A new political season has started in Ukraine looking more like a new front in the war of politics. The upcoming fall, winter and spring will be very hot for the presidential election campaign. So will be the summer and the preparation for the parliamentary elections in October 2019. Anything not linked to the elections will be secondary.
Elections in a country at a hybrid war, with some candidates playing on the side of the enemy although it’s hard to know exactly who does so, are a risky game. Betting on the wrong candidates will cost Ukraine the loss of independence. This time, it’s not just about a likeable candidate beating an unlikeable one, or not. In fact, there isn’t much choice at all. Ukrainians will have to choose between the greater and the lesser evil.
The first days of the Parliament’s work after the summer break illustrated this. MPs are already busier creating pre-election chaos and turbulence than actually doing their work. Yulia Tymoshenko already sees herself as president, adding anxiety with rhetoric about a Poroshenko-led oligarch conspiracy, ultimate robbing of the country, promises of putting everyone behind bars and confiscating from the rich after her victory. The Opposition Bloc’s Yuriy Boyko has not yet felt as president. Yet, he suddenly started lobbying for an Election Code with open-list voting and voicing the Kremlin’s thesis of returning the occupied Donbas in a non-violent manner. Olha Bohomolets is regularly attacking reformers from the Ministry of Health, criticizing them for “unprofessional actions and anti-people policies.”
MPs have already illustrated this chaos by starting this Parliament session with a failed attempt to vote for its agenda. Meanwhile, they have a long trail of crucial bills left from the previous session which they failed to vote before the break for different reasons. Plus, new ones are pending as well, adding to the mounting pressure. While every MP and faction has an own vision of their priorities, one certain prediction is that the discussions of even the smallest amendments are likely to transform into major battles. These will include battles for the Central Election Commission, the Election Code, the language, MP immunity, the status of the Donbas, the budget and more.
All this might even result in some bloodshed in and around the Rada – possibly from noses injured in clashes. This is not because the MPs will suddenly experience spikes of activity and love for principles. Quite on the contrary. They don’t have a position. All they have is the interests of the groups they are part of. The key interest is power, preferably unlimited. Since the size of the power pie is not changing while the number of those with appetite to bite it is growing, their chances of getting there are shrinking. This means that from now on, they will view everything through the lens of its electoral value, a PR opportunity, a chance to score some points, influence votes, use voters and fake results. Adding its own price to the process will be the art of compromise and of making deals as the core element of politics.
One aspect of this price is the change of the election law and the current Central Election Commission staff. Without these the elections can’t be fair or legitimate. Those in power may in the end reach some sort of a compromise on the Central Election Commission – the situation has reached an absurd point now and Ukraine’s international partners are demanding a solution. The Election Code reform is in a worse position. Half of the Parliament comprised of the MPs elected through the majority or first-past-the-post system is openly hostile to the abolition of the mixed electoral system and the introduction of open lists. This is a matter of political death or survival for them, as well as of deputy immunity and windfall profits.
The immunity issue triggers equally heated debates and speculations. Two draft laws sponsored by the President and MPs are waiting to be reviewed by the VR, both approved by the Constitutional Court. The President’s bill abolishes MP immunity starting with the next convocation – it has better chances of passing the vote. The one sponsored by MPs abolishes the immunity immediately and is of a more populist nature. Will the Verkhovna Rada have 300 kamikadze MPs to vote for it? Even for good PR effect? The key reason why most MPs are unlikely to vote for any of these bills is to avoid giving the President a boost in the elections. He would really like his bill to pass, so that would give him a bonus to brag about in the upcoming campaign.
The bill on including Ukraine’s aspiration to join the EU and NATO into the Constitution, sponsored recently by the President, might be easier to get by. But this would, too, help the President. Therefore, it is hard to think of what the friendly factions will want the President to give them in return for supporting his bills. The price tag may include concessions in reformatting the system of governance and transforming Ukraine into a parliamentary republic. President Poroshenko is against this, yet he is hoping to win the second term in office. His partners in politics – permanent and situational – really like the idea of a parliamentary republic, so they will certainly lobby for it.
Another crucial issue is the law on the state language. Many rank it as a priority one. The problem is that there are currently five different bills at the VR and each one sets out details and priorities differently. Add to this the upcoming period of flirting with different voters, and get popcorn to watch the resulting circus.
Then comes the extension of the law on the special status of the Donbas which should either be voted in October or shelved till after the elections. Nobody can say what’s best now, not even those in the top offices. This issue is extremely sensitive and can ruin anybody’s rates before the elections. It’s also the issue of top importance. The war in Eastern Ukraine and everything around it is one of the few topics that still has the capacity to mobilize the frustrated voters ready to run away as far as possible. The other two are how to overcome corruption and to simply make ends meet.
Vacant positions in many offices and numerous officials in the acting status give more space for manipulations. So does yet another increase of gas price. The budget for the next year full of elections, too, is an exciting game of milking the public coffers.
Despite all this, it makes perfect sense to expect those in power to go back to their self-preservation instinct and wisdom to avoid steering the country into a dead end before it is too late. This is virtually the only hope that remains. The same instinct should also work for the society which by now has presented its final trump cards – the intention to ignore politics and indifference. Pretending that the biggest intrigue of the upcoming elections is who will lament “we’ve lost it all”, Yulia Tymoshenko or someone else, after April 2019, is too simplistic. The stakes of these elections and their aftermaths are far higher than that.