Ukraine's Flawed Elections: A Silver Lining?

Op-ed in Central Europe Digest

December 3, 2012

On November 12th, Ukraine's Central Election Commission finally issued the results of the parliamentary elections held on October 28th. Zhanna Usenko-Chornaya, Deputy Chair of the Central Election Commission, passed the judgment: "the dirtiest elections in Ukraine's history." The European Parliament, the European Commission, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly offered similar assessments. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that these elections constitute "a step backward for Ukrainian democracy."

All this is true. But remarkably, President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions failed to secure a majority in spite of massive fraud. I visited Kyiv three days after the elections, when representatives of the opposition and non-governmental organizations rejoiced. Against all odds, they had stood up to the pervasively corrupt regime and won a popular majority. These flawed elections might in fact mark a step toward renewed democratization, because they exposed just how unpopular the Yanukovych regime actually is. But future developments will depend on how the President, the opposition, and the West proceed.

Yanukovych used every conceivable trick in the book. He had numerous opposition leaders—notably former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko—sentenced to prison on purely political grounds. Realizing that he was unlikely to win in proportional elections, he had the electoral law amended so that only half of the parliamentarians were elected proportionately. The other half was elected in single-mandate constituencies with simple majorities, offering greater opportunities for manipulation with significant advantages for a large party.

As anticipated, the Party of Regions lost in the proportional elections. It obtained only 30 percent of the vote, while the three opposition parties received 50 percent (Fatherland of Tymoshenko and former Speaker Arseniy Yatseniuk got 25.5 percent; the heavyweight boxer World Champion Vitaliy Klichko's party Punch got 14 percent; and the nationalist Freedom party got 10.4 percent). The Communist Party, which has tended to side with Yanukovych, obtained 13 percent.

Also unsurprisingly, the government used its control over the majority of the Central Election Commission to falsify tight single-mandate races. In the end, the Commission refused to acknowledge the opposition victories in five single-mandate constituencies and called new elections there, despite protests from opposition members. In addition, the opposition parties claimed to have been deprived of 11 additional single-mandate seats.

Even so, according to the final official count, the Party of Regions secured only 185 out of 445 seats, against the opposition's 178 (Fatherland—101 seats, Punch—40, and Freedom—37). The remainder went to the Communist Party (with 32 seats) and independents (with 50 seats). Yanukovych's Party had been expected to persuade the Communists and most independents to join them, as well as to buy off some of the opposition deputies. But the Party of Regions stole so many votes from the Communists that they have declared themselves independent, and others may react in a similar fashion.

Following the elections, the opposition faced a difficult dilemma. Although they won the popular vote, they were denied parliamentary majority. What protest would be appropriate? Tymoshenko, who remains in jail on political charges, went on a hunger strike on October 29th in protest against the rigged parliamentary elections. (On November 15th, much weakened, she halted her hunger strike, on advice from her German doctors.) After much discussion, the three opposition parties decided to take their seats in parliament, but they declared jointly, "These parliamentary elections are an important stage toward the overthrow of the criminal regime of Yanukovych. They will give the Ukrainian public confidence in their own ability to influence the government and change it."

Yet, the opposition underscored in a joint declaration that the parliamentary elections did not meet international democratic standards as they "were undemocratic, unfair and non-transparent" and it is intent on using all legal forms of protest. Most notably, the opposition has demanded justice in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

At present, all are waiting for the formation of the new government. About ten ministers are leaving the cabinet, accepting seats in the parliament instead. Before the election, the friends of Oleksandr Yanukovych, the President's oldest son, were rumored to form the new government, with Serhiy Arbuzov, the current governor of the Central Bank, as prime minister. The new appointments will show how the Yanukovych family has evaluated the elections, and whether it will be forced to compromise.

The key question is how the big businessmen, who have now been eliminated from the government, will react. They are displeased with Yanukovych's predatory rule, which encroaches on their property rights, and are reacting against his isolating Ukraine from the European Union. Ultimately, Ukraine is a European country, and a broad consensus favors close cooperation with the European Union. Ukraine's big prize is a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the European Union, which has been concluded, but the European Union refuses to sign or ratify it because of Yanukovych's repression of Tymoshenko and other opposition leaders. Some of the prominent businessmen around Yanukovych believe the loss of exports to Europe is too high a cost.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's economic situation has deteriorated rapidly with falling steel prices, which dominate Ukraine's exports. Output is set to fall by about two percent in the second half of 2012, and a substantial depreciation of the Ukrainian hryvnia is widely anticipated. Yanukovych's poor economic management will not make it any easier for him to mobilize the necessary parliamentary support.

The European Union in its turn is divided. Some European politicians want to proceed with personal sanctions against the obvious human rights violators; others fear that Yanukovych may turn to Russia and emphasize the need for EU engagement with Ukraine, though so far the Kremlin has shown minimal interest. The West played an important role in these elections, primarily through thousands of international observers who limited the extent of fraud on election day.

Democracy in Ukraine is by no means lost. The European Union and the United States need to engage ever more with Ukraine to incorporate the country into the Western community of democracies, but they need to do so without illusions. Quietly, the United States has already barred some human rights violators from obtaining visas, which scares many in the President's circles. A strict balance between sticks and carrots is necessary, but the election results are an encouraging sign that Yanukovych is not untouchable.