New Polls Hold No Promise Of Change
As Ukraine's major political parties busy themselves accusing one another of intending to falsify the September 30 vote, fears have increased that the postelection period could be mired in protests and litigations.
The Socialist Party has already announced that it will challenge the validity of the vote in court whatever the results, and election monitors have warned that some 1 million voters may find it difficult or even impossible to cast their ballots on election day.
Centering On The Square
Earlier this week supporters of the Party of Regions started pitching tents on Kyiv's Independence Square (Maydan) as part of their self-proclaimed effort to ensure an honest vote.
In November and December 2004, the square served as the main venue for protests against the falsification of the presidential vote in favor of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Now Yanukovych's supporters are turning the tables by claiming that his rival, President Viktor Yushchenko, intends to resort to falsifications in order to prevent the Yanukovych-led Party of Regions from scoring a "crushing" victory.
On September 20, the Party of Regions issued a statement accusing its opponents of preparing "provocations" and threatening to boycott the elections.
According to the statement, opponents of the Party of Regions intend to "sabotage" the work of constituency election commissions in the party's traditional strongholds of eastern and southern Ukraine. By refusing to sign constituency voting reports, the statement claims, the opposition seeks to declare voting in those regions invalid and strip the Party of Regions of a hefty number of votes.
The opposition Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense and Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc promptly cited the Party of Regions' accusations as proof that Yanukovych and his supporters plan to contest election results they are certain to find unfavorable.
Exchanging vote-falsification accusations is an essential course on the Ukrainian electioneering menu, but Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz's declaration that his party will question the elections in court regardless of their results is a new ingredient.
"We will appeal to the courts. This is necessary in connection with the number of violations that occurred during the previous elections and that are committed now," Moroz said at an election meeting earlier this week. He did not elaborate. Some of his party colleagues explained that the Socialists question not only the fairness of the election campaign but also the legitimacy of Yushchenko's decrees calling for preterm polls.
Democracy By Decree
In April, Yushchenko issued two decrees on early elections, citing as grounds the ruling coalition's acceptance of defectors from other factions. Coalition lawmakers appealed against the decrees in the Constitutional Court and Yushchenko subsequently retracted them.
The September 30 polls were decreed by President Yushchenko in June and confirmed by another decree in August. These two decrees became possible thanks to a political deal in late May between Yushchenko, Yanukovych, and Moroz. Nevertheless, the June decree was also challenged by coalition lawmakers in the Constitutional Court, which has so far made no ruling on it.
Under the deal, more than 150 opposition deputies gave up their mandates in the Verkhovna Rada, reducing its numerical strength to below 300 deputies and thus making it illegitimate. But Moroz insisted that in quitting the legislature, the opposition deputies violated legal norms and procedures, thus casting doubt on the legality of the preterm polls. Moroz then continued to organize parliamentary sittings after the opposition's withdrawal, despite the fact that Yushchenko and the opposition deemed them illegal.
Some observers of the Ukrainian political scene predict that Moroz, whose party has little chance of overcoming the 3 percent voting threshold, will fight until the bitter end in order to prevent the installation of a new legislature -- or at least to delay this as long as possible.
And some observers assert that Moroz may be not without supporters in his fight, especially if at least one of the three election frontrunners -- the Party of Regions, the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc, and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc -- post election results that fall below expectations or aspirations.
Pessimists even assume that if election complaints fail to prevent the legalization of a new Verkhovna Rada, it can nevertheless be dissolved by the same maneuver as the current one -- a party dissatisfied with a postelection government might just ask its legislators to quit. According to opinion polls, the Party of Regions and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc both stand a chance of winning enough seats to make them singularly capable of making parliament illegitimate by withdrawing deputies.
Hurry Up And Wait
How long might it take for Ukrainian courts to deal with potential election complaints? Serhiy Kyvalov, who was the head of the infamous Central Election Commission that wanted to award the presidential victory in 2004 to Yanukovych, explained publicly earlier this week that such a process of postelection litigations could take as long as 55 days. Thus, official election results may be announced no sooner than in the last week of November.
On top of all that, according to the Committee of Voters of Ukraine (KVU), an NGO monitoring Ukrainian elections, problems with the current electoral law -- which was hastily amended in June -- could lead to nearly a million Ukrainians losing the right to vote.
Under the law, border guards must compile a list of those who have left the country since August 2 and have not returned. The border authorities transmit the names to local election commissions by September 27, which subsequently strike them from the list of eligible voters.
This scheme is questionable for at least two reasons. According to the KVU, an estimated 400,000 voters returning to Ukraine within three days of the election may be disenfranchised. Second, there is no central registry where departures from Ukrainian border checkpoints are recorded. Thus, the provision intended to eliminate voting by absent voters opens the way for new manipulations.
President Yushchenko questioned this provision in the Constitutional Court, which has so far not issued any ruling. What if a court decision qualifying this provision as unconstitutional comes after September 30? Will the elections be repeated?
The amended electoral law bans absentee voting. Again, the provision, which was originally intended to reduce vote falsifications, potentially disenfranchises an estimated 500,000 voters, including students and domestic migrant workers, who are away from their home constituencies.
The electoral law also toughens the rules for voting at home, which is believed to have been a major source of vote falsifications in the 2004 presidential polls. But it does not eliminate the possibility of falsification in such voting completely.
With more than 33,000 polling stations opened on September 30, mere handfuls of ballots stuffed in mobile ballot boxes -- a move that would be very difficult to detect -- could decide the outcome. According to some election experts, the race is expected to be very tight, and just 300,000-400,000 votes may decide who will win enough of the few seats required to form a parliamentary majority.
Thus, the postelection period, instead of the restoration of political harmony that is so craved by President Yushchenko, may bring more political turmoil and an outburst of legal wrangling. It is clear that in coming months both the Ukrainian political elites and ordinary voters are facing a very demanding test of their maturity and responsibility.
Playing The Populist Card
There are three clear frontrunners among the 20 parties and blocs registered for Ukraine's September 30 parliamentary elections -- the ruling Party of Regions led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and the pro-presidential Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc and Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc -- two former allies in the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Opinion polls suggest that none of the three forces is set to win an outright majority in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada. They also indicate 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.
If such predictions turn out to be true, the fate of a future ruling coalition may hinge on the performance of two other parties that pollsters envision being in the next parliament: the Communist Party and the Lytvyn Bloc. Most polls forecast that the Socialist Party, which obtained 5.7 percent of the vote in 2006, will 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 have been conspicuously muted or even eliminated as campaign issues.
Instead, the election frontrunners have focused on outdistancing one another in promises of socioeconomic windfalls.
Four expenditure items are present in the election manifestos of each of the three frontrunners: 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.
In addition, each party has 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 working for 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 Communists, whose election program entails an extra $60 billion in spending, and the Lytvyn Bloc, which would need no less than an extra $90 billion to follow its program to the letter.
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.
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.