Local elections in Ukraine, held on October 25, predictably demonstrated a decline in public support for pro-Western political forces headed by the current president and prime minister. This outcome could trigger manoeuvring among other political players, including members of the ruling coalition, aimed at forcing snap parliamentary elections. However, President Petro Poroshenko and leading politicians from his Bloc appear prepared for such a scenario.
Visiting a polling station with his wife in Kyiv, Poroshenko told journalists that the local elections should complete the "reload" of the country's authorities, who took power after the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv in 2014 brought the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych.
"It is important to form pro-Ukrainian coalitions in local councils, preserving the principle of political competitiveness at these elections," Poroshenko added. "We shouldn't give a single chance to the aggressor [Russia] to destabilise the situation from inside the country. I am confident that the Ukrainian nation is wise enough and Ukrainian politicians are responsible enough to form these pro-Ukrainian coalitions."
Are these words an attempt to put a brave face on a sorry situation? Undoubtedly.
According to exit polls published by the Petro Poroshenko Bloc on October 26, the party is suffering from a 5-10% decline in its popularity in Ukraine’s southern and central regions compared with the results of last year’s parliamentary elections. In eastern regions it is often unable to compete with the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc and Vidrodzhennya party, which is supported by oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy.
Even more importantly, the People's Front, headed by Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, did not participate at all in the local elections due to a collapse in its ratings over the past year. Instead, its politicians sided with the Poroshenko Bloc on the ground, under agreement that Yatsenyuk's party will get up to 25% of places in the Bloc's elections lists.
However, just one year ago, the parties of Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko jointly secured almost 45% support during parliamentary elections. When now, for instance, the Poroshenko Bloc gains around 20% in many central and southern regions (according to its exit poll), many Ukrainian experts interpret this as a decline of more than 50% in the tandem's popularity.
With the political forces of Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk losing so much ground, other parties seize the opportunity to declare that the composition of the current parliament does not meet the moods of society, and that radical changes are needed through new elections. Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), the party headed by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, looks ready to become one of the main driving forces of this process. “This parliament has no right to exist, because it does not serve the people, it does not feel responsibility [for the country],” Tymoshenko said in an interview with Inter TV in July.
"They are already rocking the boat," Ihor Kononenko, a 50-year-old businessman and first deputy head of Poroshenko's Bloc in parliament - and is regarded as a 'grey cardinal' for his leading role in unofficial negotiations with other parliamentary factions - told bne IntelliNews on election night, pointing to the behaviour of other members of the ruling coalition.
"Our [the Poroshenko Bloc’s] ratings are lower today. It's true," says Kononenko, who was responsible for the party’s local campaigning. “The authorities are in the hardest position, because they come under criticism, especially when Ukraine is in such a difficult situation: the country is in a state of war and the economic situation is very serious. It's more comfortable to be in opposition."
Politicians who want to trigger political crises and snap parliamentary elections are, according to him, "absolutely irresponsible", while early elections will be "a catastrophe for the country". "That is why we [Poroshenko's Bloc] will do everything possible to prevent them."
Kononenko believes a new parliament will be "worse" than the existing one. "The ability to negotiate within the parliament, its ability to vote for reforms, will be much lower. The next parliament will be more populist and less workable," he adds, pointing out that the current parliament, in which the pro-Western coalition has enough votes to pass necessary bills, has only been able to adopt some laws "with difficulty".
One of the latest examples of "difficulty" came in September, when the Samopomich (Self Reliance) party headed by Andriy Sadovyi, the reform-minded mayor of the western city of Lviv, refused to support amendments to the country's constitution proposed by Poroshenko and his party. A political scandal erupted in Kyiv as Sadovyi accused the authorities of exerting unprecedented pressure on the party's members in order to obtain their votes.
"Reformatting" the government
While possible early parliamentary elections remain a distant prospect for now, especially if Poroshenko and his allies are successful in opposing the idea, there is a more immediate threat of possible political destabilisation in Kyiv: Yatsenyuk’s cabinet may be in for a reshuffle in the aftermath of the local elections.
"I am convinced that the current government should be reformatted with the aim of speeding up reform. Nobody is satisfied with their pace, and it is the government that is responsible," Kononenko tells bne IntelliNews, adding that the president supports plans to selectively reshape the government.
"We should do it after the elections as the heat of the political struggle will pass away, and it will be possible to form a government without political emotions," adds Kononenko, who was one of the first business partners of billionaire Poroshenko. "How long is it possible to play games? It is necessary to carry out reforms."
In late September, Poroshenko declared that Yatsenyuk's cabinet had "immunity" from reshuffling until December 11, when one year will have passed from the parliament approving its programme of reforms.
Meanwhile, on October 22, Poroshenko said that Ukraine at last has a chance to begin serious reforms. "I have never talked about this and did not want to speak before the election, but I will tell you that immediately after the elections we will have four years without elections, without populism, when finally we will be able to demonstrate decisive steps for the development of our country," the president said.