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Electing bad leaders in Ukraine: how to break the vicious cycle #UAreforms

The Current Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) was elected after Early Parliamentary Elections in 2014. Photo:
Electing bad leaders in Ukraine: how to break the vicious cycle #UAreforms
Article by: Olena Makarenko

Over the last few months, rumors have intensified that Ukraine will hold early parliamentary elections. Also, Ukraine’s population has become increasingly disappointed with the performance of its state leaders and politicians. If there is no progress in reforming the voting system or at least fixing the drawbacks of the current one,

Ukraine could fall into the same trap it usually encounters during elections: choosing the same old guard, feeling frustration, about it, and then trying to get rid of it again.

In this article we explore the likelihood of early elections, and whether they would make a substantial difference.

Preconditions for Early Elections: Supporters and Opponents

Public opinion plays a key role. The population is becoming increasingly frustrated with the government and the President. This is largely explained by Ukrainians seeing few positive changes in their lives.

The reforms necessary for Ukraine’s effective development have hit the population hard. The majority of state subsidies for energy consumers were slashed, raising tariffs for hot water, electricity, and gas by 88%, 60%, and 42% respectively for the population.

Although this is a positive step for Ukraine’s energy independence and energy efficiency, the utility prices for an average flat may now exceed the average pension ($70); the war in eastern Ukraine shows no sign of slowing down—just the opposite, in fact. Research conducted by the Razumkov Think Tank in November 2016 captures the scale of disappointment among the population:

81,6% of respondents do not trust state officials,
77,3% do not trust political parties,
74,1% do not trust the government,
66,7% do not trust the President.

While frustration with current politicians among the country’s population is growing, the politicians who hope to replace the government have nothing but illusions with which to feed people desperate for hope. Yuriy Romanenko, founder and Head of Programs for International and Domestic Politics within the Ukrainian Institute For the Future, is confident that a political force in Ukraine can’t succeed without populism:

Yuriy Romanenko, founder and Head of Programs for International and Domestic Politics with the Ukrainian Institute For the Future

“Here you can’t score any points without populism. As our poll showed, 58% of the population do not have resources to bear reforms anymore. They are barely surviving on the brink of poverty. Another 20% have resources sufficient for one year.”

However, a poll conducted by the Ukrainian Institute for the Future shows that most Ukrainians (45.4% against, 37.7% support) do not want early elections. So what is wrong with the current politicians, and who is inflating the necessity of an early vote?

Current political landscape. The current Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) was elected during the Early Parliamentary Election held in 2014. Almost every party elected then was elected to Parliament for the first time. Notwithstanding the different parties, most of the faces of the politicians didn’t change: they were the old guard of Ukraine’s politicum, plus a few new people, who were flaunted as the party headliners. As of 23.02.2016, the Parliament contains 8 factions and groups:

Faction Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc – 140 MPs
Faction of the political party Narodnyi Front – 81
Faction of the Oposition Bloc – 43
Faction Samopomich – 26
Faction Radical Party of Oleh Liashko – 20
Faction Batkivshchyna – 20
Group Volia Narodu – 19
Group Vidrodzhenna – 24

In addition, there are 49 MPs who do not belong to any faction or group.

Officially, the current government is a coalition between 2 factions – Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc and Narodnyi Front.

However, data analysis by Vox Ukraine revealed that according to the MPs’ voting behavior, there are more parties in the coalition and that about 40 MPs from Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc and Narodnyi Front, in fact, are in the opposition.

Over the last weeks, two deputies left the coalition, spurring rumors that the coalition is about to break down. A breakdown of the coalition could lead to early parliamentary elections. If a coalition is not formed within a month, according to the Constitution the President of Ukraine has the right to dissolve parliament and announce early elections.

Other factors that can precipitate early elections include a situation wherein plenary sessions aren’t opened for 30 days, or if the government cannot be formed for 60 days.

Representatives of Petro Poroshennko’s Bloc deny predictions of the coalition breaking up:

“If there was no majority, Verkhovna Rada would not be able to make any decisions. Decisions are made every session. The majority is working. And as long it continues to do so, the current parliament will exist,” said Poroshenko Bloc MP Leonid Kozachenko.

There are also rumors about problems within opposition parties. Media coverage frequently mentions a split in the Opposition Bloc. Most people believe this reflects the different views of the oligarchs who influence various political parties.

After all, the majority of Ukraine’s politicians are only instruments by which certain oligarchs promote their interests rather than the interests of Ukraine.

After the 2014 Verkhovna Rada started working, Novoe Vremya created a graphic that described interest groups within Ukraine’s Parliament. It demonstrates that President Poroshenko controls the main part of his party. Formally, it is divided into 5 subgroups.

Narodnyi Front reflects the interests of Arseniy Yatseniuk, and is divided into subgroups. About half of its MPs are controlled by the deputy Mykola Martynenko. Other influential figures in the Verkрovna Rada include oligarchs who are formally not involved in politics. The above-mentioned Rinat Akhmetov controls part of the Opposition Bloc. Ihor Kolomoyskyi has influence over 15 MPs. The oligarch-in-exile Dmytro Firtash has 6 loyal MPs from different factions. 4 deputies of the Opposition Bloc are controlled by the “gray cardinal” of Ukrainian politics, Viktor Medvedchuk (the godfather of his daughter is Vladimir Putin). Another oligarch, Viktor Pinchuk, has 3 MPs. Since 2015, this landscape has barely changed.

However, the popularity of the parties has. The post-maidan leaders’ parties Narodniy Front and Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc ratings have plummeted, Narodniy Front’s – to below the electoral threshold of 5%. Meanhwile, Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna is leading the popularity polls, and the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc with its Za Zyttia sub-party, as well as Liashko’s Radical Party, have also risen. The far-right Svoboda would pass the electoral threshold and be represented in Parliament according to the latest ratings (see graph below).

Ukrainian political parties ratings

Ratings and prognosis

Taking these areas of influence and the means which these oligarchs and politicians inject into their campaigns into consideration, we can assume that the same forces would be present in a new parliament as well.

“The elections will not solve anything because the next parliament will be as divided, if not more divided. If now there are 6 political forces, the new one will have from 7 to 10. Respectively, the coalition will be unstable so that it won’t be able to make strategic decisions,” says Romanenko.

An opinion poll for The Ukrainian Institute For the Future showed that if the election took place in the nearest future, only one-half of respondents would vote. Here are the results of two different pollsters for November and December 2016.

The Ukrainian Institute For the Future (poll conducted in November 2016)

Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (poll conducted in December 2016)

Batkivshchyna – 17.0%

Batkivshchyna – 18.3%

Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc – 14.6%

Opposition Bloc – 12.2%

Samopomich – 11.7%

Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc – 11.9%

Radical Party of Oleh Liashko – 9.7%

Za Zhyttia – 10.4%

Opposition Bloc – 8.8%

Radical Party of Oleh Liashko – 9.8%

The party of Micheil Saakashvili – 7.4%

Samopomich – 7.6%

Svoboda – 5.9%

Svoboda – 5.0%

Za Zhyttia (the party of Vadym Rabinovich) – 5.4%

Among those who will vote and decided with their choice
Among those who will vote and decided with their choice

If we take all respondents into consideration, both polls show that any party can reach more than 9%.

“The situation in the parliament reveals that political forces which control more MPs are not interested in elections because they have more people but smaller ratings. And those factions with fewer MPs are interested in elections because their ratings are growing. They want to change the balance of forces in their favor,” concludes Romanenko.

Among the new forces that have chances to improve their political representation are the party Za Zhyttia of Vadim Rabinovich, an oligarch and ex-MP of the Opposition Bloc, and the force of Mikheil Saakashvili, ex-president of Georgia and ex-governor of the Odesa Oblast, who leads one of the most active campaigns. Recently, he announced his cooperation with leaders of the Samopomich, Democratic Alliance, and Hromadianska Pozytsiya parties.

“Saakashvili is interested in the elections. But the more he delays, the fewer chances he has as his ratings are falling. In my opinion, Saakashvili’s problem is a weak team and bad branching, so he needs unity with big players,” says Romanenko.

As Poroshenko Bloc’s rating falls, it lessens the President’s interest in holding early elections. Technically he’s the only one who can make those elections happen immediately. Nevertheless, now the situation is not only in his hands.

The international factor

Analysis by the Ukrainian Institute for the Future shows that the most likely scenario influencing the situation in Ukraine in 2017 is the rapprochement between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, who will discuss areas of influence in the world. For Ukraine, this means pressure to implement the Minsk-2 agreements, reduction of financial support from the US, partly lifting sanctions against Russia, and de facto recognition of the occupation of Crimea.

Yuriy Romanenko explains that all the signals from Washington indicate that the US and Russia will reach an agreement in the Middle East. This will lead to Ukraine being demanded to rapidly implement the political part of Minsk-2 so that sanctions against Russia could be removed, which will escalate an internal crisis in Ukraine because the current parliament won’t support this move. To push through with Minsk-2, the parliament will have to be changed. But there are internal reasons new parliamentary elections as well.

“The key question is where can the government get resources to implement its policies with an already strained budget. Ultimately, to reduce the tension accumulating in the masses from the economic crisis, we will have to choose the less evil, which is early elections. If the political crisis escalates due to these factors, the president will have no other choice but to announce early elections,” says Romanenko.

However, even if there are some forces who are interested in early elections, nobody is interested in reforming the election system.

According to Denys Kovryzhenko, the Senior Legal Advisor of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems of Ukraine, the reforming process doesn’t go further than mere talks in the parliament.

Also, this reform is no priority for Ukraine’s international partners, who try to avoid political questions.

Obstacles standing in the way of fair elections

No matter whether the election will be early or regular (in 2019), the system needs changes. If the early elections take place this Autumn, major transformations can hardly be implemented, as introducing new rules will take time and can create confusion.

However, considering the inactivity and indifference towards the reform among the political forces, the system will hardly be changed even if the elections take place later.

Graphic: Ganna Naronina

Let’s take a look what should be changed within the election system, and if the reform itself will not take place in the nearest future – what smaller steps can help the situation.

The mixed voting system

 According to it, Ukrainians choose their Parliament by electing one half of 450 MPs based on the lists of the political parties, and the other half in the majority constituencies. Denys Kovryzhenko is confident that this scheme in Ukraine includes all the drawbacks of the proportional and majority voting systems:

“The main drawback of the majority component is a big waste of votes. The winner can be a person who gained a minority of votes. Sometimes a person can gain 13% and it will be more than any of competitors get. So the person becomes a deputy even if 87% are against it,” explains Kovryzhenko. Thus, parties which win according to this component can be supported by the minority of the population, but form a majority and the government.

The second drawback, according to Kovryzhenko is that this component creates good conditions for using administrative resources – allocating state money and directing it to certain counties where a pro-government candidate is campaigning, which stimulates voters to vote for this candidate.

But the proportional system with closed party lists doesn’t promote the renewal of the political elites either, says Kovryzhenko:

“The place of a candidate in the list is defined by negotiations between the candidate and the party leader. And it is no secret the places in lists are sold at the stage of nomination of candidates. So if we change the existing mixed system to being fully proportional, it would more or less represent the moods within society, but there will be no renewal of the elites because parties would nominate oligarchs or people who are dependent on authorities, and the existing 5% threshold would prevent new political forces from entering the parliament.”

According to the expert, many political leaders are afraid of the proportional system, particularly – Poroshenko’s Bloc and Narodniy Front, as their ratings are falling. The Radical Party of Liashko, Batkyvshchyna, Samopomich, and Opposition Bloc on the other hand are interested because their ratings are increasing, but they do not have the majority to change the rules.

In any case, to prepare a country for the implementation of new legislation, the election reform has to be made some time prior to elections – one year, as the Venice Commission recommends.

The Central Election Commission

Another deadlock which Ukraine faces regarding the elections is the squad of the Central Election Commission (CEC). The members of the current CEC continue to work despite their terms having expired.

Before the early Presidential Election in 2014, the Verkhovna Rada passed several amendments to the law on the Central Election Commission. In the old version, members of the CEC were to work a term of 7 years. The amended version provides that they stay in office until a new CEC is appointed. Back in 2014, this decision was reasonable because of the urgent need to elect a president, and provided legal security in case the election results would be doubted. However, the old body continued to work during the Early Parliamentary Elections 2014 and during the Local Elections 2015.

President Poroshenko already filed a submission on appointing 11 members of the CEC and dismissal of the current 12 members. However to consider it, the current members should be dismissed first. So far there is no consensus on the candidates suggested by the president.

“The parliament doesn’t want to end up in a situation when it dismisses the old members but doesn’t appoint new ones, as that will paralyze the CEC as a body. All the politicians benefit when the CEC is in up in the air, and it is potentially under political pressure,” Kovryzhenko described the situation.

The issue has to be under constant societal scrutiny to make the president resolve the situation. Otherwise, if the current CEC stays, the legitimacy of the next elections will be under threat.

Numerous violations

As mentioned above, different kinds of violations have been observed during elections in Ukraine, before and after Euromaidan Revolution. Bribing voters is one of them. The impoverished population, especially elderly people, sell their votes for UAH 500 ($18.5) or less, or a package of groats. Using administrative resources is another kind of violation used to preserve power. For example, when employees of an enterprise which belongs to a candidate or person loyal to him are forced to vote for the candidate. And the so-called carousels, when the same people vote several times at different locations, as well as the practice of stuffing ballots into the polling booths so that a specific candidate or party gets the needed result.

Violations during the local elections in Kryvyi Rih caused mass protests. Photo: Anton Kravchenko’s Facebook

Moreover, these manipulative mechanisms for preserving the power of existing elites are extremely resilient. The recent 2015 local election in Kryvyi Rih serves as a vivid example, when thanks to massive violations the acting mayor Yuriy Vilkul, who is considered to be backed by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, won the election by only 700 votes. Thanks to the strong reaction of civil society, repeated elections were held, but tactical mistakes of the opposition coupled with Vilkul’s administrative power secured the latter a repeated victory, to the embarrassment of the democratic political forces.

Read also: The democratic movement’s election fiasco in Kryvyi Rih

In order to tackle the problem of violations during elections, two aspects have to be considered. Both of them are not related to the voting system itself.

Poverty. The state should be ashamed that people in the country are so poor that they are ready to “sell their votes for a package of buckwheat” – a phenomenon so common it has become a meme. The main principle of democracy doesn’t work in an environment where people think only of how to survive. The people who sell their votes are usually criticized for being irresponsible and corrupt. However, this is the reality which Ukraine inherited. Lectures about voters’ responsibility are useless when people can’t feed themselves or their family. The solution is creating such conditions where a person will survive without the additional UAH 500. But so far, Ukrainian politicians are interested in maintaining the current state of affairs.

Legal responsibility. Second, the law enforcement and judiciary systems have to provide conditions when those who organize violations are punished first.

“Under conditions when all state bodies are politically dependent, one can’t expect an impartial investigation and punishment of those responsible. The prosecutor’s’ office can close their eyes on some violation, especially when it is about a pro-government candidate,” says Kovryzhenko.

This is not the first case when a reform in Ukraine depends on reforms of the law enforcement and judiciary. A complex approach to the reforming process in Ukraine is sorely needed to avoid the situation when achievements in one area are negated by the drawbacks of another.

There are some restrictions to political advertising during the election campaign period in Ukraine, but it doesn’t regulate the budgets which can be used for political campaigns.

The political watchdog Chesno NGO reported that Poroshenko’s party Solidarnist spent UAH 133 mn ($4.9 mn) only during the Kyiv local elections last year, where it landed a victory, 98.4% of which are the party’s own funds. Identifying the specific donors of the campaign is possible only for the remaining 1.6%. This is a clear example of a victory being reaped by the party which spent the most money on its advertising.

On 1 July 2016, the Law on Prevention and Counteraction to Political Corruption (2123a) came in force, which stipulated state funding for parties which would be proportional to their representation in Parliament. Many believed that transparency and state funding will help end parties’ slavery from oligarchs, for whom politics are the most profitable business. The law already brought positive results: the parties’ financing became more transparent, they officially started building their regional branches, and their amount of official employees increased. But only the parties who made it to Parliament saw these changes, and even the ones in Parliament aren’t playing perfectly by the rules.

However, this legislation isn’t enough for a full reform. For example, a law preventing using state funds for self-promotion is sorely needed. Otherwise, last year’s situation when parties spent enormous amounts of state money for their advertising will repeat.

According to the data of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine NGO, political parties spent UAH 63.4 mn ($2 mn) of state funds for self promotion in 2016, which is 39% of the total amount of state-allocated funds for political party use. However, initially the state funding was introduced for the deoligarchisation of parties and development of their regional centers. Oleksiy Koshel, a representative of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, told that steps are being taken to curb this misuse, and informed that the bill (#6026) calling to forbid parties from using state funding for advertisement is already registered in the Parliament.

Media influence is another kind of electoral manipulation the candidates overuse. Despite there being some regulations for the pre-election period, the media owners still shape the policies of their outlets. Candidates with media power have an advantage long before elections, which is why Ukrainian politicians seek to own TV channels and other media sources.


During the last three years, Ukrainian elections were faced with additional challenges when millions of people became displaced from the Donbas and Crimea. During the 2015 local elections, these people could not vote. The problem is unsolved until now:

“A stereotype exists in Parliament that the IDPs will vote for the Party of Regions (the party of the exiled ex-president Viktor Yanukovych) in its current configurations, like the Opposition Bloc. Some political forces think it’s better to keep the IDPs without voting rights, despite this being in contradiction with international standards, the Constitution, and principles of democracy. But if a person lives in some place for a few years, she has a right to vote. The same applies to labor migrants who have to make the journey back to their place of registration in order to vote,” Kovryzhenko points out.

The expert says that there is no unity in the parliament on how to solve the situation. Arrangements where IDP would vote in the projected Donbas elections are being developed, and the IDPs themselves have initiatives to change the legislation, however the main obstacle to adopting them is a lack of political will.

The old new guard

All the abovementioned factors create a situation when new political forces with budgets that can’t compete with those of their oligarch-sponsored opponents can’t get into parliament.

Kovryzhenko doubts that a party with no oligarchic money could get elected to parliament:

“I don’t believe a political party could be sustainably maintained with SMS donations of UAH 20 (less than 1$). However, we can create better conditions for the new parties by lowering the electoral threshold to enter Parliament, which is currently at 5%. But that would create the risk of a situation when many small parties enter parliament, and it would be difficult for them to agree on anything.”

Despite all the difficulties, Kovryzhenko and Romanenko are confident that the process of renewal of political elites has already started in Ukraine:

“It is a gradual path. European countries go through it in a few electoral cycles. I think that Ukraine is not an exception,” Kozhyrenko assured.

“Now we are entering a new stage. Probably it will be more radical. One part of the people who wanted fundamental changes during the revolution are disappointed, another part went abroad and yet another understands that they need to create their own organizations, which will represent form the agenda according to the interests of social groups, namely the urban middle class. Only by leaning on these organizations and structures it will be possible to mobilize resources and to achieve changes,” says Romanenko.

The expert is also confident that the state institutions, and thus the corrupt system existing on mutual guarantees became weaker, but society can’t use this for positive changes because it’s disunited itself.

Responsible society is the key factor for changes

All the factors mentioned here reveal that the current political elite is neither interested in changing the election legislation, nor in changing the situation in the country in general. In this situation, only society itself can make a difference by initiating activities which can bring positive change, observe and control their implementation.

For a successful election reform, the following questions have to be placed on the agenda:

  • Introducing a proportional election system instead of non-effective mixed one.
  • Appointing a new CEC before any elections take place.
  • Political parties’ budgets have to be under strict control.
  • Wasting millions for campaigns should be prevented.
  • Last but not the least, representatives of society have to form their own strong platforms to create a strong alternative to current political elite.
  • A holistic approach to the whole reforming process in Ukraine has to introduced. Changes in one field are not possible if the system remains the same overall.
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