Friday, October 21, 2011

2012 in Ukraine-walking the democratic tightrope?

In defining Ukraine's future, the Euro 2012 football championship looks like being a sideshow compared to the parliamentary elections which, if they go the President's way, may clear the political field for years to come. At the heart of this is the coming change to Ukraine's electoral system.

The proposal is for a mixed system, with half the deputies elected by party list and the other half by constituency mandate. Just like in Germany then, so that's all fine, or so the argument will go, rather like when people explain away post-Soviet autocracies as 'like the presidential system in France', conveniently failing to mention the liberal media environment, the French fondness for and tolerance of protests, strikes and direct action and, not least, democratic nuances such as the genuine Presidential Primaries currently taking place in the French Socialist Party. The assertions are short and snappy, but the counter-arguments require explanation.

The desire is, it must be believed, for a consolidated power vertical rivalling anything else in the post-Soviet space, but Yanukovych is walking a tightrope to a much greater extent than his counterparts in Russia or Belarus. Russia, because it does not aspire to any form of western integration (WTO membership aside). Russia's elections are carefully engineered through restrictions on registration of opposition candidates, high thresholds for entering parliament etc. In Belarus they just make it up, despite it being fairly certain in the past that Lukashenka could have won fair and square. Perhaps his currently plummeting popularity there suggests that, from his point of view, he made the right choice.

The difference with Ukraine is that its semi-democratic credentials are based on the sequence of free and fair elections, two parliamentary and one presidential, which took place under Yushchenko's much-despised stewarship. That means that Ukraine now has more to lose from western partners. We know they can do better. Therefore the maintaining of the Party of Regions' grip on power requires an approach certainly more subtle than in Belarus, and perhaps more ingenious than that in Russia. Yanukovych will never be able to pull off the United Russia trick, which relies on Putin's personal popularity.

The new law does not look like it will be the one to restore Ukraine's 'free' status that Freedom House stripped it of last year. To get into the nitty-gritty, the new law would take us back more or less to the system that was used in 1998 and 2002. The electoral constituencies will be formed just 90 days ahead of the elections. Were this knowledge, heaven forbid, to be available to the powers that be in advance of that date, they would be able to steal a march on the opposition in terms of strategic planning. The election commissions would be formed of the parties in power, so the Party of Regions and the Communists. Party lists will be able to be changed even on election day itself. Appeals will be impossible in practice because the deadline will have expired while the documents are still in the post. And so the list goes on...

But it may not be these technical aspects that lead to a democratic malfunction in 2012, but rather two important cultural aspects. Firstly, that whether or not the President is trying to steer Ukraine down the European path, much of his support base has clearly taken his coming to power as a return to the 'good old days'. That means back to the days when ballot boxes are loaded into trucks or thrown in rivers. I'm not sure Ukraine's leadership will be able to prevent widespread abuses even if it wished to, because the prevailing culture is now the pervasively undemocratic post-Soviet one. There's no real understanding in those circles of the value and importance of respecting the rules.

The second cultural aspect rests with the electorate. It has been found that, particularly amongst the young, there is a despondency about the whole exercise and a willingness to sell their vote for 100-200 dollars. It has also been noted by researchers that trust in Ukraine's judiciary has plummeted over the last year and a half. There is little hope of successfully challenging any violations. Having said that, interviews with the public have thrown up some quite reasonable suggestions-that deputies who do not attend parliament should be fired or not paid, that each voter should have a stamp confirming that they've already voted put in their internal passport (the Sovietesque Ukrainian national identity document) to prevent multiple-voting and the banning of deputies elected on lists from crossing the house. But in the end, whilst both the general population and the elites have plenty to say on what should be amended in the new law, there is clearly a fundamental disconnect between any of these people and the decision-makers, who have probably already decided what they want.

The elections will almost certainly take place in the restricted media climate that has come to exist in recent times. And in any case, following the elections it's difficult to say what the point will have been, given the deterioration of procedural standards in the Verkhovna Rada, the 'piano-players' voting for absent deputies, use of physical violence, blocking of the rostrum by the opposition etc. And presumably if the result is not quite the desired one, the Constitutional Court will allow a few 'tushki' to cross the house and make up the numbers.

Events may anyhow overtake things. Relations with the west are deteriorating rapidly and, in the worst case scenario, the incentives for democratic good behaviour may have all but evaporated by then. In any case, the EU is, for all its faults, a community of shared values, and if these values are not in evidence in Ukraine, one could say, what is there to discuss?

The author attended Civic Discussion of Parliamentary Election Law of Ukraine on 19th October 2011

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