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Ukraine: New Parliament Prepares For First Battles

The Ukrainian parliament, elected in voting on 30 March, was finally convened this week. The election led to big shifts in the assembly's composition. RFE/RL asks whether these changes will lead to a real transformation in the way politics is conducted in Ukraine.

Prague, 17 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since Ukraine's independence in 1991, the country's parliament has been locked in seemingly endless, unproductive arguments that have yielded little in the way of reforms.

Much of that can be blamed on the Communists, the biggest faction in parliament, who, although unable to muster the two-thirds majority necessary to force through legislation, were strong enough to block market reforms.

Although Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, now in his second term, frequently criticized the chaotic parliament, the situation allowed him to exploit the divisions to leave real power in his hands.

Many Ukrainians hoped that March's parliamentary elections would break the deadlock. Ivan Lozowy, the director of the Institute for Statehood and Democracy, an independent Ukrainian think tank, believes the vote did produce significant changes.

Lozowy notes that the Communist Party, mostly supported by elderly voters, slipped from its dominant position to third place, with 63 members in the 450-strong assembly.

Voters had to choose candidates in two ways: half by voting for a party that was then assigned seats in parliament in proportion to the number of votes cast for it, and the other half by voting for individual candidates, with the person getting the most votes in a constituency winning.

The results in the proportional party lists gave the most seats to the reformist and democratic Our Ukraine faction, led by pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister.

A party called For United Ukraine, formed to reflect Kuchma's views and to support his legislative proposals, did poorly in the proportional lists but well in other seats decided in the single-mandate districts.

"Without a doubt, this parliament produced many positive changes. There's a very big decrease in the number of Communist deputies. In fact, their group has fallen by half. Another [positive aspect] is the emergence in first place [in the proportional voting] of Our Ukraine. But as people in Ukraine point out, because neither For United Ukraine nor Our Ukraine gained an overall majority, it leaves the Communists in a situation where they have a deciding vote," Lozowy said.

For United Ukraine received enormous publicity from government-controlled media in the country but came in third in proportional voting, with 38 seats. But the For United Ukraine Party, filled with rich businessmen, many of whom owe their fortunes to Kuchma's patronage, used its enormous advantages to dominate the winner-takes-all half of the election.

These advantages included not only financial resources but what is euphemistically called "admin-resource" in Ukraine. This term refers to the various ways central and local governments and their bureaucracies -- controlled by the president -- can favor those candidates it likes and place obstacles in the way of those it opposes.

Candidates in individual races do not have to declare affiliations with any party and can run as independents. That is what many did, and it was only on 15 May when the new parliament members formally signed up to six different factions, that the exact strength of each became clear.

The largest group, of 175 deputies, has emerged as the pro-presidential For United Ukraine Party, led by former chief of presidential staff Volodymyr Lytvyn.

The second-largest faction is Yushchenko's Our Ukraine, with 119 deputies.

Other factions include the Communists, with 63 lawmakers; the Social Democrats (United) with 31 members; the opposition party of former deputy prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko with 23 deputies; and the Socialists, with 22 members. The remaining parliament members are non-aligned.

Lozowy believes some of the parties will cooperate in semi-permanent alliances to make parliament more structured than in the past, where groups often colluded for short-term, pragmatic goals.

"The most important aspect of the new parliament is the potential to create a powerful opposition bloc to the present regime. That could be done by Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko bloc and the Socialist Party. If these three parties can work on a consistent basis, it will guarantee that one of the most progressive blocs in parliament will be, if not in the majority, [at least] a pivotal influence," Lozowy said.

Lozowy thinks tax reform will be one of the most important pieces of legislation the new parliament will be able to pass. The present Ukrainian tax system is criticized as unfair and arbitrary. Businessmen say it inhibits the development of transparent business practices.

The new parliament has also begun a fierce battle over the speaker's post. For United Ukraine's Lytvyn is seen as having a good chance to win because his candidacy is supported not only by his own party but by the Social Democrats, too.

Yushchenko's faction wants to keep former speaker Ivan Plyushch in the position. Tymoshenko said her faction is ready to support any candidate proposed by Yushchenko's group.

But many political observers, including Lozowy, say the true importance of the new parliament will be to give a platform to Yushchenko ahead of the 2004 presidential elections. Opinion polls consistently show Yushchenko to be Ukraine's most popular politician and indicate he would win if presidential elections were held today.

"The parliament today, and for the next few years -- a minimum for two years -- is in reality a battlefield for two fundamental forces fighting for the presidency. These are the existing government with Kuchma at its head and his acolytes like Volodymyr Lytvyn, who has the best chance to become parliamentary speaker, and without a doubt, from the other side, the most popular politician in Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko," Lozowy said.

Lozowy said that, although presidential elections are more than two years away, circumstances may force an earlier contest. Tymoshenko has already said she will push for Kuchma's impeachment. Many Western governments, including the U.S., upon whom Ukraine depends for financial assistance, are keeping Kuchma at arms length because of allegations of corruption and abuse of power.