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Ukraine: Playing The Populist Card In Parliamentary Elections

Prime Minister and Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych voting today in Kyiv (AFP) If Ukrainians are to believe the promises made by the parties participating in early parliamentary elections on September 30, their lives should improve regardless of who wins. The major players in the polls all made generous pledges to the electorate. The question is how they plan to overcome the mathematical impossibility of paying for all that was promised.

September 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- There were three clear front-runners among the 20 parties and blocs registered for the balloting. They are the ruling Party of Regions led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, as well as the pro-presidential Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc -- two former allies in the 2004 Orange Revolution.

New Polls Without The Promise Of Change: RFE/RL regional analyst Jan Maksymiuk says voters in Ukraine have little reason to expect a reversal from the political discord that led to the call for early elections in the first place.

Opinion polls suggested that none of the three forces was set to win an outright majority in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada. They also indicated that, as in the March 2006 elections, the Party of Regions' performance will likely be matched by Our Ukraine-People's Self Defense and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc combined.

Difference Makers

If such predictions turn out to be true, the fate of a future ruling coalition might hinge on the performance of two other parties that pollsters envisioned being in the next parliament: the Communist Party and the Lytvyn Bloc. Most polls forecast that the Socialist Party, which won 5.7 percent of the vote in 2006, would not overcome the 3-percent threshold for parliamentary representation this time around.

In contrast to the 2004 presidential and 2006 parliamentary elections, traditionally divisive foreign-policy thorns like Ukraine's potential NATO membership or domestic irritants like making Russian the second state language were conspicuously muted or even eliminated as campaign issues.

Instead, the election front-runners focused on outdistancing one another in promises of socioeconomic windfalls.

Four expenditure items are present in the election manifestos of each of the three front-runners: substantial payments to families bringing new Ukrainians into the world and monthly child support as a way to reverse the country's demographic decline; an increase in student allowances and stipends; the development of rural areas; and a considerable increase in military spending as part of the effort to develop a professional army.

Unfulfillable Promises?

In addition, each party added its own unique promises to the mix. For example, the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense wants to increase the minimum wage and the average monthly wage by some 60 percent in 2008.

The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc vows to return, within two years, more than $25 billion of savings lost by Ukrainians as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Party of Regions pledges to provide workers with apartments upon the conclusion of 20 years of employment by the state.

The Communists want to increase the minimum pension level to 70 percent of the average monthly wage, a measure that would cost the state an extra $20 billion per year.

The Lytvyn Bloc proposes a dramatic wage hike that would cost an extra $60 billion per year.

Four Ukrainian economic experts commenting in the September 22-28 issue of the Kyiv-based weekly "Zerkalo nedeli" took the election promises at face value and tallied them up.

Promises made by the Party of Regions would cost $40 billion, while those by the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc were estimated at $20 billion each. The most generous were the Lytvyn Bloc, which would need no less than an extra $90 billion to follow its program to the letter, and the Communists, whose election program entails an extra $60 billion in spending.

Adding a dose of reality to the situation, the four experts noted that Ukraine's consolidated budget revenues in 2007 were expected to be just $40 billion.

Zeal Over Immunity

A somewhat more realistic -- and no less populist -- goal is the solemn vow of both the current parliamentary opposition and the ruling coalition to cancel parliamentary immunity from prosecution, which is widely seen in Ukraine as a shield for corrupt politicians.

But even on this tricky constitutional issue, the Ukrainian political class could not avoid inflating the situation in an effort to garner cheap applause.

President Yushchenko, flanked by his wife and daughter, votes today in Kyiv (AFP)

The proposal to strip lawmakers of immunity initially came from President Viktor Yushchenko and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense. But this sound idea was subsequently blunted by the ruling coalition through their calls for the abolition of immunity not just for legislators, but also for the president, the prime minister, and other high-ranking officials, including judges.

Making the initial idea appear even more incongruous, the ruling coalition held a controversial parliamentary session earlier this month (which was condemned as illegal by the opposition) during which it voted to abolish immunity for parliamentarians and the president. For whatever reason, the prime minister and other government officials were ignored in the coalition's rush to contribute to the elimination of corruption in the country.

But it would be wrong to condemn Ukrainian politicians for exploiting the gullibility of the electorate to achieve political goals. As long as voters fail to hold politicians accountable for their promises, such practices will continue -- and not just in Ukraine.

However, what remains of utmost importance in Ukrainian politics is the continued perception among Ukrainians that, following the 2004 Orange Revolution, elections offer them genuine political choice. Under such circumstances, one day Ukrainian voters may also develop a taste for distinguishing between empty pledges and practical ideas.

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

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