Don’t Read too Much into Ukraine’s Parliamentary Elections
BERLIN—When Ukrainians cast their votes in parliamentary elections this Sunday, Western policymakers and observers expect a serious litmus test for the country’s political future and geopolitical orientation. Put simply, a fair poll and opposition presence will feed hopes that Ukraine remains committed to democracy and European integration. In turn, failure on both accounts will deepen fears that this important EU neighbor is sinking further into autocratic rule and Russia’s orbit. Given this stark choice, a flurry of debates and analyses has tried to chart the outcome and consequences of the ballot. But this is misguided.
For several reasons, the elections can be expected to reveal little about where Ukraine is headed in the years to come. First, Ukraine’s institutional make-up is skewed in favor of President Viktor Yanukovych, who determines principal policies and nominates key government officials, leaving parliament as a secondary institution. Even where parliamentary approval is required, presidential initiatives can typically rely on the solid majority of the Party of the Regions of Ukraine, which Yanukovych headed before his presidency, and the allied communists. The opposition, by contrast, has been notoriously fractured, weakened by defections, and unable to present a united democratic front. Judging by the latest opinion polls, this configuration in the legislature will not dramatically change. The Party of the Regions is certain to win the upcoming elections with between one-quarter and one-third of all votes, which, together with the expected 10 percent for the communists, may well produce a parliamentary majority. The two largest opposition parties — the Batkivshchyna United Opposition of imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) of boxing champion Vitali Klitschko — are projected to score between 15 and 20 percent of votes each. A third opposition group, the fervently right-wing Svoboda, is expected to cross the 5-percent threshold and enter parliament, as are dozens of formally independent candidates.
These independents will constitute the biggest wildcard in the new parliament. Judging from past experience, successful independent candidates will receive generous political and financial offers soon after voting day, so as to lure them into the Party of Regions to fortify a simple majority, and perhaps even engineer a constitutional one. As a result, the actual balance of power in the new parliament will remain unknown until its first session in mid-December, if not later. Yet even once the new legislature is in place and the party lines have become clear, there will be few solid indicators of the future course of the country. As in many post-communist countries, political parties lack an ideological or programmatic basis. Instead, they are built around individual leaders or business interests, they function as machines geared toward acquiring and maintaining power, and they change course whenever warranted by political opportunity. This makes Ukrainian politics — whether under past, current, or future parliaments — extremely unpredictable on both sides of the aisle. Finally, Ukrainian society is torn between two broad options of development that face the country. Pre-election polls indicate that 45 percent of Ukrainians support membership in a Russian-led customs union and 44 percent favor EU accession.
These preferences do not align with party politics: among voters for the typically Westward-looking opposition, more than one-quarter supports Eastern integration. In turn, European orientations are not uncommon among those backing the governing party. This, too, defies views that the upcoming elections are tantamount to a referendum about Ukraine’s future with Russia or with Europe. None of this, of course, is to suggest that Sunday’s elections in Ukraine are irrelevant. Their conduct will signal the quality of Ukrainian democracy. The first reports by independent election monitors already point to many deficiencies but also to some improvements. The significance of the official result, by contrast, should not be overestimated. It should certainly not prompt rash Western verdicts and political reactions, especially concerning the EU association agreement that is being negotiated with the country.
Instead, the West as a whole and Europe in particular should use the momentum and interest generated by these elections to develop an effective and comprehensive policy toward Ukraine. Europe and the United States also need to closely observe the composition and behavior of the new parliament. Only then can they hold government and opposition leaders responsible for their verbal commitments to democratic reform, a market economy, and European integration. And only then can they design effective offers of cooperation that can gradually lead Ukraine out of its political and geopolitical stalemate.
Joerg Forbrig is Senior Program Officer for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.