What to expect from the Ukrainian elections

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

This article is part of our special report EU-Ukraine Relations.

Public dissatisfaction in Ukraine is rising but – paradoxically – it is “non-political”. Public willingness to join protests grow not because of the political situation, but due to worsening economic conditions, says Wojciech Kono?czuk.

Wojciech Kono?czuk is an analyst at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW).

"It seems that any surprise is not likely to happen in the forthcoming parliamentary elections in the Ukraine and the ruling Party of Regions is going to win. With moderate optimism, it can be claimed that it will be possible not as a result of electoral fraud but due to the favorable electoral code and the weakness of the opposition.

In November 2011 the Ukrainian parliament adopted a new electoral code. According to new regulations, half of the mandates (225 of the 450 seats) will be elected in proportional elections, the other half in single-member districts.

As many as 366 MPs voted in favour of the new electoral system, including the majority of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and representatives of other opposition parties. The same “mixed system” was in force in Ukraine in the 1998 and 2002 parliamentary elections.

Therefore, it is not so difficult to predict why it will be beneficial for the Party of Regions. Let’s look at the Ukrainian political scene directly after the 2002 elections.

The election winner was a pro-Western and pro-reform Victor Yushchenko Bloc, which won 23.5% of all votes in proportional systems (70 seats) but only 44 seats in single-member districts.

Pro-presidential alliance “For United Ukraine” took just third place in proportional  elections (11.7% or 35 seats) and its 66 candidates won seats in single-member districts. The most important thing is that directly after the elections 74 independent MPs, elected in single-member districts, decided to join “For United Ukraine”.

As a result, this pro-president Kuchma alliance received 175 of 450 seats in parliament and with support from the allies was able to create the government. No doubts that the result received in proportional system was closer to the voters’ political sympathies.

Why independent MPs decided to join the ranks of “For United Ukraine”? In many cases they were representatives of regional business or bureaucracy and therefore were vulnerable to pressure from the authorities.

Their choice was a result of calculations that it would be a politically profitable move to be a member of a pro-presidential faction as well as some administrative pressure or even bribery.

Nowadays the situation in Ukraine is, in some aspects, similar to those from a decade ago. According to the latest surveys, 24%-27% of the voters support the Party of Regions.

In second and third places respectively are, boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko’s party UDAR (17-19%) and the United Opposition (17-21%). The polls suggest that the ruling party could win proportional elections but to form a new government will have to receive good result in single-member districts.

It also seems that, thanks to the favourable voting system, the Party of Regions will be able to significantly improve its electoral results. Many independent MPs will certainly get a “not to reject offer” to join the Party of Regions ranks. Some of them will probably do it voluntarily, out of concern for their own business future or some other private interests.

An important factor which will influence the election results is the weakness of the opposition. A few months before the elections, two parties – Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna and Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s Front of Change – formed an electoral bloc called “The United Opposition”. Despite its name this alliance is far from being a united opposition.

A deal with nationalistic Svoboda party and UDAR, regarding division of some mandates in single-member districts, could be seen as a moderate success. Nevertheless, according to recent surveys “The United Opposition” is losing its support in favour of the Klitschko party.

UDAR is a new phenomenon in the Ukrainian political arena and its popularity is clearly on the rise. Its leader and founder is able to win votes in both eastern and western regions of the country. However, he is not a professional politician and still has to build a political base.

The biggest problem of Ukrainian opposition is a low level of credibility in the society. Only every fourth voter declares trust toward the opposition. For comparison, according to a recent poll by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (on USAID request) the most popular political leader is Vitali Klitschko (42% of Ukrainians think he is trustworthy) followed by President Yanukovych (32%) and Arseniy Yatsenyuk (24%), then by communist party leader Petr Symonenko (21%) and  imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko (21%).

The surveys confirm that the society is tired with politics and express no confidence in the whole political elite, regardless of its party affiliation. There is clear demand on a leader who could be trustworthy in eyes of at least half of the voters.

In spite of widespread opinions in the West, Yulia Tymoshenko is not accepted by the majority of Ukrainians and she is the most unreliable politician in Ukraine. A staggering 66% of them do not trust her (in comparison to 59% for President Yanukovych and 61% for Prime Minister Azarov). For an overwhelming part of the society, she is a representative of the same hated political class.

Public dissatisfaction in Ukraine is rising but – paradoxically – it is “non-political”. Public willingness to join protests grow, not because of the political situation, instead due to the worsening economic situation.

Sociological research shows that Ukrainians are disappointed with politics but they do not see the opposition as an alternative for the ruling elite. At the same time they are ready to support protests on social issues.

However, there is no credible political group or a leader who could use this public dissatisfaction politically. As a result of growing political passivity the likelihood of large-scale political protests is rather low. The majority of Ukrainians no longer believe that protests could be an effective tool of change.

The situation has radically changed in comparison to the 2004 Orange Revolution, when an overwhelming part of the society believed that they are able to change the country.

To sum up, the most probable scenario is that after the 28 October elections, the Party of Regions will maintain the ruling power. With some caution it can be assumed that it will happen not due to electoral frauds. 

Some swindles are possible but not likely on a scale, which could distort the voters choice. Local frauds are expected especially in single-member districts and in eastern regions, where its governors could probably demonstrate their “loyalty” and “usefulness” to the government.

However, as it was already mentioned, the Party of Regions will probably owe its elections success to the specificity of the voting regulations and lack of public credibility of the opposition.

Nevertheless, after the parliamentary elections, it could quickly appear that it was not the biggest trial for the Party of Regions. A bigger challenge might be the worsening economic situation as all indicators show that the economy is slowing and the perspective of recession is looming.

However, if the situation in the eurozone and the world economy will further deteriorate Ukraine could face a serious crisis. In addition, the government will have to pay for its electoral promises and also substantially rise internal gas prices.

This unpopular decision is one of the main conditions for returning  to cooperation with the IMF and receive the $12 billion loan which was promised in 2010. Without this money the Ukrainian budget could be on the edge of failure.

The new government will also have to deal with other very difficult challenges: unclear EU reaction on the election results and tense Ukraine-EU relations as well as – what is perhaps even more important for Kyiv – to renegotiate its gas contract with Russia.

The price of natural gas (higher than for Germany) is a growing problem for the Ukrainian economy, but it is hard to imagine that Russia could agree on its reduction without serious political concessions. Consequently, President Yanukovych and his party face challenges extremely difficult to solve."

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