By David Marples
The 2007 parliamentary elections in Ukraine saw sweeping gains by the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (YTB), but the Regions Party of Ukraine maintained its standing as the largest and most popular party bloc. Overall, the Party of Regions won just over 8 million votes or 34.37% of the total. The Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko was in second place with 7.16 million votes or 30.71%, and the Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense (NUNS) alliance placed third with 3.3 million votes, or 14.15%. Only two other parties crossed the 3% threshold needed for seats in the assembly: the Communist Party of Ukraine (1.25 million, 5.39%), and the Bloc Volodymyr Lytvyn (924,538, 3.96%).
If broken down by region, the outcome might be interpreted somewhat differently. The Tymoshenko Bloc was the only party to secure significant votes in almost all regions of Ukraine, and was the winning party in 16 out of Ukraine’s 25 regions and 2 cities (Kyiv and Sevastopol). By contrast, the Regions Party was successful in only 10 regions, most notably in Luhansk (73.53%) and Donetsk (72.05%). Regions finished dead last in Ternopil’ with only 20,000 votes (3% of the total) and failed miserably in all areas of Western Ukraine. Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense, backed by President Viktor Yushchenko, won in just one region–Transcarpathia–and even there it held only a very narrow lead over the Tymoshenko Bloc (31.1 and 28.8% respectively).
Left-leaning parties are now on the periphery of the political spectrum as the Regions Party appears to have occupied the ground once held by the Communists and Socialists in the east and south of Ukraine. The Socialists narrowly failed to make it into the new Parliament. The Communists’ best result was in the city of Sevastopol, where they placed second with 10.3% of the popular vote, and in Luhansk, where they obtained 8.48%. Their fifth place finish in the city of Kyiv is reflective of their declining influence. Ukraine now has two large political parties that are unlikely to find common ground: Regions and YTB; and two smaller parties that might traditionally be allied with these two: the Communists with the Regions and Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense with YTB.
The problems are clear enough. The shaky YTB-NUNS coalition has a majority of just two seats in the new Parliament, unless it can persuade members of the Lytvyn Bloc to join forces with them–on the face of things it appears an unlikely ally given Lytvyn’s past close links with the former Kuchma regime There are already several potential defections if, as expected, Tymoshenko is reappointed Prime Minister, the position she held in the first Yushchenko Cabinet. If she does not receive this position–and she has reportedly made several concessions as to whom she would appoint to her Cabinet–then the YTB would once again become the main opposition and Tymoshenko would run for president in 2009 as a strong candidate, more or less forcing Yushchenko to step aside. The president no longer has the mass support to back up a second term in office.
If Tymoshenko is accepted as Prime Minister, the Regions Party can cause a variety of problems for her. Regions has the backing of Ukraine’s most prominent businessmen. The party has already demonstrated its willingness to test both the will of the president and the loyalty of Ukraine’s militias and security forces. Its maneuvers in the former Parliament doubtless impelled Yushchenko to suggest initially the formation of a broader coalition. Such a coalition would also provide the president with a role as a viable political player of influence, a position that would not ensue were Tymoshenko the key figure.
Two parliamentary elections in two years have not brought about a decisive result for Ukraine. The country, certain media reports notwithstanding, is not polarized along a pro-Russian and pro-Western divide, but it has two regions that define the extreme positions on either side: Western Ukraine and particularly Galicia, is Western leaning, pro-EU, and demands exclusive rights for the Ukrainian language. It has a perception of the past that is markedly anti-Soviet and even anti-Russian. The Donbas (Luhansk and Donetsk) regions by contrast are pro-Russian, support equal status for the Russian language (a policy frequently cited by Yanukovych in all three elections since 2004), and have a jaundiced view of what is perceived as Western influence over and intrusions into Ukraine. Some regions of the south–particularly Crimea and the city of Sevastopol–express a similar though somewhat more flexible outlook.
However, elections are not usually about the extreme positions, they are about finding a middle ground, and that is where most residents of Ukraine stand. The decline of the Communists and eclipse of the Socialists removes an element from the Parliament that was divisive in the past. They had very little to offer. The electorate would most likely be satisfied with a government that could ensure current growth rates continue and that standards of living are maintained. Both the YTB and the Regions’ election materials focused on the financial and economic benefits to be derived from their respective victories. Economic concerns were of far more importance than ideology.
On the other hand leaders of both these parties have shown a tendency to focus on personal power rather than build coalitions. Both Yanukovych and Tymoshenko will be thinking ahead to the 2009 presidential elections. The former politician has made an impressive comeback after his catastrophic presidential election campaign of 2004. However, whether his individual leadership will continue to receive sponsorship from such influential backers as Rinat Akhmetov remains to be seen. Likely Ukraine’s most wealthy oligarch will consider other possible candidates over the next few months. As for Tymoshenko, the electorate has shown growing support for her eponymous party. Given her party’s achievement in late September, she deserves a second chance in the Prime Minister’s post. But she also will need to show more flexibility and perhaps adopt a less confrontational style if she is to build on her success in the current elections.