Legislative elections were held in Ukraine on October 28, 2012. The 450 seats in Ukraine’s unicameral legislature, the Verkhovna Rada, are now elected by a mixed voting system rather than entirely through party-list proportional representation. 225 members are elected in single-member constituencies by FPTP, while the other half of members are elected by party-list PR with a 5% threshold. This new electoral law, adopted in 2011, also barred coalitions of parties from competing and removed the “against all vote” (none of the above) option from the ballots. Ukraine’s legislature had been elected using a similar mixed voting system in 1998 and 2002, but in the last two elections (in 2006 and 2007), it was elected entirely through party-list PR.
Ukrainian politics are famously polarized, as the world found out with the Orange Revolution in 2004. In 2010, pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in another closely disputed contest. His victory closed the door on five years of “orange” (pro-Western/pro-European) rule, which had begun with Viktor Yushchenko’s election in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution in December 2004.
Since its independence in 1991, Ukraine has remained a country polarized and almost evenly divided around two opposing visions: those who see Russia as Ukraine’s natural ally and trading partner (hence favouring close ties with Russia) and those who see Ukraine’s future closer to western Europe and favour European integration. In 1991, with the exception of Crimea, there was broad consensus on the idea of Ukrainian independence and neither the pro-Russians or the pro-European factions contest Ukraine’s sovereignty. However, the broad consensus covered major disagreements on what path an independent Ukraine should take.
These paths find their roots in Ukraine’s past as a contested and divided border region – in fact, the word “Ukraine” itself likely means “border region” or “frontier”. Until Soviet domination, Ukraine was, for centuries, divided between two empires: the eastern regions of Ukraine were under Russian domination for centuries, while the western regions of Ukraine (notably Galicia) were under Polish and later Hapsburg Austrian rule. In the east, with the exception of a brief respite between 1925 and 1932, Moscow – both the Tsarist and the Soviet regimes – pursued “Russification” policies which imposed Russian as the dominant language and severely restricted the use of the Ukrainian language. As a result, eastern Ukraine remains a largely Russian-speaking region which has long been tied – politically, culturally and economically – to Russia itself. In the west, Polish rule meant that the Polish language gradually became the lingua franca of the urban Ukrainian intelligentsia; but at the end of the 19th century, under the auspices of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, Galicia was granted some sort of autonomy which was mostly tailored to the dominant Polish classes but which eventually allowed the development of a burgeoning Ukrainian cultural movement – Vienna allowed for the development of some sort of Ukrainian national identity to tamper Russia’s expansionist ambitions.
The linguistic divide in Ukraine goes hand in hand with deep disagreements between the “Russian” east and the “European” west about the direction which Ukraine should take. There is also a religious divide which factors into the equation: western Ukraine’s particular identity is reinforced by the presence of a large Eastern Catholic (Uniate) population in Galicia. The Crimea, finally, is distinct from “Russian” eastern Ukraine in that its population is predominantly ethnically (not only linguistically) Russian. It was ceded to Ukraine only in 1954, and the peninsula – now an autonomous region within Ukraine – is still of major strategic importance to Russia.
Yushchenko’s presidency was a major disappointment, as evidenced by his reelection bid in 2010 (he won 5.5%). He was never able to assert his authority or his political agenda, and the only thing which came out of his presidency were bitter and acrimonious disputes: with his former pro-Western ally Yulia Tymoshenko (the hairbraid lady) and with Russia (over natural gas: Ukraine is energetically dependent on Russia). He proved unwilling to tackle deep corruption in Ukraine’s political system.
In contrast, Yanukovych, for better or for worse, has been, undeniably, a much more effective politician than Yushchenko ever was. Orange rule did not usher in a revolution in Ukraine’s geopolitical positioning, but Yanukovych has managed, in less than three years, to shift Ukraine further and further from western Europe. In 2010, shortly after his election, he signed a very controversial deal which extended the Russian lease on the Sevastopol Russian navy base until 2042 in return for cheaper (preferential) prices on Russian gas. While he has not been able to declare Russian as a second official language, the government did pass a new language laws which allows the oblasts (and municipalities) to give official status to Russian and other minority languages in those areas where they exceed 10% of the population.
Yanukovych and his Prime Minister – Mykola Azarov – have said that fighting corruption is one of their main priorities. That might be true, but the way in which they have done so resemble a political vendetta aimed at crippling the pro-Western opposition rather than rooting out the power of money and oligarchs in Ukrainian politics. The courts have gone after Tymoshenko for various corruption cases, most significantly a case of abuse of power and embezzlement related to a gas deal she signed as Prime Minister in 2009. She was sentenced to 8 years in jail in October 2011 for this case, and there appears to be other cases pending (including murder, tax fraud and embezzlement). While it is clear that all Ukrainian politicians – from both sides – are crooks and the pro-Western coalition are not young virgins as the Western media likes to portray it; the government’s prosecution of Tymoshenko and her allies seems clearly politically motivated and aims at removing her from active politics. She claims that she is the victim of a dictatorial authoritarian regime which must be stopped before it is too late, and foreign organizations (including the EU) have criticized the trials against Tymoshenko.
Yanukovych is not anti-Western (at least not in public), he wants to build a free trade zone with the EU. However, his actions have won him the ire of the EU. Critics fear he is creating a “controlled democracy”: silencing his major opponents and controlling the media and public institutions. The government recently passed a press law which seems to aim at curtailing the freedom of the press.
Every Ukrainian election always attract new players: oligarchs, businessmen or celebrities who start up their political parties, often on “anti-corruption” populist platform. Eventually, they get integrated into the major parties. For example, Sergei Tigipko – a pro-Russian independent who won 13.1% in the 2010 election – is now a high-ranking cabinet minister and has integrated the ruling Party of Regions (PR). Arseniy Yatsenyuk, another independent from the 2010 election who won 7% on a pro-western platform, was the top candidate of Yulia Tymoshenko’s party – All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland” (also known as Batkivschyna), even if his own political party remains – for now – a separate party.
This election also had some new players. The biggest of them was Vitaliy Klichko, a former heavyweight boxing champion, the leader of a pro-western and anti-corruption outfit known as UDAR. Another party which attracted significant attention and spent a fortune on its campaign was “Ukraine – Forward!”, a new (allegedly) pro-western party led by Natalia Korolevska, a young woman who has lots of money and who was recently expelled from Tymoshenko’s party. Korolevska’s party recruited popular Ukrainian football player Andriy Shevchenko. However, her party is widely perceived to be a fraud set up by Yanukovych and the government to siphon votes away from the opposition.
Turnout was 57.98%, down from 62% in 2007. With 99.84% reporting, the results are as follows – the popular vote reflects the party-list vote. with the parties who only ran FPTP candidates and won seats listed at the end of the list.:
PR 29.99% (-4.38%) winning 187 seats (+12) [73 PR, 114 FPTP]
Fatherland 25.53% (-5.18%) winning 103 seats (-53) [61 PR, 42 FPTP]
UDAR – Vitaliy Klichko 13.95% (+13.95%) winning 40 seats (+40) [34 PR, 6 FPTP]
Communist Party 13.18% (+7.79%) winning 32 seats (+5) [32 PR]
Svoboda (Freedom) 10.44% (+9.68%) winning 37 seats (+37) [25 PR, 12 FPTP]
Ukraine-Forward! 1.58% (+1.58%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Our Ukraine 1.11% (-13.04%) winning 0 seats (-72)
Radical Party 1.08% (+1.08%) winning 1 seat (+1) [1 FPTP]
Others 3.14% winning 0 seats (nc)
United Centre winning 3 seats (+3) [3 FPTP]
People’s Party winning 2 seats (-18) [2 FPTP]
Union Party winning 1 seat (+1) [1 FPTP]
Independents winning 44 seats (+44) [44 FPTP]
NOTE: FPTP seats are not finalized as of today (Nov. 3)
Viktor Yanukovych’s party – the Party of Regions (PR) – emerged victorious. The electoral reform, designed specifically to ensure that he would retain a legislative majority, helped matters out for Yanukovych’s party. In single-member districts, the PR and its allies – all those independents are pro-government and can certainly be expected to back the government – benefited from the division of the opposition vote to win a good number of single-member districts in the western regions, as this map shows.
Yanukovych is not particularly popular and not a lot of voters are enamoured by his government’s record. However, the government went into the election with a well-oiled machine which had managed to sideline its top rival by throwing her in jail, and which could manipulate public opinion through a tight control of most media sources. Tons of irregularities (vote buying, intimidation and so forth) were committed during the campaign, by both sides but largely by the government’s supporters. Few Ukrainians trusted these elections to be free and fair, and the OSCE observers came out of these elections quite unimpressed. They noted a general decline or reversal in democracy in Ukraine, and criticized the abusive use (and abuse) of administrative resources, the lack of transparency, the imbalance in media coverage and the excessive role of money in the election. The vote was likely largely fair, but there is some evidence of tampering (in the PR’s favour) with the results in very closely fought races in single-member districts.
This criticism notwithstanding, however, the President’s party has secured a strong majority in the Parliament. With the support all 44 independents, it already has a narrow majority. On top of that, it seems likely that the largely unreformed and pro-Russian Communist Party (CPU) will continue backing the government. The Communists, led by the crazy old Petro Symonenko for nearly 20 years, performed strongly in this election and significantly improved their share of the vote.
Assuming all independents back the government (which is quite possible – they can always buy the support of whoever is a bit more restive), the government and its allies would have at least 263 seats. However, this would still leave them short of the two-thirds majority required to change the constitution. The government had wanted this two-thirds majority in order to abolish direct presidential elections, so that Yanukovych would run no risk of losing reelection in 2015. Unless they can bribe a substantial number of opposition parliamentarians, they have fallen short of a super-majority.
Nevertheless, this result reinforces Yanukovych’s power. He retains carte blanche for his policies. Whether or not he pushes Ukraine down the dangerous path of “controlled democracy” and creeping authoritarianism is subjective, the opposition certainly alleges that Yanukovych is creating a dictatorship and silencing all his rivals. The government would prefer to say that they are merely cracking down on corruption.
The opposition parties had a fairly solid performance when it comes to the popular vote, the adoption of the mixed voting system with the big dose of FPTP certainly worked against them and means that they are left with a minority in Parliament. The opposition claims that the government is cracking down on them, but there is little doubt that if they had come to power they would have done exactly the same thing. Indeed, the opposition’s priority, if it had won the elections, would have been to quickly pass a law allowing for the impeachment of the president and then use this new law to impeach Yanukovych and turn the tables around.
Tymoshenko’s party lost around 5% support compared to the 2007 legislative election, leaving them roughly at her level from the first round of the 2010 presidential election. They likely suffered from the absence of their iconic leader. While retaining leadership of the disparate opposition front, their inability to reach a deal with Vitaliy Klichko’s bunch certainly hurt them in this election and will continue to weaken the opposition afterwards.
Vitaliy Klichko’s new party, UDAR, had a strong performance, taking 14% of the vote. In a country where there is widespread disillusion and discontent with the established parties and politicians – the common feeling is that they’re all crooks who squabble among themselves but do little for the country - Klichko’s populist and anti-corruption party appealed to a certain type of voter who is unhappy with the traditional politicians. Klichko focused more on populist rhetoric and corruption rather than the opposition’s traditional focus on issues such as European integration or Ukrainian nationalism/patriotism.
The most interesting phenomenon of this election and one of its most remarkable aspects, which unfortunately hasn’t received much media attention, is the success of the All-Ukrainian Union “Freedom” or Svoboda. Svoboda, a fairly old far-right nationalist party, is an interesting movement. The party is virulently anti-Russian and nationalistic; the party has clear roots in the old Ukrainian nationalism of Galicia/western Ukraine, particularly to those anti-Semitic nationalist organizations in western Ukrainian which actively collaborated with the Nazis during World War II and the Holocaust. The party’s platform includes criminal prosecution for “Ukrainophobia”, indicating ethnic origin on passports and birth certificates (an old Soviet practice), leaving the CIS or preferential treatment for Ukrainian children in schools. These kinds of policies are clearly aimed at sidelining eastern Ukraine’s Russian minority and establishing ominous formal ethnic differentiation in Ukrainian society. The platform only provides the public and more politically correct face of the movement, in private, Svoboda has links to neo-Nazi and/or anti-Semitic groups and assorted thugs.
The party is ‘pro-western’, but it has little interest in the European Union and the liberal democratic values it embodies. However, by its nature as a Ukrainian nationalist party, it has a natural attraction to western Europe (as opposed to Russia), but its attachment to Europe is primarily along older ethnic and racial lines. The Economist had an interesting article where they quoted a Svoboda voter in Kiev as saying: “I want Ukraine to be a powerful country and if we have to choose between Europe and Russia it is Europe for us. Russia is Asia and I don’t trust Asians” (emphasis mine).
The party first made its mark in Ukrainian politics in 2009, when it over 30% of the vote in a regional election in Ternopil oblast in western Ukraine. In the 2010 local elections, Svoboda won over 5% of the vote nationally and became the largest party in the regional councils of Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk oblasts. It was expected to do well this year, but easily clearing the 5% threshold and winning a huge 10% of the vote was clearly unexpected and represents a major surprise.
The first reason for Svoboda (and UDAR)’s success this year is the division and slow decrepitude of the other, traditional, forces of the pro-western movement. Yulia Tymoshenko’s party is weakened by internal dissent and from the absence of its iconic leader. Yushchenko (who was a candidate in this election, yes!) and his party (Our Ukraine) suffered what is probably their final blow this year. However, the most convincing answer is probably the radicalization of Ukrainian politics since 2010. Yanukovych pushing Ukraine further and further away from Europe has not come without reaction, and his policies have been accompanied by a series of rather inflammatory and provocative statements by some in his entourage. The firebrand education and science minister, Dmytro Tabachnyk, incensed nationalist western Ukrainians when he said that they aren’t really Ukrainian. Many western Ukrainians resent Yanukovych and the PR’s policies are perceived as inadmissible attacks on the country’s language, culture and history. His policies, alongside the provocations of people like Tabachnyk and others, have only fueled the fires of far-right nationalism anti-Russian sentiment in western Ukraine (especially Galicia).
To take the laws of supply and demand, Svoboda represents the partisan supply responding to a particular demand from a segment of the electorate. But at the same time, supply has also created demand. The mainstream parties and the Ukrainian media (even the pro-Russian/PR-aligned media) hold their share of responsibility for Svoboda’s emergence. Since 2010, Svoboda has benefited from rather free access to the audiovisual media and extensive coverage in the print media. The country’s most popular political talk show hosts, even those on pro-Russian channels owned by oligarchs close to the PR or its politics, have often invited Svoboda representatives, such as the party’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok. Tyahnybok and others added piquancy to TV debates.
Some allege that PR has been secretly backing Svoboda as a bid to divide their opposition and particularly weaken Tymoshenko’s party. The two parties are a world apart (even if they share a similar affection for authoritarianism), but Svoboda’s emergence can be politically beneficial for the PR. Yanukovych and his government can use them and the “fascist threat” they represent to justify their semi-authoritarian policies. From an electoral standpoint, some have speculated that the PR would like Tyahnybok to be Yanukovych’s main opponent (runner-up) in the 2015 presidential election because it would certainly ensure Yanukovych’s reelection. However, claims that the PR is secretly feeding Svoboda remain extremely dubious.
From remarkable success to embarrassing failure, Ukraine-Forward! – Natalia Korolevska and Andriy Shevchenko’s new outfit – fell flat on its face. Korolevska blanketed the airwaves with ads and spent a fortune on the election, but her very superficial/celebrity-driven campaign failed to convince many voters. Its reputation as a Yanukovych/government decoy did not help matters either. Korolevska is quite resilient: her defeat statement apparently took the form of an announcement that she would run for President in 2015. Good luck with that.
The map stuck to its familiar look this year. The PR was dominant in the eastern half of the country and Crimea, taking over 60% in the predominantly Russophone Donetsk mining basin and over 50% in Crimea and Luhansk (another predominantly Russian industrial area in eastern Ukraine). In these three aforementioned regions and other oblasts in eastern Ukraine, the CPU often placed a (distant) second. In Kherson, the CPU won 23% against the PR’s 29% and was, inexplicably (for me at least) very strong in a few areas south of the city of Kherson, as this map of results (list vote) by district shows. In western Ukraine (except Transcarpathia), Tymoshenko’s party was usually dominant, but not to the same extent as the PR was in Donetsk or Crimea. UDAR and Svoboda, of course, were strong in roughly the same regions and often placed second and/or third.
Svoboda won Lviv oblast, a hotbed of (often radical and historically anti-Semitic) Ukrainian nationalism, with 38%. It took 31% in Ternopil and 33.8% in Ivano-Frankivsk oblasts. These three oblasts correspond to Galicia (northwestern Ukraine is known as Volhynia) and all three have a long history as Ukrainian nationalist strongholds. It is important to point out that these three oblasts were part of Austria-Hungary until 1918, whereby Volhynia had already been a governorate in the Russian Empire. Hence, Galicia – whose “attachment” to Russia is the weakest of all regions of Ukraine (besides Transcarpathia) – is a hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism. Many in the region actively collaborated (not only militarily but also in the deportation and extermination of Jews) with the Nazis against the Soviets during World War II. In 1991, these three oblasts voted over 80% against the preservation of the USSR – when only 28.5% did likewise in the rest of the-then Ukrainian SSR.
Svoboda performed well in Volhynia as well, but it was in Galicia where it found its most solid base of support (over 30%) – it is quite amusing how Svoboda’s support also delineates the parts of Ukraine which were Austrian until the end of World War I. The PR performed very poorly in Galicia (slightly over or below 5%): unlike Kravchuk and Kuchma, Yanukovych has not seen his support “shift” to the west.
In the medium and long-term, the PR’s victory reinforces Yanukovych’s presidency. He does not have absolute powers in Parliament (though it is not unattainable: just buy a few opposition MPs), but this victory gives him a blank cheque to continue his policies. Ukraine’s certain is rather uncertain – relations with Russia are not as rosy as they are made out to be (Ukraine is unwilling to enter some sort of very close association with Moscow and Minsk) but at the same time, the EU will continue shunning Yanukovych. On the whole, he is slowly detaching Ukraine from its brief flirtation with western Europe and realigning it with the CIS and Russia; while domestically he seems to be creating a “controlled democracy” with the state keeping the media on a tight leash and cracking down on its most threatening opponents (under the cover of ‘fighting corruption’). However, as Svoboda’s remarkable success proves, Yanukovych’s policies will not be met with quiet acquiescence in western Ukraine, especially Galicia. Rather, they could be met with a dangerous radicalization of political opinions.