President Viktor Yanukovych’s “Party of Regions” won the Parliamentary elections on October 28th. Yanukovych’s party is largely one of autocratic tendencies with a natural inclination towards Russia, garnering much of its support from the Russia-oriented Eastern Ukraine.
The win has been criticized by various international organizations and Ukrainian citizens – particularly for perceived incumbent advantage in the media and party financing, and very importantly because the Party of Region’s main competition’s leader, ex-Prime Minister Tymoshenko is in prison.
Although the widespread protests were largely ineffective, turmoil within the Ukrainian Parliament is far from over. In December 2012, several MPs ended up in a violent physical brawl due to disagreements about the appointment of the Prime Minister and speaker of Parliament.
The EU and the West continue to push for a better democratic performance from Ukraine and are using increasingly strong leverage to do so. The conditions are unlikely to change in the immediate future, and any prospect of change would require renewed opposition strength and more effective pressure from the West.
On October 28th, 2012 Parliamentary elections were held in Ukraine. President Viktor Yanukovich’s party, the “Party of Regions” retained the Parliamentary plurality, winning 30% of the vote and 185 seats in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada. Jailed ex-Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party came in second place with about 25% of the vote and 101 seats. There was also an unexpected surge in support for opposition parties – such as former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko’s liberal UDAR party, which came in third place with about 14% of the vote and 40 seats, or the right-wing, ultranationalist “Freedom Party” which came in fifth place after the Communist Party.
Yanukovich initially won the Presidential election in 2010 with a policy platform based on resolving economic problems. His party is pro-business and largely financed by wealthy industrialists. Since becoming President and imprisoning Tymoshenko, Yanukovich has suffered much international criticism – especially from the USA and the EU. Under Yanukovich, Ukrainian foreign policy has been largely reoriented towards Russia.
Despite seemingly extensive efforts by international monitors and some actions by the Ukrainian government to give the October parliamentary elections the appearance of being free and fair, there have been widespread accusations of voter fraud and unfairness, and a large number of protests. The protesters and critics called for a recount of votes in thirteen electoral districts. Election authorities, however, agreed to a recall in only five districts. On November 5, over one thousand opposition supporters demonstrated outside of the Election commission office. The protesters were chanting, “Down with Yanukovych! Down with the gangster! Shame!” Over the course of the next few days protests of varying sizes continued in various regions of the country, but Yanukovich has largely ignored the protesters and criticism.
International organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have also been critical of the election. The OSCE claimed that state resources and capital were used to give the incumbent party an advantage during the campaign. Additionally, they point out that elections are hardly competitive when the existing government’s chief rival is in prison. Yanukovich has largely ignored the protests and criticism and continued the establishment of the government as planned.
International institutions have strong reservations about the quality and fairness of Ukrainian political and judicial institutions. Despite past reluctance to negotiate with international organizations, Ukraine’s current and grave economic problems may make the country more amenable to cooperation. In late 2012, the IMF froze some of Ukraine’s loan money and the Ukrainian currency is under serious pressure.
Yanukovich indicated after the election that the elected “Verkhovna Rada” intends to convene as planned and that the revote will happen in only the five districts. Even in the very unlikely event that the Ukrainian government gave into the protesters and did a recount in all thirteen of the disputed districts, the Party of Regions would still have a parliamentary majority. However, the rise in opposition support and extensive criticisms of Yanukovich could potentially provide the opposition with the strength and unity that it would need to oust Yanukovich when he comes up for reelection in 2015.
Turmoil within the Ukrainian government has not ceased since the election. In mid-December, the appointment of the Speaker of Parliament and Prime Minister were delayed somewhat because of a violent brawl that broke out during a parliamentary session. After the fight, the session was disbanded for a short time but later in the day a former mayor, Volodymyr Rybak was chosen as speaker of parliament and the standing Prime Minister Azarov, an enthusiastic supporter of Yanukovich, was reelected. These appointments were likely made possible by the refusal of opposition parties to participate in the vote. Since Azarov’s reappointment several opposition leaders have expressed their displeasure with the decision and Ukraine’s acting First Deputy Prime Minister Khoroshkovsky resigned from the interim government in protest.
Since December, Ukraine has continued to face pressure from the EU to improve their democratic performance. An Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine — scheduled to be signed in 2011 but postponed due to Tymoshenko’s imprisonment — is being used as EU leverage over the nation. The Association Agreement would intensify relations and grant a free-trade commitment between Ukraine and the rest of the EU. The agreement will be considered in November 2013 if Ukraine manages to make dramatic improvements and meet the EU’s requirements. Yanukovich has repeatedly asserted his intentions to do this, and has promised that he will soon resolve the “Tymoshenko” issue.
However, in January 2013, there was talk of murder charges against Tymoshenko in addition to the charges she already faces for political misconduct and her main defense lawyer, Serhiy Vlasenko, was recently ousted from his position in the Ukrainian legislature and stripped of his parliamentary immunity. He has claimed that this is due to his position as a close ally of Tymoshenko, although the government claims it is because of his combining his job in Parliament with his job defending Tymoshenko. Technically, Ukrainian law does not allow legislators to hold second jobs – although in the past this law has been largely ignored and several members of Parliament are widely known to run businesses and one MP is even a famous pop star.
The West and other international observers are very concerned about Vlasenko’s recent removal from Parliament and what else may happen to him in the near future. Clearly, internal political turmoil in Ukraine did not end with the post-election protests and, with increased pressure from the EU and the international community, there might still be some hope for improved democratic performance in Ukraine.