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26 September, 2012  ▪  Oleksandr Leonov

You Scratch My Back, and I’ll Scratch Yours

The last session of the present parliament could prove most unpredictable

The Verkhovna Rada, completely embedded in the structure of executive absolutism, will have to go out of its way to demonstrate the party-in-power’s concern for the voters. On the other hand, it will need to serve as a whipping boy.

THE NEW REALITY

A new reality was created in parliament in the wake of party conventions, rather than by the start of campaigning. Not only did the published lists of the few lucky dogs outline the future parliament’s face, but it also produced a legion of angry, frustrated parliamentary left-outs, both in the ruling and opposition camps. It should be expected that now both groups will assume a very different attitude towards their responsibilities, which will surely tell on the Verkhovna Rada’s productivity in the run-up to the election.

Apparently, the Party of Regions does not find such a division critical. It has more than once shown its ability to find ways and means of persuading dissenters. However, this division could deal a hard blow to the opposition: its most battleworthy MPs are either trying their luck in first-past-the-post districts, or even worse, were left “below the line” in their party lists, effectively killing whatever hopes they had to get into the next parliament. All this means that the former will be campaigning in their respective districts and thus  probably skip the meetings, while the second will hardly feel motivated enough to ask for trouble and engage in scuffles, say to block the rostrum, especially if doing so involves the risk of criminal liability. There is but a handful of true fighters left among the opposition in parliament now. While the opposition’s attempts to stop the majority from voting for a certain bill have seldom succeeded even now, future counteraction will prove even more difficult, especially given the increased risk.

The notorious language legislation plainly showed that a lack of convincing achievements in the economy or social policy makes the party in power seek any justification for its presence among at least some of its conventional voters. In fact, the Party of Regions has virtually given up attempts to expand its electoral base and is now heavily relying on its own core supporters for votes. Tactically, this could mean the further escalation of linguistic and other humanitarian issues (such as history, religion, etc.), which will only aggravate division in society. However, such political technology rouses not only the government’s own supporters, but also the opposition electorate. The three summer months of its active use have revealed that the Party of Region’s approval rating is either stagnating or even slowly sinking, according to various opinion polls, despite its extensive use of administrative resource, financial aid, and comprehensive media support – which in fact results in creating a parallel reality for those Ukrainians who rely on government-controlled media for information. These are very alarming signals for the government, and hint at the threat of a further drop in its popularity (for example, in case of aggravation of the economic situation, climbing prices, etc.). All this is sure to induce the Verkhovna Rada to imitate the legitimation of the election (following the decision to use web cameras at polling stations), simultaneously trying to rig the election by ensuring the desirable result in the process of vote counting (through altering the composition of the Central Election Commission, etc.).

This election’s geopolitical component (like president Yanukovych’s recent statements about refusing European integration “at any cost”, and his readiness to give in to the Kremlin) risks bringing forth more displays of reverence from the incumbent government towards Russia, in order to ensure the cherished gas discount and thus demonstrate to its chiefly pro-Russian electorate some achievements in relations with Ukraine’s “big brother.” Even a kind of remake of the Kharkiv Agreements cannot be ruled out. Meanwhile, due to the reasons above, the parliamentary opposition will hardly be able to effectively counteract the massive “pros” of the ruling party’s marionettes. More likely than not, the opposition will merely confine itself to using such decisions to motivate the electorate to vote on its own – albeit for the promise of cancelling them when it comes to power.

AT FULL THROTTLE

An important place in the ruling party’s campaigning toolkit belongs to the propaganda of the president’s so-called social initiatives. Newly-made changes to the state budget or measures to raise some social group’s living standards are certain to appear on the parliament’s agenda soon. Sadly, this populist trick tends to work like a charm on the electorate. Therefore, the executive power might address the parliament with a request to find “additional resources” for implementing the government’s social and other obligations.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is at risk of encountering economic problems which could frustrate the government’s ambitions and reveal the adventurist nature of yet another increase in welfare expenditure in the last months or even weeks before the election, just as happened in 2004. Inflation is not the only risk involved. Global resource markets are showing signs of stagnation and even recession. Given the structure of domestic export, with its low ratio of added value, the nation risks losing a considerable part of its revenues. A loss of control over the economic situation may prompt the executive branch to launch further administrative crackdowns. It is quite probable that the Verkhovna Rada will again be “requested” to increase the government’s powers, which are strong as it is. This time, the solicitors will most likely not be confined to members of the cabinet: the National Bank of Ukraine is also looking forward to expanding its authority.

According to Resolution No.10696 “On approving the agenda of the 11th session of the Verkhovna Rada’s Sixth convocation,” the present parliament is to continue working for six weeks months after the election, until 14 December 2012. This seemingly technical detail leaves the government with a loophole to avoid a number of problems, even if the Party of Regions should lose its unfailing majority after polling day. Under current legislation, the Cabinet of Ministers does not have to resign immediately after the election, or even give an account of its activities to the newly elected parliament. Thus, this long period between parliaments gives the Cabinet plenty of time to solve the rotation problem in the government, army, police, or security service by passing the “right” resolutions.

Consequently, the risk of passing odd or openly odious legislation — like this year’s legislation in Russia, after Putin’s comeback as president — is considerably higher now. Putin’s third enthronement was marked by passing some extremely controversial laws. One imposes huge fines for libel, another brands any recipient of foreign donations as a “foreign agent.” Moreover, similar attempts have been seen in Ukraine's parliament. In particular, MP Viktor Zhuravsky registered Bill No.11013, which envisions criminal liability for libel.

One should never rule out the possibility of speedy and unopposed promotion of openly lobbyist legislation in such conditions. On the other hand, due to economic problems, the “old” parliament could stop playing “welfare state” the day after election, and meet the IMF’s strict terms (in particular, raising household gas prices in exchange for the loan), to allow the government avoid worse problems like technical default.


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