“In conditions of lasting aggression by Russia against Ukraine, when the military threat from the East is the biggest strategic challenge, national unity and political consolidation are a life-and-death issue,” Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko beseeched during an emotional address to the country’s parliament on September 6. “This is the main thing I would like to say today.”
These remarks appeared less than 24 hours after Poroshenko’s longstanding bitter political rival, former Ukrainian prime minister and head of the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) parliamentary faction Yulia Tymoshenko, started the new political season with accusations that the country’s leadership is bringing about “chaos under the guise of reforms”.
“Incompetence, corruption and puppet control from the outside are killing the country. Either we sit down at the negotiating table and talk about a strategic issues, or this turmoil will lead to Ukraine disappearing from the face of the world,” Tymoshenko said dramatically in an attack on her political opponents.
In 2017 Ukraine will mark the centenary of its national revolution that resulted in the first declaration of the country’s independence, which was shortlived. This provided a good basis for Poroshenko to warn his rivals against succumbing to infighting. “Only in exile did [the 1917 independence movement’s] leaders and participants realise that the main reason we did not gain independence was infighting,” he said. “I’m convinced that we must learn the lessons of history and that the political struggle will not cross the line when democracy and European values are overshadowed by chaos, anarchy and warlordism.”
Oleksiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, explains to bne IntelliNews that the opposition is unwittingly doing Russia’s bidding. “The problem is that plans of the Ukrainian opposition coincide, either voluntarily or involuntary, with the plans of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, who wants to see tensions and early [parliamentary] elections in Ukraine.”
But Tymoshenko has reasons to stick to the populist rhetoric: she and her party have taken the lead in opinion polls, which show that they would win both the presidential and parliamentary elections if held now. The latest poll conducted by Kyiv-based Rating sociological group found that 18.3% of Ukrainians who are determined to vote are ready support Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party in any snap elections, while 12.6% are ready to support the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc, around 11% the reformist Samopomich party, 11% the Radical Party of Oleh Liashko, and only 9.1% favour the Poroshenko Bloc.
If presidential elections in Ukraine were held soon, 17.7% of Ukrainians who are determined to vote would support Tymoshenko, 11.5% for Opposition Bloc faction leader Yury Boiko, and only 10.7% for Poroshenko.
However, Haran believes that the likelihood of snap parliamentary elections is extremely low, because they could lead to mass protests and the destabilisation of Ukraine. “The opposition will try to stage mass protests, but I think the Ukrainians are unlikely to join them, because possible destabilisation will be a minus [for the country],” he says.
“Even if the government loses parliamentary support, it is an exclusive right of the president to call the elections,” the expert adds.
According to Poroshenko, the Kremlin is hoping for early elections in Ukraine with the aim “of removing the so-called Kyiv regime” that they despise. “Unfortunately, there are some people within the Ukrainian politicum who are ready to enact this scenario; there are also those who allow themselves to be blindfolded,” he says.
Balazs Jarabik, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment, believes that Poroshenko is trying to avoid early elections as he continues in his bid to consolidate power. “Tymoshenko has grown as his main rival according to the polls, but another important question is her coalition potential. She is vulnerable to a negative PR campaign, which Ukraine is famous for,” the expert tells bne IntelliNews.
“I think early elections will mostly depend on economic results. Ukrainians are becoming increasingly unhappy with the heavily increased utility fees and the growing prices of life,” Balazs adds, adding that due to the fact that people’s discontent is concentrated on high prices, “a major protest outbreak is unlikely”.
“If Kyiv is able to make more steps toward meeting people’s needs, the pressure for an election can be managed. But that is in contrast to what the International Monetary Fund and Western donors are expecting in form of rapid reforms,” he adds.
“Not a tragedy”
Over the past eight months, Poroshenko has been forced to seal backroom deals with oligarchs and former allies of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych in order to get enough votes in parliament for crucially important motions.
In particular, the president and his allies successfully secured the support of such parliamentary groups as Vidrodzhennia (Revival), which includes former associates of Yanukovych, and Volia Narodu (The People’s Will), which was created mainly by representatives of local elites and businessmen tied to the gas industry.
“One has to learn to be easygoing about situational voting in parliament, when presidential or governmental initiatives are supported by different opposition factions or non-affiliated groups. It is not a tragedy,” Poroshenko said in his address to the parliament. “It is rather a positive picture when decisions, which are important for the country, sometimes rest upon the support of an even constitutional majority.”
Haran believes that Poroshenko’s stance towards securing votes from controversial lawmakers is mainly “a problem of symbolism”. “However, this is a convenient cause for criticism by Tymoshenko and Liashko,” he adds.