Ukraine Goes to the Polls: Another Year, Another Crisis?

After years of political stagnation, 2008 will be a key year for Europe and the Ukraine

Senior Policy Fellow

Three years after the ‘Orange Revolution’ that
captured the world’s headlines in 2004, there is a growing sense of ‘Ukraine
fatigue’. Ukraine has mostly
had a bad press since, with more recent headlines declaring the revolution over
before it really started, and depicting Ukraine as returning to a
predictable cycle of political deadlock, backsliding on democratisation, and
policy underachievement. The ‘orange’ parties based mainly in western and
central Ukraine
bickered constantly with the ‘blue’ parties, mainly the Party of the Regions,
representing the Ukrainian east.

The ‘Orange Revolution’ was indeed a paradoxically
self-limiting affair. As a result of the compromises made to settle the street
protests against a rigged election, Viktor Yushchenko won the presidency in a
repeat vote in December 2004, but only enjoyed full powers until the next
parliamentary elections in March 2006. Constitutional reform then shifted power
to the new parliament. However, the ‘orange’ parties blew the chance of forming
a government by arguing amongst themselves. Yushchenko was forced to accept as
Prime Minister none other than Viktor Yanukovych, the man he had beaten for the
presidency in 2004. Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions was in a revanchist mood
and aggressively sought to remonopolise power, until Yushchenko took an
uncharacteristically bold step by ordering the dissolution of the new
parliament in April 2007, only a year into its five year term.

A predictable standoff ensued, but agreement was
finally reached in May to hold new parliamentary elections on 30 September 2007. As in
2006, the result was again extremely close, and ultimately rested on tiny
percentages and the performance of smaller parties. The big three parties finished
in the same order (Regions, the Block of Yuliia Tymoshenko, the first orange
Prime Minister whom Yushchenko sacked in September 2005, and Yushchenko’s Our
Ukraine party); but one new party scraped in and one dropped out. The new party
was led by Volodymyr Lytvyn, who was chair of parliament in 2002-6, and hoped
to regain the same job. The one notable loser was the Socialist Party,
originally an orange party, but which defected to Regions to allow Yanukovych to
become Prime Minister in July 2006. The Socialists saw their tally see-saw
dramatically either side of the necessary 3%, providing the main drama in the count,
before they finally missed out by just 0.1%.

The result was far from an action-reply, however. Yanukovych’s
Party of the Regions has renewed its mandate as Ukraine’s largest party. Tymoshenko,
the ‘orange princess’, has revived orange fortunes with a dramatically-improved
second place, while Yushchenko’s own party, Our Ukraine, has stagnated.


Vote                            Seat
Projection (out of 450)

Party of Regions                                              34.1% (+2% on 2006)                        173 (-13)

Tymoshenko Block                                         30.8% (+8.5)                           156 (+27)

Our Ukraine – People’s Self Defence              14.3% (+0.3%)                                     73 (-8)

Communists                                                    5.4% (+1.7%)                                      27 (+6)

Lytvyn Block                                                  
4.0% (+1.6%)                                      21 (+21)

Socialists                                                         2.93% (-2.7%)                                        0 (-33)

5.8% (-12.8%)                                       

Against All                                                     


Note: A minimum
of 3% is necessary to win seats under the national proportional


A first key question, given all the controversy
that has raged since President Yushchenko first tried to dissolve the old
parliament in April, is will the results stick?

Turnout, although low at 57.9%, is above the legal
minimum. All six main parties took part in the election. On the other hand, they
have spent most of September preparing potential legal challenges to the vote,
and the actual constitutional legitimacy of the whole process is still in
doubt. The orange parties set a dangerous precedent in the summer, when Yushchenko’s
original dissolution decrees were being challenged in the Constitutional Court, by choosing the
alternative fiction of parliament’s ‘self-dissolution’. Once more than 150 of
their number had given up their seats, the parliament of 450 was deemed inquorate
(a quorum being one third). Both sides will have more than 150 seats in the new
parliament. Either could repeat the stunt. Finally, the ‘old’ parliament ‘met’
in early September, providing the Party of Regions with a final reserve
strategy of reanimating the old parliament if they do not like the new.

In other words, if either side wishes to
substitute legal chaos for coalition-building, by any of the above methods,
they can.

This would be a huge step back. The elections were
not quite held to the standard set in 2006, but Ukraine is still an exemplar for
democratic standards in the region. The most important regress was at an
institutional level. Instead of an independent Central Election Commission and
legal system, Ukraine
has drifted into a system of partisan balance. Both sides shared nominations to
the Election Commission this summer, and there is a justifiable fear that each
have looked after ‘their’ regions. There are, for example, fears that Regions
may have ‘loaned’ votes to the Communists and, if ultimately unsuccessfully,
the Socialists, with an implausible late surge of votes for the latter in Donetsk, the home-base of
the Party of Regions. There were also worries this time about absentee voting,
about ‘dead souls’ on voting registers, and about provisions for the voting of
migrant voters.

There was also a revival of ‘political technology’
methods. Both sides ran ‘clone’ parties to steal the opposition’s votes. The ‘Communist
Party of Ukraine (renewed)’ was allegedly backed by businessmen close to the
Tymoshenko Block in the attempt to deprive Regions of the mainstream Communist
Party as a coalition partner. ‘Freedom’, a fake nationalist party, and the ‘Free
Democrats’ were allegedly run by Regions against the orange parties; while
‘Ukraine Regional Active’ was supposed to take votes off Regions.

But Ukraine has become a lively, if
boisterous, democracy since 2004. A now free media was on the tail of every
story of voting fraud, and voters are now much harder to fool with ‘political
technology’. There were twenty one parties in the election, but only one of the
smaller parties won more than 1%.

Still, Ukraine is left with another
knife-edge result. What are the likely coalition options? Parliament has 450
members, so 225 are necessary for a majority. Having lost the Socialists, the
Party of Regions cannot govern in the existing ‘small coalition’ with the
Communists. The Lytyvyn Block could hold what Ukrainians call the ‘golden
share’. Although posing as a neutral ‘third force’, it was founded by a motley
crew of business friends of former President Kuchma. These have now dispersed,
but the party’s main financier is Vasyl Khmelnytskyi, a member of Regions.
Behind the scenes, however, the presidential administration has been struggling
to bring Lytvyn on board. Early results indicate that the block picked up most
of its votes in west and central Ukraine, and on the current
forecast Regions plus the Communists plus Lytvyn would still have only 221
seats, so Lytvyn may have a longer term future with the orange parties. Or,
most likely of all, he will drag out his moment in the sun.

Now that the campaign is over, a government of
‘all the businessmen’ is also possible. Business figures on both sides brokered
the May agreement to hold new elections, and thought they had an agreement
going forward that they would all be in the next government. The big story to
emerge from the election would therefore be a ‘historic compromise’ between Our
Ukraine and Regions, between Yanukovych and Yushchenko, and between Ukraine
east and west. Some have sold this as a practical compromise to prevent either
side monopolising power. Others have talked of a ‘Nixon in China’ moment: if a compromise with
Regions was negotiated over NATO and with Our Ukraine over the issue of the Ukrainian
versus the Russian language, then either side could sell the compromise to
their respective electorates.

Tymoshenko, however, has won big, upsetting these
calculations. Moreover she won precisely because she ran on an anti-‘oligarch’
platform. Our Ukraine
only dragged itself back up in the polls, albeit only to where it was in 2006,
by sidelining its Regions-friendly businessmen and selling itself as ‘new
orange’. There would be a heavy electoral price to pay in the future if
Yushchenko rejected the chance of a fresh start for the orange forces. But Our
Ukraine would have to eat a lot of humble pie in an orange coalition in which
it would be a clear junior partner. Without Lytvyn, the two orange parties
might have a bare majority of only 229. Moreover, the moderate businessmen in
Regions who negotiated the summer compromise did so because they are used to
having their hands on the economic levers of power. Opposition would he hard to
take. The president faces some tough choices as he thinks about his own
reelection campaign in 2009 or 2010.  

The EU can congratulate Ukraine on running an election that
was marred, but not derailed, by fraud. On the other hand, realpolitik has
often triumphed over constitutionalism and the rule of law in 2007, and prolonged
political crisis has left Ukraine
without effective government. 2008 will be a key year for the EU and Ukraine,
with renegotiation of both the PCA and Action Plan, as well as the
long-running, and overlapping, saga of the reforms necessary for WTO entry. It
will be hoped that a new government emerges quickly this autumn, without the
four months of argument that followed the elections in March 2006.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow