Graham Stack in Kyiv -
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has dissolved parliament and called snap elections for October 26, in a move he says aims to "reload" Ukraine's political elite. The move was widely anticipated and could help Poroshenko and his allies in the Rada clear the political decks and move on with reforms.
The formal reason given by Poroshenko for dissolving parliament is that the governing coalition collapsed July 24 and has not been replaced in the subsequent 30-day period as required by the constitution. But this is widely seen as a pretext that Poroshenko is using in agreement with his allies in government in order to dissolve parliament: given that Ukraine is a parliamentary-presidential constitution, the president does not have the power to dissolve parliament on his own authority.
Poroshenko acknowledged in a statement published by his spokesman that the real reason for the snap election was to "reload" politics, after the slide into authoritarianism and corruption during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, elected in February 2010 and ousted after mass protests in February 2014. The presidency was reset by Poroshenko's own election, but the current Rada is a throwback to the era of former president Viktor Yanukovych and for the new government to complete the process of legitimisation it badly needs a new mandate from the people.
“Opinion polls show that 80% of citizens support the need for pre-term parliamentary elections. In fact this was was one of the main demands of the 'Revolution of Dignity' [the protests that ousted Yanuovych]," Poroshenko said. “The current desire on the part of society for renewal of the political elite is more than obvious.”
“Elections are the best form of lustration,” Poroshenko's statement continued, “and the cleansing should start with the country's highest organ. The current Verkhovna Rada for the last one and a half years was a bulwark of support for Yanukovych. A majority of these deputies approved the 'dictatorship laws' [repressive laws of January 16 that provoked violent protests] which cost the lives of the 'heavenly hundred' [over 70 protestors in Kyiv shot dead by police February 19-21]. For this they should bear responsibility – both political and criminal."
“Not a few deputies (…) if they are not directly sponsors or accomplices of the separatists-fighters, then they are at least their sympathisers. Even when we wanted to declare mobilisation or declare [breakaway East Ukraine regions of] Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic to be terrorist organisations, we could hardly get together 232 votes,” Poroshenko said. “And where was the rest? It's no secret that there is a fifth column comprising dozens of MPs. But they do not represent the interests of the country that elected them. Is this something we can tolerate? Is this the way to win a war?”
According to bne sources in parliament, one group close to Poroshenko wanted to hold elections a fortnight earlier: The current constitution specifies that after a pre-term dissolution of parliament, fresh elections must be held “within a period of 60 days,” which it was argued might linguistically allow leeway for a 45-day election campaign. The earlier date could have been preferred due to the rapidly deteriorating economic situation that might already start impacting voters' preferences by the end of October. But that would risk the elections later being challenged in court for not observing the 60-day period rule, say the sources.
Ukraine's current parliament was elected less than two years ago in October 2012, in elections that were deemed largely free and fair by international observers, the EU and US, although Poroshenko in his address said they had been fixed. Poroshenko's surge in support, evidenced by his landslide victory in the first round of presidential elections in June, mean that pre-term elections will provide him with his own power base in parliament, which he currently lacks, say analysts. Ukraine reverted to a mixed parliamentary-presidential system on February 22, with the government answering to parliament, making it essential for Poroshenko to convert his high personal rating into seats in parliament to avoid being sidelined politically. It is not yet clear whether he will lead his current mini-party Solidarity into the campaign or try and create a broader movement.
Political theorists of successful democratic revolutions, such as influential former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, have argued that it is essential to hold fresh parliamentary elections soon after a new president comes to power on the back of a revolution, in order to push out the old guard from parliamentary positions where they can brake reforms, or benefit from popular discontent at any hardship resulting from reforms. According to McFaul, it was the failure of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin to dissolve parliament immediately after the pro-Soviet August Putsch in Moscow, almost exactly 23 years ago, leading to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that thwarthed his subsequent reform programme. Similarly, the failure of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko to call new parliamentary elections following the Orange Revolution of December 2004 caused the revolution's democratic impetus to peter out, McFaul has argued.
But holding parliamentary elections now means conducting an election campaign while there is a war on, the outcome of which is still unclear. Analysts believe the war might play to Poroshenko's advantage by prompting political unity under his leadership: in his address on August 25 he called for the democratic forces to go into elections as “a united pro-Ukrainian, pro-EU team.”
Poroshenko also argued that the election campaign and a victorious military campaign in East Ukraine would go hand in hand. “I regard victory in Donbass and victory of the forces of the democratic reformers in the Verkhovna Rada as mutually connected processes,” said Poroshenko in his statement. He indicated that he would only negotiate with representatives of Donbass who were returned to the new parliament. “Pre-term elections are part of my peace plan, a key part of which is political dialogue in Donbass. Only those people will represent Donbass in dialogue who Donbass votes for in elections,” Poroshenko said.
Tweeted nationalist commentator Oleksandr Aronets, after Poroshenko's announcement: “Complete reloading of the government was one of our demands during the Revolution of Dignity, and it was implemented just now. We have everything we need for complete political lustration. We must choose responsibly because the next parliament must implement vital reforms, otherwise we'll remain a third world country."
The Batkyvschina party announced on their website in the wee hours of August 26 that current Prime Minister Arsenyi Yatsenyuk would remain with the party going into the new election campaign. Media had previously reported that he was in talks with Poroshenko to join Poroshenko's Solidarity party. Party leader and founder of Batkyvschina is former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who ran against Poroshenko in the presidential elections in June. Batkyvschina is currently the largest party in parliament, with a number of representatives in government besides Yatsenyuk, but its rating in opinion polls is languishing under 10%.
The Radical Party of controversial populist MP Oleg Lyashko, a political marginal until taking third place with 8% in presidential elections in June, could now garner as much as 15-20% of the vote, according to some polls, despite its being a largely skeletal party based on one personality. Lyashko has featured prominently on the Inter TV channels owned by gas oligarch Dmitro Firtash, and former chief of staff of Viktor Yanukovych, Serhiy Lyovochkin, according to media pundits.
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