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Ukraine: Parties Get Down To Crucial Election Campaign

Yushchenko and Tymoshenko both have blocs running in the elections (AFP) Ukraine has started its campaign for next year's parliamentary elections. They will be the country's first under a fully proportional, party-list system. And with a constitutional reform taking effect on 1 January 2006, they are expected to produce a legislature with much heavier political clout than all the previous ones.

During the past week, Ukraine's three most important political forces held conventions to approve their lists of candidates for the 26 March 2006 ballot.

The Party of Regions, led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and President Viktor Yushchenko's main rival in the 2004 presidential election, approved its list on 3 December.

The Party of Regions now leads in public opinion polls, enjoying support of around 25 percent of the electorate. A recent simulation by the Kyiv-based Democratic Initiative Fund (FDI) pollster suggests that Yanukovych's party could count on 165 mandates in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada.

The pro-presidential Our Ukraine People's Union (NSNU) also put together its election list on 3 December.

The NSNU is planning to form an election coalition called the Our Ukraine Yushchenko Bloc with five other parties. It reportedly wants its coalition partners to provide 35 percent of the candidates to be included on a joint election list.

According to opinion polls, the NSNU is currently supported by some 13 percent of voters. That, the FDI says, could translate into 93 parliamentary mandates.

Ukraine's third major political force, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, was able to determine just the 10 top names on its election list at a congress on 7 December, pledging to supply the remainder next week.

Yushchenko-Tymoshenko Split

The Tymoshenko bloc, which supported Viktor Yushchenko's presidential bid in 2004, will run independently from the Our Ukraine Yushchenko Bloc in 2006, following the sacking of Tymoshenko's cabinet by Yushchenko in September. According to the FDI, with support of around 12 percent, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc could win 88 seats in the Verkhovna Rada.

The Yushchenko-Tymoshenko split may have a huge impact on both the progress of the election campaign, the results of the parliamentary elections, and the shape of a future ruling coalition. At present, it is unlikely that Yushchenko and Tymoshenko will join forces.

Ukrainian political scientist Kost Bondarenko told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that it is difficult to predict who will run the government in Ukraine after the elections.

"There may be the most unbelievable [postelection] alliances. Today's political opponents may become political allies, while erstwhile allies may become political foes," Bondarenko said. "We have often seen such diverse ups and downs in affinities between political parties."

According to Bondarenko, Yanukovych's Party of Regions now seems to be the most likely center for a future parliamentary coalition, either with Yushchenko or Tymoshenko.

But the confusion among voters after the split of the Orange Revolution coalition has other grave consequences.

FDI Director Iryna Bekeshkina told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that, less than four months before election day, Ukrainians continue to lose faith in their political leaders.

"[Public] trust in all political leaders continues to decline. At present none of [Ukraine's] political leaders enjoys a positive trust-distrust balance. Distrust in all politicians exceeds trust in them, and it does quite significantly. That's the first thing," Bekeshkina said.

"Second, what disturbs us is that the belief that the elections will be unfair is now the same as it was on the eve of the past elections. I personally don't want to assert that the elections will be such, but voters are convinced in advance that the elections will not be fair."

Party Lists

Ukrainian voters may also find more reasons for intensifying their distrust in the political establishment after they look more closely at some party election lists.

The Party of Regions' election list includes not only the richest man in Ukraine, dollar billionaire Rynat Akhmetov, but also 12 managers of companies united in Akhmetov's corporation, Capital System Management. In addition, the list also names four former or present managers of the Shakhtar Donetsk soccer club owned by Akhmetov.

All of Akhmetov's people are positioned high enough on the list to practically guarantee their election to the Verkhovna Rada. One Ukrainian commentator remarked sarcastically that they will be able to form a full-fledged faction within the Party of Regions' parliamentary representation. A faction in the Verkhovna Rada may be formed by at least 14 deputies.

Moreover, the Party of Regions' election list includes -- apart from its leader, Viktor Yanukovych -- Yanukovych's son, lawyer, and press secretary.

The pro-Yushchenko NSNU also has some interesting candidates on its list.

A month ago, during an NSNU convention, Yushchenko reportedly urged delegates to kick out of the party those of his Orange Revolution comrades who had been accused of corruption and then fired from government posts.

A subsequent investigation has not confirmed the corruption allegations but Yushchenko apparently felt such candidates could be liabilities in the election campaign.

However, delegates at the NSNU convention in November did not heed Yushchenko's advice. Those politicians, mostly with murky links to big business, stayed in the party ranks. And on 3 December some of these individuals were placed on the NSNU election list in positions guaranteeing their election.

Yushchenko, who was given the first place on the list, failed to appear at this gathering and later said he was withdrawing his name from the list.

It is perhaps easy to understand why.

Apart from having been accused of corruption and running a "parallel government" in Ukraine, some of these undesirable parliamentary candidates have also been charged of using money of exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovskii to fund Yushchenko's presidential campaign. Those allegations won't go down well with Ukrainian voters.
In theory, the fully proportional, party-list system was devised to structure the traditionally volatile Ukrainian parliament more distinctly and produce a lasting ruling majority. The 2006 parliamentary elections may well achieve these objectives.

But will Ukrainians be more happy with a new parliament, for which some crucial choices were already made by party bosses and their sponsors behind closed doors, without asking the permission of ordinary voters?

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