‘Ukraine Election: The Contenders’ By Andrew Wilson

In the lead up to the October elections in Ukraine our author and Ukraine-expert, Andrew Wilson, will give us all we need to understand about the upcoming election with four informative posts. In this post, Wilson gives us a rough guide to the contenders.

The Ukrainian Elections – The Contenders

Ukraine’s parliamentary elections are due on 26 October. The opinion polls show that between five and ten parties could pass the 5% barrier for representation. But the forecasts should come with a warning. They only apply to half of the 450 seats to be elected, by proportional representation on a national party list system. The other half, normally 225, will be elected in territorial constituencies. But maybe thirty of these, in Crimea and the Donbas, will remain vacant if voting there is impossible. Optimists talk of future by-elections to fill the gaps.

But the other problem with the territorial constituencies in a country like Ukraine is the advantage they give to those with the spending power to buy the vote; in other words local ‘oligarchs’ and members of the old regime. Keeping this system was a big mistake – maybe only fifty or so MPs will be genuine new faces.

With that caveat, here is a rough guide to the parties standing.

There are three big parties on the Government Side. The Poroshenko Block, an entirely new vehicle set up to support the new President elected in May, tops the polls with 30% of the vote or more. President Poroshenko wants to win big. If he does, he will be less able to blame an obstructive parliament for failing to get things done. His eponymous block has little real ideology, however. Winning big means constructing a wide coalition from the old political system; only a few of his candidates are downright odious, but most are careerists. The block includes both crusading journalist Mustafa Naim, whose tweet started the original Maidan protests, and no less than four members of the notorious Baloha clan in the western region of Transcarpathia, the smuggling capital of central Europe. Keeping them all together in the same party will require some policy success.

The Fatherland Party of Yuliya Tymoshenko is not technically in government. The former Prime Minister still gets a sympathy vote for her time in prison between 2011 and 2014; but the party has characteristically been purged of all but the most loyal; and many former supporters are now in different parties or independents. As in the presidential election, when she came a distant second, Tymoshenko is saving her energies for the next campaign. She has positioned herself as a critic of the cease-fire and Ukraine’s military performance when it seen to be safely patriotic to do so.

But another new party, the Popular Front led by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk, is catching Fatherland in the polls. It often leads the criticism of the cease-fire and the exclusion of military solutions to the conflict. It has the highest number of military veterans on its list, especially from the volunteer battalions. Its name evokes the anti-Communist reform movements of the 1989 era.

All the other parties are polling either side of the 5% barrier. Civic Position, a coalition of civil society activists led by the respected former Defence Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, who came fourth in the presidential election with 5.5%, has the best chance of making it into parliament. Self-Help, led by Andriy Sadoviy, the major of Lviv, may fall short.

The nationalist Freedom Party has stabilised its falling ratings, by acting as if it is in opposition, not in government, where in truth only a handful of its ministers remain. It cannot repeat the 10.5% it won in 2012, but it is competing for the niche of noisy populist nationalism with the Radical Party of Oleh Liashko; who has also copied the Freedom Party’s trick of taking money from the oligarchs he condemns in public, and receiving generous airtime on their TV channels in return. Russian propaganda makes much of the xenophobic and fascist-tinged nationalism of Right Sector, which is polling less than 1%. But Liashko’s superficial fake TV nationalism is actually more typical of modern Ukraine.

The Poroshenko Block and Fatherland in particular hope to win votes in southern and eastern Ukraine. But three parties are concentrating their efforts there. The Communists have not been banned, as once seemed possible, but their vote has been in long-term decline towards a hard-core in the Donbas, which will not vote. Nevertheless, the Communists will benefit from the absence of the Party of Regions, the former ruling party under President Yanukovych.

The Opposition Block might have been banned in some other countries. It includes openly pro-Russian politicians and is allegedly financed by money from the old Yanukovych ‘Family’. Ukraine’s leading oligarch Rinat Akhmetov is also a supporter, as is the Forward Ukraine party of Nataliya Korolevska, which was an obviously fake ‘political technology’ project, even back in 2012.

Strong Ukraine, led by another oligarch, the banker Serhiy Tihipko, was originally one of the big hopes for bridging the regional divide. But with former SBU head Valeriy Khoroshkovskyi at number two on the list, it looks like yet another oligarchical party.

Without too many options to vote for, there is therefore a big risk of low turnout in southern and eastern Ukraine, that is in the largely Russian-speaking regions next to Crimea and the Donbas. This would carry enormous risks in encouraging Russia to risk further destabilisation in areas that have hitherto been loyal to Kiev.

There are many average and many corrupt opinion pollsters in Ukraine. The last poll, in September, by Democratic Initiatives, one of the more respectable outfits, was as follows:

Poroshenko Block                                                 29.9%

Fatherland                                                                8.7%

Radical Party (Liashko)                                     7.6%

Civic Position                                                           7.3%

Popular Front                                                          7.0%

All other parties are hovering at 5% or below.

So no single party, not even Poroshenko’s, will be able to govern alone. A coalition looking something like Poroshenko Block + Popular Front + Civic Position would make most sense. In which case, Arseniy Yatseniuk could continue as Prime Minister. But such a coalition would probably need votes from the territorial constituency MPs to survive.

-Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson’s latest book, Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for the West, will be published 14 October 2014.

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