Elections in Ukraine herald further democratic backslide
Today’s election in Ukraine promises a turbulent weeks to follow. The close result from the first round and the campaign full of smears and accusations has ignited sharp language and an open war between the two main candidates – Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former Premier and presidential candidate in 2004 Victor Yanukovytch. Although the latter lost 5 years ago, he is now in the race again.
Last week saw what I think was the peak of dirty tricks between the candidates – amendments in the election law between the two legs of the election. The new texts stipulate that voting stations can function with single party represented in the electoral commission. This seems a far cry from transparency and proponents of democracy have a good reason to worry about.
The move was made by Victor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and a few MPs loyal to current president Yushchenko – the two bitter rivals of the Orange Revolution in 2004. Formally, the reasons behind this law, which did not see any discussions and was rushed through Parliament, were that Tymoshenko may obstruct elections in the regions where she is weakest by withdrawing her party’s representatives. Tymoshenko’s block on the other hand accuses Yanukovych of making last-minute changes and planning to again (!) forge the elections after denying access to other parties’ representatives in some electoral commissions. Yanukovych’s supporters have already tried to gain control over the Kiev Court of Appeal, where most likely the elections will be decided if the results are disputed by either candidates.
The head of the Council of Europe’s observer delegation, Hungarian lawmaker Matyas Eorsi, says that Ukrainian politicians seem to play with the rules rather than play by the rules. He cautions that sudden rule changes undermine voter confidence and violate a general principle of election law.
“According to the principle, no country should change the law one year prior to the elections,” said Eorsi. “And in our [Ukrainian] case, it was not only a last minute amendment, but between the two rounds. This is totally unacceptable by any international standard.”
This could give good grounds for the losing party to not accept the results. A dirty campaign may well end in violence as the presidential handover seems highly unlikely to take place without objections and accusations. Indeed, Ukrainian democracy has made little progress over the last 5 years. In December’s presidential elections in Romania the vote was decided by a fraction of a per cent. The aftermath was peaceful and showed that although the country has serious problems with corruption and political ethics, it has withstood a difficult test for democracy during severe economic recession. I hope Ukraine does not have to pass this test, because the results would be unpredictable.
The likely winner Yanukovych has indulged in obscure practices in the past and he has a reputation of a ruthless competitor. However, Tymoshenko’s people have too been accused of doing tricks, such as trying to take over the printing press company responsible for making the ballots. They have also recently entered a battle over the appointment senior police chief in Kiev.
Former Prime Minister and presidential rival in 2004, Yanukovych has called for a strong and confident Ukraine. This is certainly a good message as the economy is in free-fall and social tensions in the country are on the rise. In the Other camp Tymoshenko has pledged to bring “European-style democracy and living standards, versus a Ukraine trapped in an ill-defined gray zone between East and West. Albeit not as strong as 5 years ago, the pro-Western discourse is still present in those who claim to attempt to pull Ukraine further away from the Russian shadow. Let’s not forget however that Tymoshenko has been flirtatious with Russia after the expected flow of love and investment from the West did not take place after the Orange Revolution.
Ukraine is not a shoebox-size country – it lies on important trade and energy corridors so it is too important to be left to the Ukrainians. “An ill-defined grey-zone” as Tymoshenko puts it is definitely not a bright prospect for them, but it is not possible anyhow. The west has reached out to Ukraine in 2004, but today’s elections may signal a Russian comeback. As exit polls show, this may be well on the way. The fact that both Europe and the US have neglected the country in the last years, suggests that such a development is not unexpected.
When he was still a president, Vladimir Putin has many times endorsed Yanukovych. While now there are almost no anti-Russian and NATO-centered debates in Ukraine, the re-branded former Prime Minister does not hide his sympathy to the governance practices wielded in Kremlin.
Russia has been flexing muscles in the region and showed that it will not tolerated disobedient neighbours led by pro-democracy/pro-NATO leaders. Last fall, Russia simulated a nuclear attack on Poland. And remember Russia’s invasion of Georgia. It has also cut the European gas twice over the last 5 years and stopped oil deliveries even to ally Belarus. Not to mention the multiple energy cuts to the Baltic States in the wake of NATO-accession.
But make no mistake – both presidential candidates have their own agenda and will try to put their hands on exactly the same economic resources. They have already done it. They both have a record of disregarding the rule of law and neglecting sound political dialogue as shown in this campaign. If Yanukovych becomes a president this will not return Ukraine in the USSR, as Russia will still have its interests and they will be different than those of Ukraine. My hope is for a transparency, democratic governance and effective control over the executive in Ukraine. For this however, a renewed interest from the sponsors of these values will be needed. While the US considers this a EU’s business, the Union has no excuse for its failed policy towards Ukraine. In the coming weeks we may have to taste its bitter fruits.
UPDATE 8 Feb: “Some say the Orange Revolution has failed. I say no. Thanks to the Orange Revolution, democratic elections in Ukraine are now a reality,” said Matyas Eörsi, Head of the delegation of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly. Earlier today, the OSCE has issued a positive assssment of the elections calling them ‘an impressive display of democratic elections’