A law unto themselves in Ukraine

By bne IntelliNews January 24, 2012

Olesia Oleshko in Kyiv -

Ukraine is set to hold general elections in the autumn, on which a new election law is expected to have a profound effect.

The new law, pushed through by the ruling Party of Regions in November, returns Ukraine to a mixed voting system where half of the deputies (225 out of 450) will be elected by proportional representation using closed party lists, while the other half will stand for single-seat constituencies. The mixed system was in effect in both the 1998 and 2002 parliamentary elections, and should enable the single-seat winners to build the necessary safety net for the ruling majority in the parliament in the October vote. Given the plummeting ratings of the pro-presidential Party of Regions, that would be a gift.

MPs also voted to increase the threshold for entry to parliament from 3% to 5% and forbade blocks of parties to run for elections, thus making it harder for smaller protest groups to win seats. The corresponding law was passed by 366 deputies on November 17 and has already been signed into law by President Viktor Yanukovych.

Good, bad and ugly

The ruling majority called the new law a "personal contribution towards the democratisation of Ukraine." And Party of Regions' MP Oleksandr Kozub argues that the proportional system (with closed party lists) in place during the 2006 regular and 2007 pre-term elections ruined the connection between deputies and their voters, meaning the return of a majoritarian component was an emergency measure. "People do not trust politicians and we have to fix this problem somehow," Kozub tells bne. "So that's why we want voters to elect people who will represent them in the parliament and who will be accountable to them."

The opposition takes a different line - or at least some of its members do. Andriy Shevchenko, an MP representing Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, the now-jailed former PM and opposition leader, says the new law was written with one purpose - to secure majority support for President Yanukovych. For this reason Shevchenko says he didn't vote for it, but many of his party colleagues did. Their rationale is as follows: they had to choose between "bad" (the adopted law) and "even worse" (another draft pushed by Yanukovych that envisaged the same changes but also contained a lot of procedural breaches).

Shevchenko argues this law combines the worst features of proportional and majoritarian systems. "First, single-seat constituencies are usually being sold to oligarchs who show up there once and then nobody sees them again," he says. "The second problem is the closed party lists, so the party leaders, not voters, decide who is included and who is not."

Shevchenko says that under the current political conditions a bunch of single-seat deputies would be "a gift to President Yanukovych," and recalled the situation surrounding the parliamentary elections in 2002 when the political party that supported the then president Leonid Kuchma lost the elections to the opposition led by Victor Yushchenko, but created a majority with the help of deputies elected in single-seat constituencies.

Dmytro Filipchuk, a member of one of regional councils in the Kyiv region who wants to try his chances in a single-seat constituency in the October elections, explains how this mechanism actually works. "The ruling party will talk to the potential winners in all the constituencies," Filipchuk tells bne. "The rules are simple: either you cooperate with them or it will be very hard for you to win in the election."

Filipchuk thinks that the tradition of receiving a "blessing" from the regional governors (appointed by the president) will continue during the parliamentary campaign 2012.

Party of Regions MP Kozub totally refutes the idea that the candidates who run in single-seat constituencies will have to trade in their loyalty for an endorsement from the ruling party. "This is just another election bugaboo," Kozub says. "A strong candidate will make his way no matter if he is backed by the ruling party or not."

Majority view

Political experts struggle to predict the outcome of the October elections. Many think the ruling Party of Regions together with its satellites from the Communist Party and single-seat winners will manage to form a majority. "I think that 90% of deputies who won elections in single-seat constituencies will gravitate towards the pro-presidential team", Oleksiy Koshel, political studies professor at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, tells bne. "They have to protect their business interests and it's much easier to do so when you belong to the ruling team."

Oleskandr Chernenko, chairman of the election monitoring NGO the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, believes the Party of Regions is the more likely to create majority but it won't be a solid one. "I am a political expert, not an astrologist, and it's hard to predict anything now as the situation keeps changing," Chernenko tells bne. "Look at Russia - the ruling party even with all its financial and administrative resources can't control the situation."

The opposition parties also have a chance to unite and form a majority, yet this possible tactical victory wouldn't serve their strategic goals. "By having supported the new law, the opposition de-facto surrendered the parliamentary elections in 2012," Koshel says.

He explains that the opposition parties want to get a decent result and mobilise their voters, but they don't want to form the majority and take political responsibility for further work of the parliament. "The opposition will play out the situation as 'we won the election, but that bad ruling party stole our victory'," Koshel says. "Thus they will just start building a 'launching pad' for the presidential election in 2015."


Overcoming the threshold


Some political observers called the new 5% threshold "a conspiracy of big parties against small parties" that might have had a chance of being represented the parliament had the previous 3% threshold been preserved. Yet recent opinion polls show that some parties outside the top league could still secure several mandates for their members.

The results of the poll conducted by the reputable Democratic Initiatives Foundation, together with the Ukrainian Sociology Service, in November and December show that five political parties will be represented in the next parliament:

Batkivshchyna (18.8%, +2.7 compared with March 2010 poll). The situation in the party is complicated by the imprisonment of its charismatic leader and ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko. The party still has to decide who is going to be their number one on the ballot. Batkivshchyna promotes western standards, European integration and liberal conditions for business.

Party of Regions (17.8%, -5% compared with March 2010 poll). The ruling party has two formal leaders - President Viktor Yanukovych and PM Mykola Azarov, who is in charge of the party. The ratings of both dropped due to unsuccessful economic policies that impede development of business, poor social policy and attacks on their political opponents that have received strong criticism from the West. Officially declares parity in its relations with the EU and Russia, but has appeared to tilt toward the east.

Front zmin (11.4%, +6.1% compared with March 2010 poll). The biggest trump card of this party is its young and ambitious 37-year-old leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who can boast of having held several high ranking positions. The party officially criticizes policies of the current president and his team, yet it stays in the "constructive opposition" niche. Just like Batkivshchyna, it values western standards and cooperation with the West.

Communist Party of Ukraine (8.4%, +4.4% compared with March 2010 poll). The Communists, with a small faction in the parliament, have a chance to increase their presence. After numerous scandals within the party, Petro Symonenko is ready to monopolize the votes of the left-wing electorate as rivals - socialists and other minor parties - are too weak to compete. The Communists have always been faithful to their geopolitical agenda - closer ties with Russia and the CIS.

Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms, or Udar (5.8%). Udar - the abbreviation also means "punch" - is a political creation of the current WBC world heavyweight champion Vitaliy Klitschko. He lost the Kyiv mayoral election in 2008, but his party was elected to the city council. Udar stands on a pro-western platform and could potentially form a coalition with Batkivshchyna and Front zmin.

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