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6 June, 2012  ▪  Oleksandr Mykhelson,  Oleksandr Kramar

Elections 2012: Risks for the Government

By choosing to forge a pro-presidential majority in the future parliament using methods from 10 years ago, the Presidential Administration is doomed to repeat the events of 2004

The problems and risks facing the opposition in the upcoming parliamentary elections and later have been known for a long time now. What fewer people know is that the government may face challenges just as big. In order to forge a majority in the current parliament that would support the newly elected president Viktor Yanukovych without a snap election, the Presidential Administration broke the system that was established after the Orange Revolution and annulled the December 2004 political reform compromise. This entailed a Constitutional Court ruling that permitted individual MPs to defect to a stronger party, while the repeal of the political reform removed any remaining constraints on the optimal configuration and duration of parliamentary groupings (factions or groups). To hold on to the chance of forming a pro-presidential majority despite its own popularity rating dropping below 20 per cent, the Party of Regions reverted to the election law that was valid late in Leonid Kuchma’s presidency and thus restored the political system the country had in the early 2000s. However, experience has shown that this kind of majority is neither stable nor productive in Ukraine.

THE SPECTRE OF FOR A UNITED UKRAINE

A decade ago, Ukraine held parliamentary elections under a mixed system. The opposition forces scored a convincing victory under party lists. Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine and Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party polled over 31 per cent of votes, while the pro-government parties, For a United Ukraine and the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (United), a mere 18 per cent. However, in April-May 2002 SDPU leader Viktor Medvedchuk succeeded in forging a convincing pro-presidential majority by bringing over MPs elected under the majority system (typically businessmen who were very vulnerable to the “arguments” of the tax police and other power structures) and unreliable Our Ukraine MPs. (He was soon awarded with the top office in the Presidential Administration for his efforts.) The majority, which was so artificially put together, became an obedient tool in the hands of the Presidential Administration, the only power centre under both the Constitution that was valid then and in its current redaction. The majority elected Volodymyr Lytvyn, who topped the list of For a United Ukraine, Speaker of the parliament. Deputy speakers were also elected, parliamentary committees were split among factions and MPs retreated to their interest-based groups. Those groups were not just parties – for example, For a United Ukraine was made up of four parties. Other factors were also at play. For example, MPs elected under the majority system were able to unite on a territorial basis. The current leader of the Party of Regions faction, Oleksandr Yefremov, was in charge of Luhansk Region at the time, and he must be nostalgic now about the People’s Choice parliamentary group, the first and last attempt Luhansk MPs were able to make to come out of the shadow of their Donetsk colleagues.

The biggest oligarchs were also trying to form their own factions or groups in the Verkhovna Rada. For example, Viktor Pinchuk could boast of an entire, full-fledged faction representing the Labour Ukraine party which underwent a series of transformations and was eventually rebranded as “Strong Ukraine” (It later merged with the Party of Regions).

These processes structured the Verkhovna Rada along lobbyist interests. All of the above fragments showed loyalty to the strongest player at the time – President Kuchma. However, the level of discipline and the speed with which decisions were passed was limited. The Presidential Administration had to alternatively intimidate and bribe key figures in different groups in order to pass the decisions the authorities sought. At times, this was no easy task. In 2004, the Centre group emerged in parliament. It was in fact a club of Medvedchuk’s enemies. Its 17 members withdrew from the pro-Kuchma majority. Some consequently had to deal with criminal cases, for example, the father of one Centre member, a Mykhailo Dobkin, was even arrested, but the police dropped the case after the MP quit the group.

This scenario may be repeated today, given the Constitution and the parliament’s procedural regulations we have now. Tensions between the main groupings in the Party of Regions are rising, even though it has traditionally refrained from washing its dirty linen in public. However, there was a recent breakthrough: the public has seen certain indications of a conflict between people who are fairly close to the president – Dmytro Firtash and Yuriy Ivaniushchenko on the one hand and Oleksandr Yanukovych’s protégé Oleksandr Klymenko, chief of the State Tax Administration, on the other. Sources in the Cabinet of Ministers even claimed that Klymenko could soon be fired. At the same time, according to other sources, the first to go will be Agricultural Minister Mykola Prysiazhniuk, who is thought to be linked to Ivaniushchenko. The reason being given is that Prysiazhniuk failed to take into consideration the interests of his superiors while solving his own business problems. Iryna Akimova, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, is also in a serious conflict with someone in the Party of Regions. She reacted very emotionally to what she called compromising information – figures close to the president revealed that she had failed to declare $100,000 at a German airport and the money was confiscated. The situation with former Deputy Prime Minister Andriy Kliuiev remains murky as well – it is hard to say whether he lost his standing in the government after being appointed chief of the National Security Defence and Security Council or, on the contrary, improved upon it.

Nor is the Party of Regions solid in the provinces, despite its claims to the contrary. Discontent is mounting in its local organisations in southeastern regions. As new people become involved in the party in central and western Ukraine, its identity will continue to erode. Under the current Constitution, various groups within the Party of Regions will face no barriers if they want to branch off into independent entities. Under certain conditions, people with a grudge against the government may opt to do just that. These may include the sponsors of those hoping to get into parliament who will ultimately fail to get on the party list, because it is not long enough to accommodate everyone. The number of candidates has grown greatly in the past two years, particularly after defectors from other parties were absorbed. The reliability of these turncoats is questionable. They will be put on the list, at least some of them, but may prove to be a weak link at any moment. Lytvyn’s party members, if they make it to parliament, and the Communists, who have already been cheated, will be looking for ways to continue their political life in the new political reality. On the one hand, an apparent victory of the Presidential Administration in the elections will force them to be more cautious in order to prevent the regime from cementing its power in which case their role may be reduced to even less than what it has been so far. On the other hand, the Communists will have a much better proportion (up to 1:3) with the Party of Regions under party lists than now and possibly the golden share in a future majority.

THE MAJORITY TRAP

In the early 2000s, MPs elected under the majority system were a problem for the government. Journalists who reported from  parliament in the later period of Kuchma’s presidency remember the constant grumbling of wealthy and influential MPs who were outside any factions. They were complaining about their fellow party members whom they said disregarded their status and rights. The tensions were partially over trivial things like offices in the Verkhovna Rada’s buildings, but there were also more serious stumbling blocks. MPs elected under the majority system played a significant role in preventing Kuchma and Medvedchuk from pushing through “political reform” in parliament prior to the Orange Revolution. The form became a reality only with Yushchenko’s consent as an element of his agreement with Kuchma. Before the hot winter of 2004-2005, the reform bill was submitted to parliament several times beginning in April. But it always ran into stubborn resistance. Faithful followers of both Yushchenko and Yanukovych thought it was unnecessary because they believed their candidates would win in the presidential race, but many an MP elected under the majority system was strongly opposed to the proposed proportional system. And they were successful at stymying any attempts to steamroll the bill: some fell suddenly ill on the day of the vote, while others, such as the legendary Oleksandr Volkov, were late to the session hall after “losing track of time in talking to female journalists”.

What this majority was worth became evident in the days of the Orange Revolution. The most influential MPs who had signed an agreement to support Yanukovych for president suddenly showed up at the headquarters of the opposition forces, sporting orange scarves. Most stunning was the ability of MPs to kowtow to a winner whom they had lambasted and cursed from rostrums only a short time before. Moreover, 375 MPs, including most Party of Regions and SDPU members, voted in support of Tymoshenko’s first government on 4 February 2005! Parliamentarians cast their ballots just as enthusiastically for ministers and heads of regional administrations despite the fact the due procedure was violated. Their candidacies were put to vote immediately after the prime minister was elected, but they should have been nominated to the president by a minister plenipotentiary.

With the majority system restored, those MPs who are pro-government today and sponsored by financial-industrial groups may create their own groups that will be loyal to the head of state but will not be united among themselves by other things. It is obvious that if the popularity rating of the current president and the Party of Regions continues to fall (and it will plummet if the government steps up its antisocial policies which it has put on hold until the elections are over), the leading financial-industrial groups may start working on political scenarios that are alternative to the current Yanukovych administration. They will want their MPs to retreat into autonomous groups that would have their own identity in parliament so that they would be perceived by the public as satellites rather than indispensable parts of the current government. In this way they will be able to secure for themselves the option of relatively painless defection to the winning camp as they did in 2005.

Medvedchuk, one of the architects of parliamentary majorities in the early 2000s who has a long history of complicated relationships with the current leadership of Ukraine and the Party of Regions, adds to the intrigue as he increases his political activity. According to information obtained by The Ukrainian Week, his return to politics may be dictated by a need to have someone to integrate pro-Russian MPs from various factions and groups in order to increase the Kremlin’s internal pressure in its tense relations with the Yanukovych Administration. Medvedchuk seems to be the political project of Vladimir Putin of which some political analysts have warned. Medvedchuk will essentially embody the infamous threat Putin issued to President Yanukovych: “If you are not friends with us, your electorate will not be friends with you.” Valeriy Konovaliuk, who tried to set up a pro-Russian “inter-faction group” in autumn 2011 to promote Customs Union membership, must have failed to fit the bill.

A number of people who will try in late 2012 to form a majority centred around a political force whose real level of support has dropped to below 20 per cent will remember all the risks that come with restoring the political architecture established late into Kuchma’s presidency. They will be aware of all the deficiencies inherent in this kind of majority. However, they seem to have no other choice in the present realities and face a dilemma of either yielding power gradually after the parliamentary elections or going away slowly and painfully, clinging to their power by hook or by crook until the final solution in 2015.

Thus, the intrigue lies evidently only in the measure of force the government will exercise: Will the lieutenants of the Presidential Administration drive MPs into the pro-government majority using any means and aiming for a maximum possible number? Or will they limit themselves to more refined methods and, among other things, seek ways to involve political forces that claim to be in the opposition now?


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