With the support of no more than a third of Ukrainians, Viktor Yanukovych is preparing for a constitutional majority in the new parliament
Public opinion in Ukraine on the eve of the parliamentary election is such that the ruling coalition parties would not be able to count on more than a third of the seats in the Verkhovna Rada if the election were truly representative. Almost two-thirds (63%) of the respondents in a poll conducted by four sociological services at the beginning of the election campaign from 27 July to 9 August stated that events in Ukraine were developing in the wrong direction. The discontent was felt by majority (54-55 per cent) of respondents, even among those in Southern and Eastern Ukraine, which are the traditional support base for the Party of Regions and its satellites. However, an analysis carried out by The Ukrainian Week shows that under these conditions, the Yanukovych regime will try to gain a constitutional majority (two-thirds of the seats) to fully take power into its own hands, have full liberty to do as it pleases, pass arbitrary decisions and deprive the Ukrainian society and the opposition of opportunities to offer resistance in parliament.
MAINTAINING THE LEAD
For a long time, it appeared that the government was going to win the election by utilizing the first-past-the-post system, just like it did in 2002 when the then President, Leonid Kuchma, formed a relatively stable parliamentary majority that he could control, despite the fact that at most, the lists of the pro-government parties only garnered 18 per cent of the vote. This led politicians and observers to seriously believe that the Presidential Administration would opt for a relatively representative election under this system, in order to at least partly legitimize the vote both inside the country and, most importantly, abroad. However, most recent trends suggest that either it did not have such intentions or that they had to be modified under the pressure of circumstances which emerged in the first six months of 2012. When the majority of opposition forces rallied around the most popular parties – Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) and Arseniy Yatseniuk’s Front of Changes – it must have caught the government flat-footed. It had hoped that banning blocs from elections would rule out this scenario, but was now faced with a new challenge. The government did not previously consider Batkivshchyna and the Front of Changes jointly winning more votes than the Party of Regions as a threat, because the latter still expected to lead the pack. The merger posed a real threat as it could end up in second place, which would clearly give it the negative image of a “losing party” and hurting the prospects of Mr. Yanukovych or any other Party of Regions candidate in presidential elections after 2015. It is worth remembering how fiercely Mr. Yanukovych fought to obtain at least a minimal edge over Viktor Yushchenko in the first round of the 2004 presidential election and how nervously the Presidential Administration reacted to Our Ukraine’s relative majority in 2002.
In the past month, there has been an obvious effort to “programme” Ukrainian society and the international community for the impending victory of the Party of Regions, not only in first-past-the-post districts, but also in those where proportional party lists are applied. Back in July 2012, the Rating Sociological Group reported that three leading opposition forces (Batkivshchyna, UDAR and Svoboda (Liberty)) had the advantage over ruling coalition parties: of the respondents intending to vote, 40.5% favoured the opposition (36.1% without Svoboda) and 30.1% backed pro-government parties, including 20.3% for the Party of Regions. On 27 July to 9 August, at the beginning of the election campaign, four companies (GfK Ukraine, Rating, Sotsis and the Razumkov Centre) reported similar figures – 42.2% (38%) against 34% (24.6%) for the Party of Regions.
However, by mid-August, the situation began to change radically. On 10-15 August, the Razumkov Centre and the Democratic Initiatives Foundation found, quite unexpectedly, that pro-government forces had gained a slight edge over the opposition (the Svoboda party was excluded from the comparison, since its support level (3.8 per cent) surprisingly turned out to be below the parliamentary threshold). According to the poll, Batkivshchyna and UDAR commanded the support of 36.1% of voters, while the Party of Regions had 28.1% and the Communist Party - 8.2% (jointly - 36.3%).
However, the transformations recorded by the Rating group were the most significant. Its early September figures contrasted significantly with its findings for July: the government’s support level leaped from 30.1% to 37.9%, while that of the opposition declined from 40.5% to 38.7%.
In late August - early September, R&B, whose poll results are traditionally most favourable to the government, reported on even greater support for the ruling coalition with a large advantage over the opposition: 37.9% (of which 27% was for the Party of Regions) against 33.8% (without Svoboda, which, according to R&B, was below the threshold). These figures were immediately picked up and disseminated by the mass media outlets close to the Party of Regions. For example, Segodnya wrote that “the GfK NOP opinion poll from 20 August to 1 September showed that the government’s rating (32%) was higher than that of Batkivshchyna and UDAR (29%), while with its three per cent, Svoboda did not stand a chance of getting into parliament.” The report was accompanied by a powerful online advertising campaign.
Data followed from the Institute for Research of Regional Development, based on its 1-10 September poll, which showed a similar lead for the government over the opposition (33.3% against 30.3%) and the surprisingly high support level for Natalia Korolevska’s Ukraine – Forward! Party, which, according to our sources, is a technical project run by the government.
PRE-PROGRAMMING THE DESIRED ELECTION RESULTS
Since there were no events in August that could cause such a steep increase in the rating of the government and decline in that of the opposition, the question arises as to the nature of the above change in popular attitudes? All the developments that are invoked as arguments, such as the merger of the Party of Regions and Strong Ukraine, the “social initiatives” of the former and the law on languages it steamrolled through parliament, were completed by the end of July. The obvious movements within the opposition camp (between Batkivshchyna, UDAR and Svoboda) were all internal, however, sociologists reported a decline in support for the entire opposition. Similar movements between the Communist Party and the Party of Regions were also internal, so they can in no way explain the increase in the popularity of ruling coalition parties in the polls.
Moreover, these most recent “government – opposition” ratios are at variance with the outcome of the previous parliamentary elections in 2007 in which democratic pro-European forces had a significant advantage over the Soviet-minded and Russia-leaning Party of Regions and Communist Party. The structure of allegiance among various age groups over the past ten years in all regions, to the parties currently in power, which are oriented on the past, is falling with every new generation. The reference to Mr. Yanukovych’s rating in the first round of the 2010 presidential elections is also questionable, since far more people intend to vote in western and central regions of Ukraine than in southern and eastern regions, which is the support base for the ruling coalition. This fact is reported by all sociological services. Two and a half years ago, the situation was almost the exact opposite. Finally, people are disillusioned with the current government, which on the one hand expresses itself in the passivity of its traditional electorate, and on the other, has led to at least some of its supporters switching their allegiance to Ukraine-Forward! and UDAR.
Thus, the rapid increase in support for the government as reported by sociologists in the last month appears suspicious. There is no direct evidence of their “cooperation” with the Ukrainian government, but it is as clear as day that the latter will use the recent surveys to justify the unexpected high level of support that the Central Election Committee will record based on voting results under both systems. Moreover, the government is also considering ways to legitimize its pre-programmed results with the help of “authoritative Western polling companies” by continuing its old tactic of financing expensive PR campaigns in the West, something that has long been applied by the Yanukovych regime. More specifically, in an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza, Valeriy Khoroshkovsky said that Kyiv is prepared to invite not only foreign observers but also foreign political analysts to carry out exit polls during the parliamentary election in Ukraine, in order to show the democratic nature of the election – “so that there are no doubts later as regards ballot-counting and the final results.”
THE END JUSTIFIES THE MEANS
At the same time, the government is using the wide arsenal of measures it applied in previous election campaigns and others that are new by virtue of their audacity in Ukraine. These include the manipulation of the composition of election commissions or information on reported orders sent down from the centre specifying how many votes the Party of Regions gets from one particular settlement, district or region or another.
Together they can ensure the required level of distortion of the real picture to suit the government’s purpose. This includes the bribing of voters using budget funds, as well as administrative and repressive resources to limit or make it impossible for the opposition and especially its candidates in the first-past-the-post districts, to conduct their election campaign; the intimidation of opposition candidates, activists and agitators; the large-scale use of the numerical advantage of pro-government representatives on election commissions during ballot counting; keeping Svoboda below the parliamentary threshold (for example, giving it 4.95% of the vote), while boosting the result of Korolevska’s Ukraine – Forward! Party; supporting technical projects such as Our Ukraine, the Radical Party, etc. which are supposed to draw away votes cast for the opposition; conceal objective information regarding the actual processes taking place in Ukraine from most citizens by means of the total monopolization of media space in one way or another.
THE SPECTRE OF A CONSTITUTIONAL MAJORITY
Recent opinion polls are designed to make Ukrainian society believe that the Party of Regions and its satellites can legitimately claim 112-119 seats in parliament. All of the abovementioned measures are being used to this end. Add to this 15-20 potential turncoats among opposition forces (see an analysis of the party lists of leading opposition forces in UW,Issue 31 and 32, 2012). This enables the Presidential Administration to set its sights on a constitutional majority in the new Verkhovna Rada if it succeeds in obtaining 170-180 mandates in first-past-the-post districts. This is quite feasible, considering that opposition forces are not acting in a coordinated fashion there. Many of their candidates are weak, and sometimes the opposition is obviously playing into the hands of pro-government candidates. Representatives of Batkivshchyna and UDAR continue to point fingers at each other for failing to abide by the January agreement on a common, jointly approved list of candidates. Another negative factor is that a number of notable opposition members are being elbowed out. For example, in a telling image-crushing address in Lviv on 16 September Oles Doniy accused Batkivshchyna of selling places on its party list and in first-past-the-post districts (which allegedly costs USD 1.5mn apiece) and also said that the leadership of the united opposition often nominates clearly weak candidates.
According to calculations made byThe Ukrainian Week, if the opposition fails to nominate agreed-upon candidates, the Party of Regions, its satellites and potential defectors may claim 176 mandates under the first-past-the-post system. In oblasts where the ruling party has at least a relatively higher rating, its representatives stand the best chance of winning if they make full use of administrative resources and don’t have strong rivals supported by all opposition forces. In regions where the latter have an absolute advantage, a successful strategy is used against their “independent” candidates, whereby they are supported by the government (administrative resources) and oligarchs close to it (financing).
If Mr. Yanukovych’s regime gains a constitutional majority in parliament, this could pose the threat of fatal consequences for the country. “300 and more votes” will eliminate the last remaining barriers and top officials, including the president, will have carte blanche to implement what they think is the ideal social order. Ukraine’s statehood will be jeopardized as the regime’s actions will lead to even further isolation from the civilized world. Nothing will prevent the government from accepting the initiatives of the Kremlin which seeks to restore a Soviet-like empire. A consequence of this will be that the state system will undergo entirely predictable changes, making it impossible or nearly impossible to rotate the government, using the instruments of representative democracy. Thus Ukrainian society will have to pay a heavy price for the Party of Regions’ constitutional majority.
NOT TOO LATE YET
Why is it that a minority government, that has never had the support of even half of the Ukrainian population, is going to claim a constitutional majority in Ukraine. What has made this possible? The answer should be sought, among other things, in the inability of the opposition to join forces and a number of tactical errors. It all began with its support of the election law proposed and imposed by the government in autumn 2011. It not only opened the way for the government to obtain a majority via first-past-the-post districts and placing the Svoboda Party under threat of not attaining the parliamentary threshold, thus stripping the opposition of nearly 5% of the vote. Moreover, the opposition’s passive response to the Presidential Administration’s orchestration of a modification to the procedure, granting parties the right to nominate their representatives to election commissions, also has a negative impact. It has opened the way to the mass falsification, of the results of opposition forces, achieved under current difficult conditions and despite administrative pressure and the information blockade.
Is it possible to avert this scenario? That depends on how coordinated opposition forces will be and whether they will be able to withdraw obviously weak candidates in first-past-the-post districts in favour of more popular figures. This can be done, among other things, by reaching agreements with independent candidates who could potentially resist parliamentary defection. Opposition candidates should not only be agreed upon, but their results must be secured through the joint action of opposition forces. Observers from various opposition parties, who will be monitoring ballot counting, should cooperate closely to prevent pro-government and technical parties from vote-rigging.
A genuinely independent exit poll will play a very important role and special care is needed in the selection of its participants, considering that the government may succeed in finding a common language with even authoritative polling companies, which remain under its jurisdiction. Meanwhile, in many or possibly most cases an exit poll may prove to be the only counterargument against pre-determined results being reported by election commissions, most of which are controlled by the Party of Regions.
Voters, especially those who are skeptical, often for good reason, of existing opposition forces, should understand that, more than ever before, these elections are about saying “no” rather than “yes”. First and foremost, they are about averting a scenario whereby the very opportunity to say either “yes” or “no” could disappear. This is a case whereby society will be victorious even if the government gains a simple, rather than a constitutional parliamentary majority.