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Alexei Leonidovich Kudrin

Alexei Leonidovich KudrinKudrin

Everything old is new again
The Ukrainian Parliament

A new election law was passed in the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, on November 17, 2011. It will be put into practice for the first time in the upcoming Ukrainian parliamentary election in October 2012. Therefore, what should we be expecting of this new law and how would it affect Ukraine’s political future? An analysis by Roy Yu

This upcoming election is of great political significance as it serves two purposes. Firstly, it will reveal whether President Viktor Yanukovych, along with his Party of Regions, will strengthen or loosen their grip on power. Secondly, it will test the resilience of the opposition in a crucial time like this when main anti-Yanukovych leaders such as Yulia Tymoshenko is in jail. Most importantly, however, it is important to note that the implementation of this new-old Ukrainian election law for the first – or not-so first – time will have a great say in determining the outcome of this election.

A political déjà-vu

Yulia Tymoshenko

On November 17, 2011, the Verkhovna Rada adopted a new electoral law for conducting the upcoming Ukrainian parliamentary election in October 2012. Other than some minor, thus politically significant, innovations and modifications, the law essentially brings back the electoral system that was used in Ukraine previously. This type of electoral system was employed during the semi-authoritarian and semi-democratic regime of Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s second president after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Within this new-old electoral framework, there are two parts to the composition of the Verkhovna Rada. Half of the deputies of the Verkhovna Rada will be elected through first-past-the-post system in single-member electoral districts, where the candidate with the highest amount of votes wins a seat in the Parliament. On the other hand, the other half through proportional representation by using a nationwide party-list, where the percentage of the votes that a party receives will translate into the number of seats that the party will gain in the Parliament. Essentially, the new-old electoral law creates a mixed voting system. Other than this fundamental change, it is important to highlight the other three significant changes: the option “Vote against All” will no longer be available on the voting card in this parliamentary election, political blocs will no longer be eligible to participate in this election unless they do so as separate political parties, and an increase in electoral threshold from three to five percent.

Why is the new-old electoral system susceptible to manipulation?

There are several obvious and immediate political outcomes after the Orange Revolution in 2004. The incoming President Viktor Yushchenko toppled the semi-authoritarian regime led by Kuchma after a vote recount. Therefore, Kuchma’s preferred predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, failed to secure the presidency. After arriving in power, President Yushchenko worked closely with Yulia Tymoshenko, with whom he fought alongside during the Orange Revolution. President Yushchenko reformed the country’s electoral law by abolishing the mixed voting system that was used during the Kuchma-era with a proportional representation using a nationwide party-list.

The mixed voting system used during the Kuchma-era was greatly susceptible to all sorts of voting manipulations and falsifications, as well as abuse of power by unscrupulous political authorities and ruling parties. Throughout the time where this mixed voting system was employed in Ukraine, corruption occurred in all levels. In the electoral districts, government and political parties-affiliated oligarchs bribed the voters in hope to secure more votes. In the Parliament, the so-called independent members of parliament, who were typically businessmen and local officials, became easy victims for political blackmailing, bribery, and, even worse, political and personal threats. The new proportional representation voting system put through by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko sought to reduce the level of corruption.

A step backward on Ukraine’s road to democracy

Viktor Yanukovych

The questions that one might ask is why would present President Yanukovych supported such a move and bring back the old mixed voting electoral system that everyone, both in and out of Ukraine, seems to know to be unfair? The answer is simple. Like aforementioned, this upcoming election is a test for President Yanukovych. His regime has become more and more authoritarian and his political party, Party of Regions, has become increasing unpopular, according to polls it felt from 30 percent in 2010 to 18.8 percent in February 2012. If he wants to gain greater control of the Ukrainian government, Yanukovych and his party have to win. This victory would come in two-fold: strengthen his political party by all means and weaken the opposition’s power. Therefore, only by adopting this new-old electoral law will be there a greater chance for vote manipulations, thus making a victory more easily attainable.

As for the latter, the fact that the new electoral law prevents political blocs to participate in the upcoming election further hinders the opposition’s ability to challenge Yanukovych. This ban is a fatal blow against the political force of Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the fiercest political opposition in Ukraine. Tymoshenko is often known for her eponymous political bloc, while the political party where she chairs, Batkivshchyna – Fatherland –, though the strongest and most influential within the bloc, is largely unknown to both the Ukrainian public and foreign observers.

The increase of the electoral threshold from three to five percent by Yanukovych is designed to further prevent the emergence of political opposition. If small opposition parties are not able to surpass this threshold, their votes will be distributed proportionally among the parties who did manage to achieve so. In another word, there is a high probability that Yanukovych’s Party of Regions will receive a great share of the opposition votes that would never go to them otherwise.

What lies ahead for Ukraine?

It is still far too early to predict what will happen until the election in October and what the results will be like. Significant political developments might take place in Ukrainian politics during this time and would, then, greatly affect the outcome of the election. One thing that is certain, though, is that this new-old mixed voting system is susceptible for voting manipulations and is greatly in favor for Yanukovych. If the President and his party do decide to grossly alter and falsify the votes, Ukraine will drift deeper down in the political isolation that she is in at the moment. The boycott by many European leaders in EURO 2012, co-hosted by Ukraine, is a great example to show such isolation. With this gesture, it is obvious that foreign observers are not blind towards to the mistreatment of Yulia Tymoshenko and other opposition leaders in prison. But also not towards the abuse of human rights in Ukraine, the corruption or towards the increasingly authoritarian regime of President Yanukovych.