The Party of Regions was set to win the parliamentary elections for a number of reasons. First of all, it is not only a party but also a powerful political machine that has merged almost inseparably with big business and the state apparatus. Within the past two years, it has established full control over the judiciary and major mass media, adjusted the national constitution and numerous laws for its personal benefit, and multiplied its enormous financial resources extracted rapaciously from both the state budget and shadow economy. Inter alia, its leaders re-crafted the electoral playing field to suit their own needs: changed the election law, gerrymandered the districts, reshuffled election commissions, and endorsed a carte-blanche for all forms of illegal agitation to their loyalists.
On the other side, the opposition failed to endorse single candidates in majority districts, which was a crucial task under the first-past-the-post system. Still worse, they failed to rebrand themselves as a profoundly new political force that had deduced proper conclusions from the orange defeat, removed corrupted and inefficient leaders, and brought new people, ideas, and ethos into the political domain. The demand for new faces in Ukrainian rotten politics is very high, and the spectacular success of newcomers – Vitaly Klychko’s UDAR party and right-wing Svoboda – largely reflects the popular need for political forces not connected to the establishment and its discredited practices. The “old” opposition – Yulia Tymoshenko’s “Fatherland” party and Arseny Yatseniuk – ran with traditional candidates and slogans that could bring them support from the core electorate but barely exceeded the 25 per cent limit.
In Ukraine, where politics is largely identity-based and elections are identity-driven, the incumbents can also rely on some 25 per cent of the core electorate that would always prefer the perceived “lesser evil”: “our bad boys” over “theirs.” With some extra-legal means, they can always get a plurality that could be transformed eventually, by similar means, into majority. In a purely proportional system, such a transformation is more problematic, so, predictably, Party of Regions replaced it with a mixed system that ushers MPs to a half of the parliament from territorial districts on the first-past-the-post basis.
All the opinion polls predicted the Party of Regions would win about 30 per cent from the party list and many more from the single-mandate districts where, in most cases, voters are highly vulnerable to bribery and intimidation, and where even minor falsifications can be decisive. The main problem experts discussed on the eve of elections was not who was going to win the contest but how strong that victory would be and how solid a majority the Party of Regions would be able to secure with its notorious sticks and carrots.
The October 28 poll largely confirmed the experts’ forecasts in the voting for party lists. The Party of Regions got 30%, the United Opposition, despite Yulia Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, 25.5%, Vitaly Klychko’s UDAR 14%, Communist Party 13.2%, and far-right Svoboda 10.4%. All these results were fairly close to the election-day exit polls, with the only exception being in some Donbas districts where the turnout was much higher on paper than in reality. The pre-election opinion surveys looked a bit different but all the changes can be rationally explained. UDAR got less votes than predicted probably because of a low turnout of its core youth electorate. And the radicals from Svoboda and Communist Party got more than expected because they were able to channel a substantial part of the “protest vote” (“against all”) into their pots. (Another explanation includes the possible reluctance of some surveyed people to acknowledge openly their sympathy for radicals).
In sum, even though the playing field was not level and the election campaign was heavily manipulated by the authorities, the government had a very good chance to legitimize the elections as basically free if not fair, and to achieve some alleviation of the international isolation imposed upon the Ukrainian leadership after last year’s imprisonment of Tymoshenko.
It seems, however, that the government missed this opportunity because the majority-seat part of the elections did not occur as smoothly as the proportional part. In at least a dozen districts in which opposition candidates took an unexpected lead the worst practices of vote rigging from the late Kuchma era were applied. In some of them, even after a week of counting, the results had not been announced. In some places, astonished observers witnessed the destruction of ballots, distortion of tabulations, forging of protocols, attacks of unidentified skinheads on polling stations, the use of tear gas, and intervention of riot police to confiscate ballot boxes, arguably to protect them.
It is still unclear why Ukrainian authorities employed these excessive measures (or at least allowed their loyalists to employ them) for such a minor and hardly needed gain of a dozen more seats in the parliament. First of all, because of scarcely legal changes to the Ukrainian constitution in 2010, the country became, once again, a super-presidential republic, and the role of the parliament was effectively marginalized. And secondly, by all preliminary calculations, the Party of Regions could easily muster the needed majority through an alliance with the Communists (traditional satellites) and many of “independents,” so that a dozen MPs from the controversial districts were not much needed.
Besides the conspiracy theories suggesting the “Russian hand” intended to compromise Ukraine internationally, one may look for more rational explanations of the Ukrainian incumbents’ irrational behavior. First, the losers may act without the authorities’ consent because they invested substantial personal funds in the election campaign and could not accept such a double defeat. Second, local authorities could have been eager to achieve the demanded results by all possible means; fear of punishment for non-delivery is apparently stronger in Yanukovych’s Ukraine than fear of punishment for the violation of law. And third, and most important, the stakes might be higher than they appear. The Party of Regions needs not a simple but qualified majority (of two thirds MPs) in the parliament to change the national constitution and secure the 2015 re-election of Viktor Yanukovych in the parliament instead of a highly uncertain popular national vote.
They can hardly forget that Leonid Kuchma, who also had plenty of sticks and carrots to offer, had nearly mustered the much-needed majority to amend the constitution but failed by a meager six votes in the decisive vote. The oligarchs are unreliable. They are good allies to keep the opposition at bay and loot the country. But at some point thy may feel that their own interests are under threat, especially when the president and his “family” grab too much power and property, or when the parliament and its stakeholders may become obsolete.
Actually, there might be a fourth reason for the seemingly irrational behavior of Ukrainian rulers. Most of them are from the Donbas, the region that has never experienced any political, cultural, or economic pluralism. Many of them came from the criminal underworld where no tolerance, or compromise, or power sharing has ever been valued. They know perfectly well that the winner gets all, might makes right, goals justify means, and those who are not with us are against us. They are not accustomed to lose because losers, in their Darwinist world, are extinguished. They cannot recognize someone’s victory, especially by a small margin. All their instincts are opposed to such a phenomenon. They see any compromise as a symbol of weakness, and any retreat as capitulation.
This attitude suggests there is little chance of Tymoshenko being released until Yanukovych is ousted, and only a slim possibility for more open, inclusive, consensual politics in Ukraine in the near future. The conflict between the government and society is likely to escalate, culminating in Yanukovych’s inevitable and legitimate defeat in 2015 or his complete usurpation of power for years to come.
So far, Ukrainians have won a few minor battles but not the war. They proved, at least in some electoral districts, including the remarkable case of Kyiv, that civic spirit, courage, and unity could withstand brutal force, lying, cheating, and bribery. The Party of Regions, so far, has failed to establish complete control over the parliament. This does not mean its leaders will not try to attain such predominance within the next two years. They are very unlikely to curb their basic instincts unless and until society itself becomes civil enough to civilize them.