By Mykola Riabchuk
On the eve of Ukrainian local elections scheduled for October 31 relatively few people and virtually no experts believed they would be free and fair – and with good reason. The first shot at the optimists’ hopes was fired shortly after the presidential elections, as the new parliamentary majority and new government were created in a patently unconstitutional way under the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions. One of their first decisions, rubber-stamped by the now-obedient parliament without any discussion, was cancellation of local elections scheduled by the Ukrainian Constitution to be held in May and their eventual (and, again, absolutely illegal) rescheduling in October.
The reason behind this delay was patently obvious. The victorious team was not ready yet to begin another triumphant campaign after taking office in March. They needed some time to fix the playing field in the most beneficial way for themselves. Step by step, they changed radically the electoral law, stacked both central and local electoral commissions with their loyalists, subordinated completely the administrative courts that are in charge, inter alia, of solving electoral disputes, replaced all the governors and local presidential representatives that supervise the process, placed unscrupulous allies in charge of all the law-enforcement agencies, and hired even more unprincipled hacks to run national TV and radio.
Yet, even more importantly, they sent clear symbolic signals to both their supporters and opponents, but primarily to those who stood on the sidelines, reluctant and hesitant. The signals left little doubt about who was coming back to power and what kind of policies would be implemented. The police, for the first time since the Orange revolution, encroached upon people’s constitutional right for peaceful protests, restraining arbitrarily, on many occasions, their freedom of assembly. The secret police harassed demonstratively journalists, scholars, and NGO activists. Tax authorities intimidated disobedient businessmen, including media-owners, suggesting that there would be problems for those who would not tow the line. And prosecutors, in the best traditions of selective application of law, have arrested a number of opposition figures on corruption charges, all of which, so far, have been broadly trumpeted but poorly substantiated.
In brief, the new authorities have effectively redeployed all the mechanisms of Kuchma’s notorious “blackmail state” that had been abandoned but never disbanded after the revolution by President Yushchenko and his team. Now, the entire nation is paying the price for the inability of the Orange leaders to clean house, eradicate corruption, and introduce the rule of law.
As the elections neared and all the power was being concentrated increasingly in the hands of Yanukovych and his lieutenants, the dirty electoral tricks from the Kuchma era resurfaced conspicuously. Here and there, reports surfaced about the most inconvenient opposition candidates who were either barred from running, or bribed or intimidated to withdraw their candidacy, or stand aside. The most incompliant were arrested on the traditional “corruption” charges that could not necessarily be proved but would certainly eliminate the rival from the impending elections.
Tymoshenko and her “Batkivshchyna” party were considered the main rivals of the incumbent authorities, so the dirtiest tricks were directed primarily against them. The most outrageous was probably the creation of bogus parties under the same name that were slavishly registered by the election commissions, while the authentic “Batkivshchyna” documents were rejected. As a result, Tymoshenko’s party was effectively excluded from the elections in at least three crucial regions – Lviv, Kyiv, and Ternopil.
The far-right “Svoboda” appeared to be the main beneficiary of this game. They won a plurality of 30-35% in the three oblasts of Halychyna and mad significant advances in the Kyiv oblast, accumulating a respectable 5% on the national scale that, if repeated eventually in the 2012 parliamentary elections, would qualify them for seats in the Rada. For the Party of Regions it was actually a win-win situation. Having no chance to beat Tymoshenko in her western strongholds, they used “Svoboda” to undermine her strength and, at the same time, to discredit the opposition – both domestically and internationally – as dangerous radicals, nationalists, even crypto-fascists. At the same time, they understand well that “Svoboda,” unlike “Batkivshchyna,” has no chance of expanding significantly beyond Western Ukraine to challenge the Party of Regions in its traditional strongholds. Therefore, all the national TV channels (otherwise effectively censored by the authorities) hosted eagerly the “Svoboda” leaders in their political talk shows while Tymoshenko and her close associates were effectively blacklisted from the same “pluralistic” programs.
The day of the elections did not bring much violence but it brought considerable chaos. Long lines queued outside the polling stations and many voters gave up the wait, rendering the turnout unusually low for Ukraine, while many more remained at home because the bulletins disseminated by the authorities seemed to indicate there was no real choice of candidates. An unusually high number of voters (7%) voted against all candidates – probably for the same reason. In at least two places, Yasynovata (Donetsk oblast) and Kamyanets-Podilsky, where popular local leaders supported by opposition were barred from standing, the “against all” vote reached 30%. The disorder was exacerbated at various polling stations as uncounted bulletins were found and observers expelled; some members of the commissions left, or were locked out, or reportedly bribed or forced to sign fixed protocols, and more.
The final results had not been announced a week later, when this article went to press. Local results were announced wholesale by the district commissions rather than at each polling station as required by law. In all the districts where the exit polls showed the Party of Regions candidates lagging closely behind their rivals (for example, in Odesa, Luhansk, and Kharkiv), the official results reversed those standings.
Impartial observers are unanimous: “Ukraine’s Oct. 31 local elections did not meet standards for openness and fairness set by the presidential elections earlier this year.” Or, as the Kyiv Post editor put it more straightforwardly: “Yanukovych, still hobbled by his complicity in fraudulent elections during the era of ex-President Leonid Kuchma, had a chance to show he is a democratic leader. Instead, the president showed he’s the same old conniver unworthy of leading a great nation of 46 million people.” Alas, that’s true.
But what does this unpleasant result mean for the country?
First, the Party of Regions has advanced further in monopolizing all branches of power and consolidating its authoritarian rule. In terms of the popular vote it received a mere plurality of around 36% – much less than its candidate Viktor Yanukovych attained nine months ago in the second round of the presidential elections (49%), but roughly the same proportion he got in the first round. Yet, in practical terms, the electoral system adjusted by the Party of Regions to their particular needs, gives them multiple advantages. Only half of the local deputies are elected from the party lists. The first-past-the-post system apparently enhances the authority of Yanukovych’s party as it is the biggest one and endows it with a vested interest in splitting and cloning the opposition parties as much as possible, as well as in rigging election results because even minor manipulations of such a system can be crucial.
The remaining half of the elected local deputies are the so-called “independents,” even though they are nominated by different parties. Most of them are local officials or businessmen highly vulnerable to official blackmail, bribery, and intimidation. The majority, as we know from the Kuchma era, end up in the government camp – the only place where they can secure their business.
So, the Party of Regions has a good chance to create a majority not only in its traditional strongholds in the south east but also in most oblasts and towns of central Ukraine, governed until recently by “Batkivshchyna” and other “Orangists.” In some cases, the Communists who gained their usual 5%, will be employed as allies, in other cases Tigipko’s “Strong Ukraine” (4%) or Yatseniuk’s “Front of Changes” (7%) might be lured into a coalition. In any case, the Party of Regions will be able to increase its grip over the country, which will likely result in further crackdowns on the independent mass media, NGOs, political opposition, and disloyal (or not loyal enough) businesses.
Yet, this outcome may not make Yanukovych’s life easier. As Yulia Mostova remarked poignantly in a recent issue of Dzerkalo tyzhnia, by eliminating the opposition he becomes his own worst enemy (http://www.dt.ua/1000/1550/70762/). He cannot satisfy the Westerners who expect from him the promised reforms, not just moribund authoritarian “stability.” Nor can he satisfy the Kremlin, which requires more “integration” moves from him and demands that more and more national assets be given up. Something should be certainly done for the radical reform of the country but the incumbent president’s ability to achieve anything other than augmenting rampant corruption looks even less feasible than before the elections.