A Game of Snap with Joker

27 January 2016, 19:08

Right now, Ukraine’s politicians are facing a conundrum: nearly all the parties want a snap election to the Verkhovna Rada, except maybe Premier Arseniy Yatseniuk and his nearly moribund People’s Front. Even the Petro Poroshenko Bloc would be happy to get rid of a few dozen unruly deputies in their faction for more compliant majoritarians, although the President keeps saying “Four years with no elections” and joint statements keep being issued with the Premier and Speaker with the message “Peace and love, brother!”

The rabbit pulls himself out of a hat

Most likely, though, there won’t be any snap election or even a Cabinet shuffle. In fact, Yatseniuk appears to be the only real obstacle to a pre-term “celebration of democracy.” Or, to put it more precisely, he’s been able to persuade everyone that the lynchpin to the current government configuration lies in him. Now, at the beginning of January, with the political season not yet started and after the scandalous adoption of the State Budget, it’s quite clear that Yatseniuk is going to be around for a long time yet. And that pretty much guarantees that there will be no election soon.

Understandably, Yatseniuk’s main purpose is to hold on to his spot in the PM’s office because his party has little to no chance of gaining seats in the next legislature, and to hang on to his post as Head of Government for as long as possible so that he can prove to angry voters that he is able to accomplish something. If he is dismissed now, then, as possibly the most hated politician in the country today, he will have to forget about his political career for a few years at the least. For that, Ukrainians can thank both the media that serve Bankova and those that are hostile to the PM, for having made Yatseniuk the main culprit—often enough very much deservedly so—in the stalling of “decisive reforms” and the impoverishment of a big chunk of the population.

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It seems that Yatseniuk put things quite bluntly: either I’m premier or you can kiss the coalition good-bye. And that would mean a snap election this spring, something that the Presidential Administration does not want. He had no qualms about confronting the entire political elite and is currently celebrating, maybe not a victory, but the preservation of the territory he has staked out. He succeeded by maximally personalizing the situation in the country: either I’m in government or the government goes. The reality is that, weak as the party’s future may be, right now People’s Front votes are the only thing keeping the current coalition alive. Otherwise, it has no chance of surviving, no matter how it tries to re-form itself, even if it includes “the living and the dead and the unborn” such as former Party of the Regions deputies from the Opposition Bloc. Yatseniuk effectively set up a classic stalemate. It worked.

The irreplaceable Mr. Yatseniuk?

Interestingly, as recently as the beginning of December, it looked like the PM's days on Hrushevsky Street were numbered. Poroshenko’s closest allies and the President himself were sending out signals in every way possible that it was time for him to pack his bags. Speaker Volodymyr Hroysman began to consider how he would rearrange the furniture the PM’s Office. Then suddenly Bankova retreated. Why?

Firstly, because the White House let it be known that it was very much against such a move. Rumor has it that the Americans were absolutely unwilling to support Hroysman as an alternative, not so much because they are enamored of Yatseniuk but because they don’t want to see Poroshenko usurp power. Nor do they see Hroysman as the right person to be at the helm in Ukraine at such a very difficult time. President Obama is coming to the end of his presidency and is thinking of his place in history: a new round of political and economic crises in Ukraine that could well lead to an escalation of the situation at the front, too, is the last thing he needs.

Secondly, Poroshenko has no realistic candidate for the premiership, besides Hroysman. Rumors that the President wanted to push the informal leader of “Dear Friends 2.0,” Ihor Kononenko for the post most likely really were nothing more than gossip. Poroshenko is not prepared to commit political suicide. The point is not just that there would never be enough votes to support Kononenko as a candidate, but that to even propose such a despised individual would simply kill the President’s ratings and reputation for good.

Saakashvili: From Odesa to Kyiv the hard way

The idea of Mikheil Saakashvili as premier is so far being treated as more of a joke. Poroshenko understands very well that the Georgian ex-president is a dangerous ally with enormous ambitions and far more experience running a country—albeit one that is around one tenth the size of Ukraine. And he has a track record of success, together with the natural gift of a high-quality populist. So it’s one matter to sic him on Yatseniuk, but another altogether to let him replace the PM.

Credit should also be given to Saakashvili that he understands the game being played by Bankova quite well and has clearly decided to work his way to power in Ukraine on his own. He has already launched his own political project that so far looks quite promising. If persistent rumors are right, he also has the healthy financial support of tycoon Kostiantyn Hryhoryshyn, who is currently at odds with both the President’s inner circle and Yatseniuk’s team. Moreover, neither Poroshenko nor Saakashvili have burned any bridges.

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Meanwhile, from old habit, the spin doctors at Bankova are trying to channel the anti-Poroshenko protest vote towards parties that the Presidential Administration has control over. So far, they have managed to set up “Nash Krai,” “People Control” and “The Party of Ordinary Folks” with Serhiy Kaplin. The idea of an anti-corruption imitative has been blowing in the wind for some time and the President’s team is trying hard to latch onto it as well. However, it will be very hard to come to an agreement with the Anti-Corruption Movement, whose leader, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko is aggressively set against Poroshenko, especially after his ugly dismissal as head of the Security Bureau of Ukraine (SBU). Saakashvili might be a little easier to persuade, especially since “Mikho” is still governor of Odesa Oblast.

Early elections: Everyone’s call—and no one’s

The Presidential Administration understands that early Rada elections are in the cards, sooner or later. The main question is how much later. On the one hand, it’s not worth waiting too long because the President and his party are losing ground, even if not as quickly as Yatseniuk and People’s Front. So, the longer the election is postponed, the fewer chances of even achieving the results they had in 2014. On the other, no one is prepared to call an election just for the sake of doing so. They need to be prepared and to establish a clear system of satellites, allies and spin-offs. Since most of this is not currently in place, Poroshenko has no mind to rush things.

What’s more, however intractable Yatseniuk may have been, he’s a useful figure for Bankova at the moment. With his marginal ratings and dismal voter trust, he will make a convenient scapegoat on whom to pin everything later on. Indeed, the Administration has been active in this for a year already and the tactic will likely sustain it for another half-year. Poroshenko’s strategy for the upcoming six months appears to be to keep nibbling away at Yatseniuk without any consequences and to form various columns for the march to the election.

As to the other Rada parties and the forces close to them, it’s clear that they are generally itching to go to the polls. For instance, with the ratings of the Opposition Bloc and Vidrodzhennia (Renaissance Party) on the rise, both Serhiy Liovochkin and Rinat Akhmetov are keen to increase their influence over domestic politics. Still, their expansion is only possible as long as Bankova connives by not going after ex-separatists or former officials from the Yanukovych regime. The price for this is no political moves against the current President. Whether or not to violate this “mutual non-aggression pact” is a big question, but the Regionals could well just wait it out until the elections fall in their lap.

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Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party is also not against early elections. Her once sky-high ratings she’s as likely to see as her own ears, but it would be nice to gain a couple or five more seats in the Rada. Batkivshchyna’s ratings suggest that this is quite realistic, especially if Ms. T. continues to fill the ears naive voters with rants about utility rates. But…the cost of yet another campaign is keeping the red hearts from rushing headlong into early elections, as Tymoshenko no longer has the kind of capital as in the glorious 2000s. So, the $10 million question is, will it actually be worth spending tens of millions just to gain the 10-15 more seats that Batkivshchyna should be able to carve out.

Samopomich did quite well in local elections last fall, but it’s still busy digesting hundreds of new deputies at the lower levels who need to reliably settle on the party bandwagon. On the one hand, an early election could well increase Samopomich’s forces in the Rada quite significantly. Its moderate opposition to the Poroshenko Administration also pulls for early elections. But Sadoviy’s party has nowhere special to rush to, as its main goal is the 2020 presidential race. Until then, Samopomich needs to figure out how to keep its nose clean by limiting responsibility and its involvement in real government. Then, again, there are the campaign costs that the recently-adopted party financing bill will not cover in any way. This means that, for Sadoviy & Co., early elections are a nice idea, but not one they are in a hurry to support.

Who’s categorically against early elections is Oleh Liashko. His Radical Party is wobbling on the threshold of making it into the next Rada. Ukraine’s favorite loose cannon had been having a very hard time just now: the KO handed to him by the arrest of his party member, a notorious ex-PR deputy chief for Azov, Ihor Mosiychuk, continues to work very much against him. With Tymoshenko hogging the issue of utility rates and Saakashvili good at setting up a political show, what is left for Ukraine’s main pitchfork-bearer? Liashko needs to drag out the date of the next election in order to come up with some approach that works.

The only party itching for an election tomorrow is Svoboda. With its clumsy attack at the party following the August 31 grenade incident, Bankova did a very big favor for Oleh Tiahnybok & Co.: their ratings recovered. As the local elections showed, Svoboda is quite capable of repeating its success in 2012, or at a minimum making it into the new Rada with a healthy margin. Thanks to its main sponsor, Ihor “Poops” Kryvetskiy, money is not an issue for Svoboda. The real problem is that its handful of majoritarians in the Rada from the party is clearly unable to influence the situation. In the local elections, however, Svoboda gained factions all across the country, so there could be a string of demands from those county and oblast councils about the need for early elections.

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In short, there won’t be any election this coming spring, which means there won’t be any in the summer, either. That makes next fall the earliest that an election might be called. However, it’s 99% likely that the snap election will be called on the heels of Yatseniuk’s dismissal, and that’s unlikely to happen, given the current configuration of forces, until at least the fall, in which case the election will be called for spring 2017. Whatever happens, the political situation in Ukraine is in a very fragile equilibrium that could be disturbed by the least little thing. Still, it’s most probable that Ukrainians will not go to the polls at all in 2016.

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