Electoral Songs

Mykola Riabchuk

In three weeks’ time, on the last Sunday of October, Ukrainians will elect 450 members of the new parliament, half of them from the national party list, and half from territorial districts. Opinion polls reveal more or less equal support for both the pro-government forces (Party of Regions and Communists – 25 and 9 per cent respectively) and opposition (Yulia Tymoshenko’s Motherland and Vitaliy Klychko’s Udar – 15 and 17 per cent) http://www.gfknop.com/pressinfo/releases/singlearticles/010454/index.en.html.  This means that the remaining one third of votes will be cast for the plethora of minor parties that have virtually no chances to surpass the 5 per cent threshold. All these votes will be distributed proportionally among the winners. In fact, it is a gift for the incumbents since most of the minor parties below the threshold represent the opposition.

Lack of unity is a persistent problem of Ukrainian democrats, and is especially harmful vis-a-vis the monolithic unity of the authoritarian rulers. Admittedly, their unity is not based on any positive ideology but primarily on sharing the spoils and suppressing dissent by various means—from bribery and persuasion to media censorship and manipulation, blackmail, intimidation, and selective application of the law. Enormous resources extracted from budget loopholes and the shadow economy make the Party of Regions a formidable force, quite competitive on the party list (despite its disastrous social and economic policies) and unbeatable in the territorial districts where vote buying reigns supreme.

To make a bad situation worse, the new electoral law not only increased the threshold from 3 to 5 per cent, targeting primarily the opposition parties but also introduced the “first-past-the-post” system within the majoritarian districts that require a simple plurality, rather than a clear majority of votes to win. This system allows the incumbents not to worry too much about their popularity—20 per cent of their core electorate might suffice if their opponents are successfully split, dispersed, and pitted against each other. To this end, a numerous fake parties and “technical” candidates are registered with the goal to spoil the electoral process in multiple ways. As many as 3,109 candidates will compete for 225 mandates in the majoritarian districts: nearly 14 persons per seat. And, tellingly, there are only 389 women compared to 2,720 men, 67 less than five years ago when women were also badly underrepresented. Predictably, very few candidates are economists, lawyers, or professional policy makers. Instead, 1,082 of them are businessmen of different calibers, which is common practice in a country in which the only protection for businessmen is parliamentary immunity, and where the most profitable business is looting state resources and exploiting  legal loopholes http://dt.ua/POLITICS/mazhoritarka_desyat_rokiv_po_tomu-108785.html.

Whereas businessmen and various state officials are serious contenders, a huge number of drivers, secretaries, night guards, barmen, and unemployed persons (293 this time) are playing the traditional role of spoilers. Some of them, incidentally, have the same surnames and even full names as opposition frontrunners in their districts; many others play a modest auxiliary role by promoting their representatives into election commissions to ensure the total preponderance of the authorities in electoral bodies. And, on the party list, one may observe the same phenomenon: a group of unknown parties mushrooming during elections, often with very peculiar names like “Our Motherland” (surely not to be confused with Yulia Tymoshenko’s “Motherland”?).

Still, a simple majority in the parliament is hardly the main prize for which the Party of Regions deploys its unscrupulous methods. After the 2004 constitutional amendments were arbitrarily cancelled, Ukraine became once again a presidential republic with a minor role for the legislature. Second, as we already saw in 2002, 2006, and, most recently 2010, the Party of Regions can easily muster a parliamentary majority by carrots and sticks, neither of which are in short supply.

The real problem it faces face (not only in Ukraine) is the succession of power. One may easily win the first-past-the-post contest with a mere 20 per cent of vote if proper “technologies” are applied, but no technology can secure a victory in the nationwide elections of president where a clear majority of votes is required. For Viktor Yanukovych, with ratings below 20 per cent and little chance of rising, the only way to get re-elected for a second term and secure his “Family’s” dubious wealth is to change the national constitution and arrange his own re-election via an obedient parliament rather than through the electorate. It was with this goal in mind that the so-called constitutional assembly was created last year from the handpicked “specialists” (the opposition refused to participate, feeling the trap). Thus, most likely, we shall witness a bold attempt to muster a qualified majority of two-thirds of MPs in the next parliament, enabling it to change the constitution and solve Yanukovych’s problem of reelection in 2015.

The opposition is doomed to lose not only because the entire electoral field has been systemically fixed to the incumbents’ advantage and because most of the “independents” in the parliament will be (as usual) businessmen susceptible to the authorities’ blackmail and siding typically with the victors. The opposition is losing because it has committed too many mistakes, of which the most profound was the failure to draw the proper conclusions from the Orange defeat, to dismiss its leaders and reshuffle cadres, to change programs and rhetoric, and to pay due attention to grass-root movements and party-building. They failed to get rid of their own fat cats and dolce vita habits, to bring in new faces and develop a new image. They never bothered even to say “sorry” to their frustrated and disappointed electorate. The main problem of the Ukrainian opposition is that its leaders are broadly perceived as almost as bad as the incumbents; people may vote for them as a lesser evil, but are unlikely to be committed wholesale to their victory.

The strong advance of Vitaliy Klychko’s party Udar, which emerged from the blue as a one-person project, is clear proof of the popular need for new faces, new forces, and new policies completely detached from the corrupted and feckless practices of the past. In a recent survey, Udar (the “blow”–it is also the acronym of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms) outran Tymoshenko’s Motherland, dogged by imprisonment of the leader, slandering in the pro-government media, and undermined by the enforced change of the name from the popular BUT (Yulia Tymoshenko Block) to the virtually unknown Motherland (after the new law barred electoral blocks from running). More and more people seem to invest their political hopes in the heavyweight boxer—hardly a charismatic figure— whose main advantage is that he has never belonged to the Ukrainian establishment, has no record of corruption, and seemingly represents a different, hopefully Western, political culture.

Klychko has received a significant advance payment from the electorate, but it remains to be seen how he and his party pay it back. He supports liberal-democratic ideas and insists on the need for a complete renewal of Ukrainian political life but, at the same time, avoids harsh rhetoric and personal attacks. This might be a signal not only to his supporters and allies but also to rivals, at least those who are tired and frustrated with current politics, unrestrained greed and lawlessness of the “Family,” and the increasing international isolation of the country. In one of Udar’s ads, a rapper sings about the kind of president Ukraine really needs. At present we are electing MPs, but the song sounds like another suggestion on how to solve the problem: 2015.




Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Galyna's Ukraine and commented:
    Good info about upcoming elections!

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