Expected and Unexpected Revelations of the New Ukrainian Parliament

04 Nov 2014

Last week’s parliamentary elections in Ukraine had two major goals, one public and one private. Publicly, the elections sought to renew the legislature from the remnants of the Yanukovych era, releasing the country from the stain of the infamous "dictatorship laws" of January 16, 2014. Privately, President Poroshenko sought to obtain a political majority in the parliament so that he could form a “president’s government.”

One worry was that if these two pillars of authoritarian power were rebuilt, the president could, allegedly, seek the restoration of the 1996 constitution, which would grant him the same powers that Kuchma and Yanukovych once had.[1] As Henry E. Hale pointed out in his PONARS Eurasia comment on these elections: the concentration of power in the hands of directly-elected presidents poses “one of the greatest challenges to democracy in the post-Soviet context.” However, the results of these elections show that both goals were hardly achieved.

Poroshenko lost roughly 50% in support since the May presidential elections (reflected in his block’s proportional performance: 54% in May to 21% in October). This “defeat” prevents Poroshenko from being the key player in coalition forming. (Ukrainians, as many analysts have noted, seem to prefer divided rather than concentrated executive powers).

We also see from the results that a genuine rebirth of the parliament is dubious. Though the parliament did become “renewed” by 56%, which is probably the largest share of new faces since the country’s independence, 64 former MPs (who had all voted for the January “dictatorship laws”) made it back in, mostly through single-member districts. Another 37 MPs who had at one time or another been under investigation for corruption by journalists are also back in the parliament.[2] Most of these members will likely be seated in the faction of the former Party of Regions that is now called the “The Opposition Bloc.”

The former parliament had numerous “family clans” consisting of relatives and “clients” of large business groups, with the most pervasive network being the “Yanukovych’s clan.”[3] At least 55 former MPs (12% of the parliament) had relatives either in the parliament or in state executive positions. The new parliament can hardly be said to be a clean sweep of nepotism and patronal ties. It is already known that Poroshenko’s older son, Oleksiy, will have a parliament seat, as will Iryna Lutsenko, wife of Yiriy Lutsenko, a leader of the “Poroshenko bloc,” and that Victor Baloha ("Transcarpathian clan”) will have two relatives in parliament.  

A negative outlook on reforms and survival

Implementing reforms may prove to be difficult for the new Ukrainian parliament. There is a growing consent among Ukrainian political experts that it is doomed to be short lived. From the outset, a real renewal of the parliament was held back by the “mixed” electoral system.

Even though the rightists and the leftists (“populists”) did not get seats, there are still two irreconcilable groups represented: the radical reformists (composed of civic activists, military commanders, and journalists) and the radical anti-reformists (represented by former members of the Party of Regions and by a sizable number of independents).

Thus, the main cleavage in the Rada will not be between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces, but between a relatively small group of pro-reform and a much larger group of anti-reform deputies. Interestingly, the biggest share of anti-reformers will not be found in the faction of the former regionaries, but in the two largest pro-Western factions of Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk.  The simple reason for this is their unwillingness (self-styled “inability”) to change electoral laws. Retaining the mixed electoral system with the closed party lists was a cost paid to the major stake holders (oligarchs and their representatives in the former parliament) for their consent to hold early elections.

Indeed, the system’s closed party lists and single-member districts proved to have a traumatic effect on the real renewal of the legislature. The rent-seeking oligarchs (and their representatives in the new parliament) are not interested in reforms. Many such aspects hamper the needed, total reset of the country.

What can we realistically expect from this parliament?     

Even though the “old political machines” prevented the formation of a truly new, broad, grass-roots, civic moment taking shape in the parliament, the “Samopomich” (“Self-reliance”) bloc made great headway. It finished third with 11% (32 seats).

Quantitatively, even though the new parliament has more new MPs than old ones, the newcomers will be scattered among at least three factions, between the Poroshenko, Yatseniuk, and Samopomich blocs, which most probably will form a coalition.

The newcomers will face at least two major challenges. First, being scattered among several factions they will be put under “pressure verticals” of their faction leaders who will demand conformity with internal rules. Any initiatives coming “from below” could be blocked by the skillful faction leaders. Second, the newcomers will have difficulty in establishing cooperation networks “horizontally” across factions. If they can overcome these ­challenges, the parliament will have a chance to implement reforms (and thus survive).

Creating horizontal, cooperative networks among MPs is especially important. Unfortunately, Ukrainian MPS have had a real deficit doing this in the past. But if there is a recommendation for the policy community as the new parliament gets its footing, they should strongly help promote cross-factional cooperation.

[1] Yulia Mostova, chief editor of the leading Ukrainian weekly “Dzerkalo Tyzhnya,” mentioned that some Constitutional Court judges signaled her editorial office on moves attempted by authorized representatives of the president regarding the possibility of cancelling the acting Constitution (of 2004) and the restoration of the Constitution of 1996.  See, “Prolitayuchy nad hnizdom feniksa,” Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, September 26, 2014, http://gazeta.dt.ua/internal/prolitayuchi-nad-gnizdom-feniksa-_.html

[2] See the preliminary analysis of the new parliament’s composition made by the civil movement “Chesno” (“Honestly”), http://chesno.org/en/news/2035/

[3] Sergei Golovnev, “7 semei Verchovnoi  Rady”, Forbes Ukraine, http://forbes.ua/nation/1341156-7-semej-verhovnoj-rady/1341158#cut


Also see:

Oleksandr Sushko's Oct. 30 comment: Parliamentary Elections: A New Ukrainian Chance for Change

Volodymyr Dubovyk’s Oct. 28 comment: An Overview of the Make-up of the New Ukrainian Parliament

Henry E. Hale’s Oct. 26 comment: Ukraine's Election: Hope and Concern