If the EuroMaidan is neutralized and assistance is provided by Vladimir Putin, Viktor Yanukovych will prepare a wide range of tools to stay in power after 2015
The prospects of the Yanukovych regime largely depend on the future of the EuroMaidan. Even if it dissolves shortly after the New Year, he will still have to make great efforts to win the 2015 election. Repressions will not crush protest sentiments completely, since Ukrainians are now different and Yanukovych’s current rating does not leave him the slightest chance of victory in a fair election, nor will it increase.
Undoubtedly, the 2015 presidential election will involve all the practices of election rigging that have been accumulated over the past decade, from control over the judiciary and law enforcers to restricting the participation of opposition candidates, the promotion of numerous opposition candidates to dilute the opposition-oriented electorate, and wide-scale falsifications. All these instruments will have a limited potential, should there be a clash between society and government, similar to the 2004 Orange Revolution and the EuroMaidan in 2013. So the upcoming presidential campaign may differ from that of 2004 in the following aspects: those in power may change the election law and amend the Constitution, dilute the votes of the opposition electorate, and bribe voters with “fat Russian cash”.
The easiest way for Yanukovych to stay in power is to amend the Law on Presidential Elections so that there is just one round. This could be an easy task with the opportunistic majority of the Party of Regions and Communist MPs that has been passing laws convenient for the government in recent years. If Yanukovych follows the Kremlin’s lead, he will almost surely get the Communists’ votes. The lack of a single opposition candidate will be an integral component in this. It would guarantee Yanukovych a confident victory. Another, more sophisticated option could be to promote Petro Poroshenko as a presidential candidate. In actual fact, the latter has already launched a proactive campaign and could steal many votes from the opposition in Central Ukraine as his core electorate.
The next much debated option is to prevent Vitaliy Klitschko, the most popular opposition candidate, from running in the campaign. According to Art. 103 of the Constitution, a presidential candidate can only be someone who “has lived in Ukraine for ten years immediately prior to the election”, yet the law is vague about the definition of “living in Ukraine”. Those in power may try to prove that Klitschko has not lived in Ukraine for the past decade. On October 24, 2013, parliament paved the way for this scenario by amending the Tax Code to qualify holders of residence permits in other countries as non-residents of Ukraine. Vitali Klitschko has had a residence permit in Germany for the past ten years. Yanukovych’s spin doctors may offer him the following scenario to get rid of his most dangerous rival: Klitschko can be registered as a candidate, then this registration can be cancelled shortly before the election. This technology has been tried and tested on a smaller scale in the re-election in constituency No. 94 in the Kyiv Oblast, where the Central Election Commission (CEC) cancelled the registration of Viktor Romaniuk, the single opposition candidate, a few days before the election, because he had not lived in Ukraine for the previous eight months. He is now in Italy, escaping criminal persecution, which began right after his victory was snatched from him in this very district in 2012.
Used against Vitaliy Klitschko, this scenario would probably lead to obstruction from the international community, but Yanukovych has never been concerned about this, especially if he ends up on the end of Vladimir Putin’s hook.
Yet another scenario that would keep the current president in power after 2015 would be to hold a referendum to extend the term of his presidency. This option will come into play if those in power have no confidence in the success of those listed above. With the current low rate of electoral support and explosive protest sentiments, this option could only work with massive and blatant falsification. This would essentially be a remake of the scenario used in Kazakhstan in 1995 when the president’s powers were extended until 2000, or of Belarus’ experience where the president’s term in office was extended through amendments to the Constitution. A softer option would be to change the Constitution and turn Ukraine back into a parliamentary republic with just the first-past-the-post system being used in elections and Viktor Yanukovych as premier, who would then become the key person in the state. However, this would be risky, given Georgia’s recent experience where Mikheil Saakashvili introduced a similar scenario and failed.
Each of the above options is good for Viktor Yanukovych and his team. Illegitimate or quasi-legitimate, they reflect the political culture of his circle. If implemented, they could trigger unexpected reactions such as protests, with millions taking to the streets. However, if the current opposition wastes the huge potential of the EuroMaidan, Ukrainians may end up with another decade or more of disillusionment and apathy. The government will be quick to take advantage of it.