Ukrainians will go to the polls on Sunday to cast their votes for a new parliament. The elections will be a test of the country’s crippled democracy and will influence Ukraine’s future relations with the EU. And crucially, the results will set the tone for the 2015 presidential elections, which will be a major political battle.
Despite opinion polls and election observer missions, a number of issues remain unclear, including the likely final results. The good news about these elections is that Ukraine has not yet hit rock bottom—the results will by and large not be precooked. The bad news is that the stakes are high for the ruling Party of Regions, which will work hard to keep its hold on power. Beyond results, it is unclear whether these elections will be free, fair, and in compliance with international standards. And who will form the next parliament’s ruling coalition, and how such an arrangement will be forged, is also uncertain.
But no matter the outcome, the results of the elections are unlikely to change the structure of power in Ukraine. If opposition parties obtain a majority of seats in the next parliament, they will have to work hard to demonstrate their ability to challenge the status quo.
Uncertainty 1: The Final Results
According to the latest opinion polls, only five parties will pass the 5 percent threshold and make it into the new parliament (see figure 1). The ruling Party of Regions is leading the polls with 23.3 percent of the vote and is followed by two opposition parties. Boxer Vitali Klitschko’s Udar (Punch) Party is expected to win 16 percent of the vote, and the united opposition party, Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), led by the former speaker of the parliament Arseniy Yatsenyuk, 15.1 percent. The Communist Party and the right-wing nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) Party are polling at 10 and 5 percent, respectively. About 24 percent of voters remain undecided, with many disillusioned and likely to stay home this Sunday.
But as Georgia’s elections earlier this month suggested, opinion polls do not always get it right, and not because their results are purposely distorted. Ukrainians tend to change their minds. Many are still searching for the “least-worst” option. Some are still adjusting to the unification of the two main opposition parties. Others are looking for new faces. And over the past few weeks, Ukrainians have had significant mood swings, with the Party of Regions losing about 5 percent of their supporters and Batkivshchyna swapping places with Udar in the polls.
There are other reasons why polls may not show the entire picture. Due to recent changes in the Ukrainian electoral system, half of the parliament will now be elected through party lists and the other half through single-mandate constituencies. While party lists may still benefit from the support of their core electorate, the results of constituency voting remain uncertain, due to a number of factors, including the attachment of many “independents” to a certain party. Some local observers claim that the next parliament will be colorful because of independent candidates.
However, both the incumbent Party of Regions and the opposition are doing their best to secure a majority. Udar and Batkivshchyna reached an unprecedented agreement to support one candidate per district in 52 of the 225 officially defined constituencies. This may help them eliminate their competition with each other and face the Party of Regions with a united front.
Still, it may not be enough to fight the overall apathy of the population and the people’s distrust of Ukrainian politics in general. That sentiment could push many undecided voters to cast their ballots for the incumbent party, if they decide to participate in the elections at all. “At least we know what they’re up to” is a refrain often heard in private conversations in Ukraine.
Uncertainty 2: How Free and Fair the Election Will Be
The West is sending over 2,000 short-term observers to supplement the long-term observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE’s) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which is already on the ground. Local observers’ networks, such as OPORA and the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, will deploy an even larger number of local observers to cover as many of the 33,540 polling stations as possible.
Yet, the presence of international and local observers does not seem to have stopped the authorities from engaging in preelection violations. The OSCE’s preliminary report on the situation does not draw any conclusions but does point out major issues, ranging from problems with the electoral law to a lack of transparency in the Central Election Commission’s activities to violence against some candidates and their campaign staff. The Alliance Maidan, an association of individuals and civic organizations working on the development of civil society in Ukraine, has registered about 1,064 violations, with data coming directly from voters. They range from administrative pressure and bribery of voters to violations of campaign rules, fraud, and the obstruction of campaigning.
The roughness of methods used during this campaign is new and worrying, and should not be overlooked in postelection reports on whether the vote was free and fair. The rough tactics include physical attacks against opposition and independent candidates by their competitors. A worrying campaign was launched by the authorities to spread a rumor among voters that all politicians are the same, and that violent methods are commonplace among all candidates. However, while some opposition candidates have indeed been around for too long, they still differ in style and method from their opponents.
Another worrying sign is the attempt to undermine the practice of independent polling. There have been a number of attacks on local sociologists by candidates dissatisfied with the results of polls. A court case was even brought by Natalia Korolevska, leader of the Ukraine—Forward! Party, against the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a leading Ukrainian think tank and key source of credible data during the 2004 elections. Though the case will not diminish Ukrainians’ trust in independent polling, if her claim is upheld by the court, it may set a precedent for other political players.
It is not yet clear whether international and local observers will be able to recognize these elections as free and fair according to international standards. The observer mission of the Commonwealth of Independent States, with its rather distinct standards, is likely to endorse the elections, as it did with the recent—and widely criticized—parliamentary vote in Belarus. However, much will depend on cooperation between local and international observers; they can combine forces to offer the most valid assessment of the election.
Uncertainty 3: The Shape of the Ruling Coalition
A final but crucial question concerns the future parliament. While the international community will not be judging the elections based on who comes to power but how they come to power, it is important to review a number of possible postelection developments. Despite a recent change to the country’s constitution that took powers away from the parliament by passing most of it to the president, these elections are still important because they set the course for the next two years, leading up to the 2015 presidential election.
In the most widely discussed scenario, the Party of Regions will win a majority in the next parliament. Coupled with the Communist Party’s votes and those of some independent members of parliament, the incumbents may well obtain a constitutional majority. The next step according to this scenario would be for the Party of Regions to change the constitution, giving the parliament the power to elect the president rather than holding a direct vote.
Another outcome is based on the rising popularity of Vitali Klitschko’s Udar Party. Klitschko already turned down an invitation from Batkivshchyna to join forces and sign a coalition memorandum before the elections. He sees himself as a presidential contender in 2015 and, with the support of many opposition voters shifting toward a new face, he may well try to make a move after the elections.
Local observers suggest that his actions after the elections will largely depend on the number of seats he wins in the parliament. Should he win a significant number, Klitschko may change course and choose to join forces with Batkivshchyna. This would allow him to benefit from a larger coalition, in which he would likely be able to call the shots, before the 2015 elections. If his numbers are not impressive, his party could occasionally lean toward the Party of Regions, if not officially join forces with it, though it is difficult to see him falling under the full control of the incumbents. The cautionary tale of Sergei Tigipko—who finished third in the 2010 presidential elections, then merged his party with the Party of Regions and completely lost his electoral capital—looms large.
Instead of Conclusions…
In the end, the elections are unlikely to change the state of affairs in Ukraine. The president will still control the strong power vertical he has constructed over the last two years, and that structure will be difficult to challenge even if the opposition comes out on top.
At the same time, this will be an important test of whether the opposition will at least try to change the status quo despite all the constraints it faces. The biggest fear of many opposition supporters is that their representatives will simply bide their time in the parliament and wait for the 2015 presidential elections, when their preferred candidate could be elected to the presidency.
It will also be a test for the European Union. The EU set three conditions for the normalization of relations with Ukraine: an end to the selective prosecution of political opponents, free and fair elections according to international standards, and reform of the judiciary and the constitution. The EU is sending a large number of observers from its institutions and member states to monitor progress on those fronts. While such wide coverage is a good thing, the EU should make sure it speaks with one voice and has only one message for Ukraine after the elections.
The opinions of individual members of the European Parliament matter, but it would be safer for the EU to rely on the ODIHR’s technical but accurate report on the elections when making its final judgment. The report will assess the elections according to uniform standards and will not take “national specificities” into account, therefore leaving Kyiv no room for manipulation.