Ukraine's presidential election is the first step to solving its government's legitimacy problem
It has not been an easy start for Ukraine's new authorities, who have had to deal with annexation, armed insurgency, rescuing the national economy from the precipice and organising a presidential election no less. A baptism of fire by anyone's standards. The annexation of Crimea came when the new incumbents had barely sat at their desks. The violent provocations in the east and south of the country are unprecedented in Ukraine's 23 years of independence, whilst Russia has a 23 year track record of violence in the Caucasus and terrorism in its cities. Draw your own conclusions about where this outbreak of 'civil war' in Ukraine has in fact come from.
To add to that, the current authorities have absurdly and maliciously been labeled a 'junta' by pro-Moscow tweeters and bloggers scratching around for a smear term (the only true junta that has ever existed in Eastern Europe was the early 80s junta in Poland, which was backed by the USSR), part of a well worn tradition of concept stretching by Russia. Kiev is not a 'junta' any more than Greenpeace activists are 'pirates' or 'hooligans', or indeed gay rights campaigners 'propagandists'. Despite this however, it is true enough to say that the government since its traumatic beginnings has lacked true democratic legitimacy, and therefore Sunday's presidential elections are the crucial first step in solving a legitimacy problem with Ukraine's governance which in fact goes back to 2010.
When Viktor Yanukovych was elected President in early 2010, parliament was still under the mandate of the 'orange parties' of Prime Minister Tymoshenko and former President Yushchenko. What then followed was a spectacular capitulation of the whole constitutional order. The Constitutional Court, re-stuffed with judges loyal to Yanukovych, ruled that parliamentary deputies could now switch sides, the problem being that, with Ukraine's closed list electoral system, this is tantamount to your vote growing legs and walking away from you. The defectors were dubbed 'tushki', a term meaning animal corpse. The standard of parliamentarianism thereafter soon became abysmal, with 'piano playing' (deputies pressing the voting buttons of absent members), as in the Russian Duma, becoming standard practice, and even savage beatings meted out to Yanukovych opponents. Votes were sometimes registered for MPs who were not even in the country at the time. The 2012 parliamentary elections followed electoral reforms designed to favour the President's Party of Regions. The introduction of a proportion of constituency MPs favoured the ruling parties, and electoral commissions were staffed by personnel from these same ruling parties. Unlike the previous three national elections (two parliamentary, one presidential, the election was not judged internationally to have been free and fair.
Fast forward to February this year, and whilst the voice of the people was finally being heard, the speed with which MPs hurriedly switched sides again following Yanukovych's exit in February was, constitutionally speaking, little better than the 'tushki' of four years earlier. Just as in 2010 a 'winner takes all' mentality saw now vulnerable deputies scrambling to save their careers and positions. There was of course a huge difference however. The new authorities from the outset took power on the promise of elections. We must remember that if not for Euromaidan, Ukraine might now have been looking ahead to years or decades without such free elections, the situation which predominates in the countries of the Customs Union that Yanukovych would have taken them into, Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan
What must follow these elections is constitutional reform that will guard against the monopolisation and abuse of power of the past several years. Ukraine should adopt a parliamentary system, the kind which has lead successful reforms in the likes of Poland or Czech Republic, and resist the urge to revert to the presidential model which has in contrast failed its citizens so miserably in the post-Soviet space. Ukraine must also figure out how it manages its multiculturalism without allowing the country to disintegrate. There is scope for delegating local language and schooling policy to muncipal level, as well as the dvisive issue of historical commemorations, but Ukraine lacks the political maturity for full blown federalism, so this should wait for now. Fears about Ukraine becoming a series of fiefdoms under that scenario are well founded.
It is also a sobering reality that they will have to face their challenges largely without the backing of the international community. Whilst the European Union has rightly put on the table a deal to allow Ukraine to access the internal market, there is plenty from member states to suggest that the EU's backing can't be relied upon, owing to the EU member states' deep ties to Russia. Whether it be German industry, French warships, Spanish ports or London's financial sector, there is little suggest that these countries will do very much to support the freedom of Ukrainians. Ukraine's road ahead looks a lonely one. The new President will need all the collective wisdom he can muster.
The presidential election must be followed as soon as possible by a parliamentary one. A proportion of constituency mandates must be maintained to represent occupied Crimea and the districts currently ravaged by the Russian-sponsored insurgency. The new parliament must adhere to new standards of parliamentarianism so that the abuses of the past four years cannot be repeated. If it does this, the legitimacy problem can finally be consigned to history.