Pro-Western bloc set for majority in elections that expose deep divisions in Ukraine

Arsenyi Yatsenyuk needs support from other parties if he is to stay as prime minister. EPA/Tatyana Zenkovich

Ukrainians have voted for a new parliament. The exit polls, in line with earlier predictions, indicate that the Petro Poroshenko Bloc – which also includes the UDAR party of Kiev’s mayor, former boxing champion Vitali Klichko – came out on top (predicted to achieve around 23% of the vote), but will need partners to form a stable coalition that will give Poroshenko a majority in parliament.

The new parliament is expected to have a generally pro-Western, anti-Russian majority with the largest number of seats shared by relatively well-established parties, including current (acting) prime minister Arsenyi Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front (around 21%) and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party (around 6%). The strong performance of the People’s Front will most likely see Yatsenyuk continue in a prominent role in government, possibly as prime minister, once a new government has been formed.

Aside from the continuity of cohabitation and of personalities at the top, a large number of the candidates who are expected to enter parliament are relative newcomers to politics. Many were picked by parties from among Maidan activists, “war heroes” and prominent journalists in order to capitalise on the current popular mood in Ukraine that is calling for a radical break with the past political system.

The composition of the new parliament will be decided according to a so-called mixed electoral system. Roughly half of the new members of parliament will be elected in 197 single-member constituencies (not counting 12 constituencies in Crimea and 15 in rebel-held areas in Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine). Another 225 candidates will be chosen from party lists relative to each party’s share of the total vote (on which preliminary results reported here are based). A 5% threshold applies that favours the more established larger parties with a well-oiled electoral machine and financial backing.

Apathy and division

Financial muscle has played a crucial role in the election campaign. Poroshenko, a billionaire himself, faces among his challengers the so-called Opposition Bloc led by billionaire Sergei Lyovochkin and backed by another two billionaires, Rinat Akhmetov and Dmitry Firatsh – which is set to secure about 8% of the vote. Their leading candidate is the former energy minister Yuriy Boiko. These links between business and political elites, symbolising several marriages of convenience across the new-old party political spectrum of Ukraine, promise anything but a fresh political start.

But Ukraine’s problems run much deeper and farther than that and a new parliament is unlikely to be able to tackle them decisively, and certainly not in the short run. The low turn-out – just over 52% nationally and around 32% in those areas of Luhansk and Donets controlled by Kiev – are a testament to the degree of disillusionment with Ukraine’s political system of disappointment with the Maidan “revolution”.

For eastern Ukraine, it also indicates the deep disconnect of the population from Kiev and the lack of willingness to engage with a political process seen as generally unrepresentative of the interests of citizens there.

The endemic weakness of Ukraine’s institutions and economy is likely to be further exacerbated by this political apathy and the internal divisions in the country that have been exposed during the election campaign. These problems will be hard to reconcile in a parliament elected in only part of the country, at a low turn-out. Not to mention the conditions, which were far below standards that might be considered conducive to free and fair elections.

Nor will Ukraine’s difficult position, essentially as a pawn between Russia and the West, be helped by the outcome of elections that may produce a pro-Western majority in parliament – but a pro-Western majority based on a new generation of inexperienced politicians. Politicians whose voting behaviour will be difficult to predict and to manage by their political leaders. The only certainty appears to be a more hard-line parliament less willing to consider necessary compromises or to offer any concessions in negotiations with either Russia or the separatists.

Elections in highly politicised and radicalised conditions hardly have a track record of contributing to the stabilisation of countries torn apart by civil wars. Ukraine’s parliamentary elections are no exception to this. Despite numerous agreements between Ukraine, Russia and the separatists there has been no peace in Ukraine and the election day saw numerous episodes of violence.

Legitimacy in question?

An indication of the new quality of “warfare” in the Ukrainian crisis was an attempt to hack into the electronic system of the central electoral commission, increasing if not actual fraud, then at least suspicion thereof. This will potentially give losers of the election grounds for challenging any results, delay the declaration of final results and decrease the legitimacy of both the process and outcome of the elections.

Previous elections in Ukraine have hardly been a beacon of democratic politics. But uncertainties surrounding the current polls testify to the further erosion of Ukraine’s capacity as a state. This is partly a legacy of the past 20 plus years of failed state-building but it partly has its causes in the crisis of the past 12 months and the challenges the country has faced internally and externally: the combined assault on its sovereignty and territorial integrity by Russia and pro-Russian rebels that have resulted in the annexation of Crimea and the establishment of a de-facto state in parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Triggered by a new round of great power competition in an area that both Russia and the EU (and the West more generally, including NATO and the US) consider their neighbourhood – and hence an area in which both pursue their own interests, the Ukrainian crisis quickly acquired regional and global political significance. Over the past year, Ukraine’s parliamentary elections are but one element in this great power competition. As a consequence, it is as likely that the West will hail the elections as a milestone on Ukraine’s path towards a more stable and democratic political system as it is that Russia will denounce them.

This is likely to trigger another round in the all-too-familiar blame game between Kiev, Moscow and various Western capitals and may further diminish the prospects for a negotiated settlement of the crisis.