Friday, September 26, 2014

The Quiet Elections

Published in New Eastern Europe 26th September 2014

As winter approaches, Ukraine moves to plug its democratic legitimacy gap.

You could forgive the residents of Kiev for having other things on their minds besides the upcoming elections to the Verkhovna Rada. With gas deliveries from Russia having long halted, many Kievans have been living without hot water for the past couple of months as the country tries to fill its gas storage facilities. The annual switching on of the central communal heating system has been delayed two weeks to the beginning of November. Gazprom has reduced its gas deliveries to those countries providing a potential lifeline to Ukraine via a reverse flow, Poland and Slovakia. A Russian government advisor, Sergey Markov, has even predicted that Ukraine’s government will collapse in the winter. As with the prophecies of Ukraine’s descent into “civil war”, Russian predictions are often statements of intent. Ukraine’s government needs to be in the best shape possible if Russia is going to attempt to freeze them out, so questions about its legitimacy matter.

Ukraine is also a country at war. From the mobile mechanisms that enable donations to the Ukrainian army to the men standing on the road collecting money to relentlessly paint the country’s railings and street furniture yellow and blue in defiance of the would-be occupiers, the war is ever present. Where you might have expected to see early discussion about the upcoming elections, TV news reports have unsurprisingly been dominated by the daily national and personal tragedies of the conflict. This has led some commentators to question the wisdom of holding a vote in such circumstances. The presidential elections also took place in a similar situation with election coverage slotted in between the latest news about the Anti-Terror Operation.

President Petro Poroshenko’s strong mandate from this election and his growing reputation with the West have put him in a strong position, although it is bound to have diminished somewhat following the toxic, but perhaps unavoidable, Minsk agreement and the delay to the EU-Ukraine trade agreement (what was simultaneously “signed” September 16th in Kiev and Strasbourg was in fact only around one-fifth of the original Association Agreement text). Beyond the presidency, Ukraine’s democratic credentials don’t look so clever. Ukrainian society has had a new injection of civic activism and engagement, but this is not reflected in the country’s parliament. Unsuspecting politicians may now find themselves being “caught” by journalists in interviews or thrown into skips, but their existence in parliament is not so different as to what it was before.

This situation goes back to the real coup d’etat of Ukrainian politics, the parliamentary coup of 2010, where the Constitutional Court, which had previously ruled otherwise, ruled that deputies were free to move between parliamentary factions. Whilst this is entirely acceptable in constituency-based systems like the UK, Ukraine’s deputies had been elected on a closed list system, so changing factions was like your vote growing legs and walking away from you, and hence Yanukovych induced deputies from the Orange parties of Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko to form a loyalist parliament on which to build his power vertical. The turncoat deputies were dubbed “tushki”, or animal carcasses.

The victory of the EuroMaidan might have ushered in a new era of openness and civic engagement but, as Yanukovych fled the country, something not very dissimilar took place in the current parliament. As the emergency government formed around Prime Minister Aresiny Yatsenyuk and Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, deputies, particularly those from the Party of Regions, hurried to either join the new bloc or become independent. Thus, whilst Poroshenko is the legitimately elected President, the parliament we see today is in fact little more than a group of “reverse tushki”. So whilst the new government is clearly no “junta”, it certainly has a democratic legitimacy problem that successful parliamentary elections are absolutely vital to solve.  

The current parliament has also inherited its predecessor’s poor standards of parliamentary procedure. The practice of piano player voting, where deputies push the voting buttons of their missing colleagues, still continues. The recent vote on the ceasefire law was held in a closed session and rumours abound that the screen that shows the voting results might even have been tampered with. Perhaps there is an argument that in the time of war certain measures must be pushed through (many democracies experience a temporary democratic deficit in times of war), but such actions are unlikely to give Ukraine’s democracy a clean bill of health.

In addition to the oncoming freeze and parliament’s democratic inadequacies, Poroshenko must be aware that his initial popularity can quickly nosedive in Ukraine. The support for Yushchenko had all but evaporated within six months as president. Therefore, Poroshenko must see the need to use what momentum he still has as quickly as possible. Current polls back his bloc to do well, despite recent controversial decisions.

There are some ways in which the elections will not be a departure from the Yanukovych era. They will be held under the same election law as the 2012 poll, a mixture of party list and geographical constituency mandates that was designed to skew the vote in Yanukovych’s favour. Clearly, elections for the electoral districts in the occupied territories will not take place, meaning out of 450 seats, 15-20 will be empty. In one sense, maintaining those “empty chairs” would be a powerful symbol that these regions remain, in the sense of international law, part of Ukraine. Ukraine must feel a duty to continue to represent those regions in some way. This is perhaps reflected in the fact that Mustafa Dzhemilev, exiled head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, itself now facing the prospect of exile, is on Poroshenko’s electoral list.

As in the previous elections, oligarchic clans are still likely to figure prominently, but this time different clans stand to benefit. Whereas at previous elections the Donbas clan came to the fore, they are now variously exiled or in the quagmire of the Russian-sponsored breakaway entity now being established there, although some are rumoured to be funding the Party of Development which is emerging from the ruins of the Party of Regions. It will be fascinating to see the extent to which Russian aggression and occupation have sliced through Ukraine’s traditional pro-western/pro-Russian cleavage. In the new parliament, Poroshenko and Dnipropetrovsk-based Ihor Kolomoyskyi look like the potential big winners. Parties and party groupings continue to be fluid even with just a month left to go. Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR has merged into Poroshenko’s group of pragmatists, whilst others collect around Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party or the slowly climbing People’s Front, Yatsenyuk’s new party. Figures from Ukraine’s past have apparently been manoeuvring themselves onto party lists by various means, but this will be a gamble, assuming the vote is substantially free and fair. Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party may conceivably even struggle to enter parliament.

Each western-leaning party will also have a handful of Maidan activists towards the top of its lists who may or may not turn out to be capable politicians, but should at least look on parliament’s procedural deficiencies in a new light. However, despite a myriad of options on the ballot paper, the party system arguably still will not be offering choices that truly reflect voters’ needs and preferences. Large shares of the vote at the previous election for the far right Svoboda and the first banned, now unbanned, Communists alarmed observers in 2012, but suggest that for many Ukrainians ideology is important, just as for other Europeans. The persistence of so-called “virtual parties” built around clans or individuals does little address this need.

It seems that Ukrainians continue to misguidedly seek the “good politician”, whereas evidence of the reform process across Central Eastern Europe tells us that in most cases it is the political system, not the quality of its politicians that is the decisive factor in reform-making, specifically the parliamentary system of the government. If Ukraine is to truly succeed, its political system needs to be a radical departure from anything seen thus far in the post-Soviet space.

As things stand, expect a quiet election as Ukrainians continue to fight and die for their country and for Ukraine’s political system to take incremental steps forward, if they can survive the winter.

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