KYIV BLOG: The opposition are asking for all the wrong things

By bne IntelliNews January 31, 2014

bne -

There was high drama in Kyiv this week after a tumultuous special session of the Rada repealed most of the so-called dictator's laws and went on to pass a less-than-satisfactory general amnesty law that is guaranteed to keep the protestors in their camp on Independence Square (known as Maidan).

The trouble is that the protestors are asking for all the wrong things. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych himself appeared in the Rada late on January 29 and was heard by reporters shouting at deputies from his Party of Regions. As a result, they eventually rejected the opposition's demand for an unconditional blanket amnesty for all the protestors, choosing instead to add several conditions. Protestors now have 15 days to dismantle all their barricades and withdraw from the streets, or the state may send in troops. Predictably the watered-down amnesty bill law was immediately and categorically rejected by the protestors and opposition leaders.

An unstable hiatus has now settled on Kyiv while these 15 days tick away and the president has withdrawn to his sick bed with "an acute respiratory illness combined with a high fever."

All trust has broken down between the two sides and the failure of the Rada to provide some sort of political middle ground means the possibility of the standoff in Kyiv ending in mass bloodshed might've actually increased.

Both camps have now dug their heels in and there is currently no space to find a compromise. The opposition are insisting on snap elections and the president is insisting on his right to remain in office for his whole term; embarrassingly, he was elected president in one of the very few democratic elections ever held in the former Soviet Union.

"We are at an impasse now," says one influential Ukrainian to bne who has participated at both the government and international meetings. "We need somehow to start the quiet talks to find some sort of compromise as the alternative of massive bloodshed is in nobody's interest. But it is not clear how this can be done and bring the whole process back inside the democratic framework."

But there is a way out of this constitutional impasse: as bne argues in this month's magazine cover story, Yanukovych could be impeached. But that is politically very hard to bring off due to the dominance of the president's Party of Region in the Rada.

The other alternative is to concede Yanukovych's right to remain in office until February 2015. There is a real possibility that the protests will last a year; in Bulgaria the people have been protesting against the corruption of their government for more than half a year already.

But what few in the opposition camp appear to have considered is that even if there are early elections, how would the opposition actually win them? What are the chances that any subsequent election would turn into one of the dirtiest ever fought in Ukraine? Pretty high, if experience is anything to go by.

Yanukovych is well versed in running doggy elections. He was the front man in the flawed 2004 elections that ended in the Orange Revolution. And more evidence of blatant vote rigging appeared in the by-elections for five seats held in December. There is a fair chance that Yanukovych would "win" snap elections - especially if you consider recent polls suggesting that his rating has gone up by 9 points since the protests started and he still has a solid electoral block in eastern Ukraine.

While they still have the political clout that comes with holding the country to hostage with mass unrest, the opposition needs to include on their list of demands a very clear list of changes to the electoral laws that will guarantee a free and open election irrespective of whatever "administrative resources" the president brings to bear in his campaign.

List of demands

Amongst the things that this list should include are clear rules covering campaign financing: cash from the country's oligarchs continues to play an extremely important role in bankrolling election campaigns. Best of all would be to grant every party that can pass a signature muster of say 100,000 names a fixed amount from the public purse to fund the campaigns. Also, the Central Election Commission of Ukraine (CEC) should be turned into a cross-party body with equal representation from all serious parties.

Another demand should be to take the power to organise polling stations away from regional authorities and give it to a cross-party committee. Currently the same party that runs the polling stations also runs the country.

Then the all-important regional counting stations that collect the ballot counts need to be thrown open to public inspection and again run by cross-party committees who collate the numbers. Likewise, mechanisms to ensure postal ballots and registered voter databases are not abused must be put in place.

There should also be some sort of mechanism to allow employees of state-owned companies, the police and the army to complain anonymously if their bosses lean on them to vote for any particular party.

And there needs to be a system for accrediting NGOs and other civil society groups to participate as independent election observers. Most importantly here is to ensure the body they submit their complaints to is truly independent and has real power. If the CEC can be made truly independent, then that would do.

Finally, Europe and the other international organisations can play their part by flooding the country with election observers. Europe has so far done little to try to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, but election monitoring is one job it is very good at - it is amongst its core competences, and where it can be really helpful at very little cost. Once again, provisions should be included that allow not only domestic independent election observers to make complaints but international observers as well, and any complaints about voting irregularities shown to be true should have real consequences.

While asking for these things would weaken the opposition's hand, as it in effect concedes the possibility that Yanukovych can stay on for another 12 months, it has the advantage that it gives some new common ground over which the two sides can deal. The best thing about this option is that it makes use of the very split in the country which is otherwise so divisive, as the very evenness of the split means both sides can believe they could win a largely open and fair vote.

If the price to pay for putting these demands on the table is that Yanukovych will stay in office another year, is that really so bad? Ukrainians have lived with him for three years already and this price has to be set against the possibility of the army entering the fray and massive bloodshed.

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