a bad day for radicals and extremists of different hues. Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party – which has a pitchfork as its symbol – garnered just 7.44 percent of the vote. Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) scraped it into parliament with an embarrassing 5.68 percent, further suggesting that the heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution belongs to the past. Meanwhile, the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party was just below the threshold with 4.71 percent. Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on Ukraine’s far-right, sees this as part of a wider trend of dwindling support for the Svoboda party since it entered parliament in 2012 with 10.44 percent of the vote. Nonetheless, as I left Kyiv on October 30th, its activists were gathering in front of the Central Electoral Commission, keen to challenge the result.
After the Vote: Ukraine’s Political Landscape
The Poroshenko Bloc and People’s Front remain the two biggest players. But there is a new party on the scene, Samopomich (Self-Help), which came a strong third almost 11 percent of the vote. As the results came in, this pro-reform party headed by Andriy Sadoviy, the mayor of the western city of Lviv, was immediately heralded – especially abroad, admittedly – as an ideas-based party for the middle class. However, the first cracks may already be beginning to appear for Sadoviy’s bloc. A group that had worked with the party in the run-up to the vote, the Volia party, has announced it would be splitting off. All the same, Samopomich looks set to have a say in Ukraine’s new government with Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk’s parties. The matter is currently under discussion in Kyiv. Already, one of Samopomich’s top candidates has called for a “pro-Ukrainian” rather than “pro-presidential” coalition – a warning nod to Poroshenko.
There has been some concern about the 9.42 percent of the vote won by the Opposition Bloc, viewed as the successor of former president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. “In a way, I’m disappointed with how the results turned out,” said one young woman who left Donetsk for Kyiv this summer, referring to the party’s relative success which would have been even higher had the rebel-occupied territories in the Donbas voted (they held their own “elections” a week later on November 2nd). But it is hard to imagine how nearly 1.5 million people who voted for the party (which came first in the eastern region of Kharkiv, among others) could all change their minds, despite – or perhaps because of – the dramatic events of the past year. These Ukrainians need to be represented in the new parliament too.
Going forward, one trend to watch will be the salience of local interests and power struggles. Under Ukraine’s mixed electoral system 50 percent lawmakers are elected directly in single-member districts while the other half come from party lists (results discussed above). These contests, which received next to no attention outside Ukraine, tend to be fought between local strongmen (and sometimes women). The OSCE’s preliminary report does not single out transgressions here but it is clear that each constituency, with its often eccentric list of candidates, raises interesting questions of its own. And, with only one winner in each constituency, the stakes are high.