Friday, October 05, 2007

What now, Ukraine?

by Tomas Valasek

Ukrainians voters have spoken, sort of. On September 30th, they elected a new parliament. They made some heartening choices, backing forces of reform and sidelining smaller, less relevant parties. Less happily, they also produced a deadlock by giving virtually the same proportion of votes to the main two competing blocs. As a result, we are no wiser four days after the elections about who will lead Ukraine for the next four years.

The biggest winner is electoral democracy itself. Although Kyiv was abuzz with rumours of vote-rigging before the election, Western observers say that the actual poll appears to have been relatively untainted. Turnout – at 65 per cent – was low by Ukrainian standards but this is partly due to fatigue (this was the third national election in as many years). Importantly, the share of votes cast for smaller parties which fail to make the threshold required for entry into the parliament has nearly halved since last elections, from 20 per cent to 12. Far fewer votes are wasted. Four years on since the blatantly rigged 2004 presidential election which triggered the Orange Revolution, Ukraine has conducted three fair national polls. The country’s voters remain committed and take their rights ever more seriously.

Their choices this time around seem encouraging, too. The party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has doubled its share of votes since the 2006 elections, and fell just short of becoming the dominant force in the country. Tymoshenko is an unusual figure – she is suspected, not without reason, of building a cult of personality. Her populist rhetoric can often border on the irresponsible. But she has built a genuine base of support by attacking the cosy business-government relationships that corrode Ukrainian politics. Independently wealthy, she promises to defend the interests of her voters rather than corporate sponsors. And that would be an improvement on the way the two other main parties, President Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, go about their business.

But the poll was not all good news. It has failed to accomplish its main intended goal: to break the standoff between Yanukovich and Yushchenko and to produce a clear leader for Ukraine. The prime minister and the president have been in conflict since spring when Yushchenko accused Yanukovich of bribing parliamentarians to switch sides. The early vote was called to break the impasse.

This has not happened. The ‘blue camp’, the Party of regions and the Communists, and the ‘orange camp’, Yushchenko’s and Tymoshenko’s parties, scored virtually identical per centage results. A smallish independent party, the Lytvyn bloc, which barely made it into the parliament, can in theory break the deadlock.

The trouble is that the key political figures in Ukraine have little faith in the veracity of the results, no matter what Western observers say. None of the leaders seems ready concede an election decided by just a per centage point or two. Voters will suspect the Lytvyn bloc, irrespective of who it sides with, of having sold its votes. To complicate matters further, another small party, the Socialists, are insisting they gained over 3 per cent and are demanding a recount and a share of seats in the parliament. Yanukovich may yet decide to support their claim in the hope of forming a government without Yushchenko or Tymoshenko.

This mess would normally be considered worrying but not dangerous. Elections elsewhere have been decided by lesser margins; in 2000 George W Bush came to the presidency of the United States, a country of 300 million, thanks to 500-odd votes in Florida.

But unlike most democracies, Ukraine lacks a credible and independent judiciary. And in mature democracies the courts have the last say. The US election was eventually settled through a Supreme court ruling. The way the court reached its decision – by a 5-4 vote along ideological lines – was controversial and arguably dented the court’s credibility. But once made, the ruling stood without question. Few believe Ukraine’s own Constitutional court could act with such finality. During the crisis leading up to the elections its rulings have repeatedly been ignored by both the president and the prime minister.

Absent a credible judiciary, it is unlikely that either the ‘blue’ or ‘orange’ bloc will gain all-out power. Their margins are too small, neither side will want to concede such close elections, and no independent body can authoritatively rule in favour of one camp or the other. The odds are that Yushchenko and Yanukovich will settle the elections through an agreement to rule jointly, with or without smaller coalition parties. Their alliance is the only available combination of forces with a majority strong enough to overcome any challenge to election results.

If so, Ukraine would be right back where it started six or so months ago. Yanukovich and Yushchenko, two leaders who utterly failed to co-operate the first time they shared power, would be expected to do so again.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.

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