The results of the parliamentary election in Ukraine produced few genuine surprises. Yanukovych’s Party of Regions came in first in the party-list voting (30.1%) and won over half of single-mandate races (114) securing most seats in the new parliament. Its dominance will be buttressed by the likely support from many independents (44), informal alliance with the communists (13.2%) and some defections from the opposition. Three opposition forces – United Opposition (25.4%), Udar (13.9%) and Svoboda (10.4%) – received close to majority of votes on the proportional ballot, but will remain in minority in the parliament due to a weak showing in majoritarian races (winning 60 of 225 races). International observers and Western governments sharply criticized the election conduct, but did not go as far as refusing to recognize its results. The official election count largely corresponded to the findings of four independent exit polls conducted on election date. Still, the outcome of the parliamentary election gives us several revealing insights into the current public attitudes, Yanukovych’s vulnerabilities and his likely re-election strategy.
Losing the Base
Despite maintaining control over the parliament Yanukovych’s party showed its worst result in the last three elections. It lost over a quarter of its voters receiving six million votes this year compared to eight million in 2006 and 2007 elections. The most substantial losses – close to a million votes – were registered in its base regions of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Another million in total was lost in three Eastern Ukrainian oblasts – Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk and in the South – Odessa and Crimea. While it made some gains in the Western Ukraine (Volhyn, Rivne, Zakarpattia), they were far from sufficient to offset major losses in the East.
Continued Sub-National Dominance
Brewing discontent in the Eastern Ukraine, however, did not lead to a jump in popularity of the right-center opposition. Rather, it boosted electoral support for the Communists, which received their best result since 2002 election. At the same time, communists failed to win a single majoritarian race anywhere in the country. By contrast, the Party of Regions’ candidates won almost all races in Eastern and Southern oblasts with several mandates going to the independents de facto aligned with the ruling party. This demonstrated that the Regions’ local political machines could effectively impose their preferred candidates despite voters’ growing alienation from the party of power. Their reach now extends further into the “orange” territories with Regions’ candidates winning some races in Central (Kyiv oblast, Zhytomyr, Sumy, Poltava) and Western Ukrainian oblasts (Rivne, Chernivtsi, Zakarpattya).
Clientilism Works Amidst Poverty
Ukraine’s election confirmed the general political science finding about the impact of clientilistic strategies – their effectiveness in delivering votes is negatively correlated with voters’ income levels. In the low-income regions voters would often vote for opposition forces on the party-list, but could support local pro-Yanukovych or neutral oligarchs in single-mandate races. This occurred even in such opposition strongholds as Lviv and Volhyn oblasts. By contrast in Kyiv where the income level is the highest in the country opposition candidates won all of the races against their much wealthier and more “generous” opponents. Weak support for Yanukovych in Kyiv continues to be one of his key political vulnerabilities, particularly given the critical importance of the capital city for the successful challenge from below.
Fraud Has Its Limits
The vote count also showed that the authorities have limited capacity or willingness to engage in fraud in those districts where the opposition candidates have a clear advantage. This became particularly obvious in several districts in Kyiv where the stakes for the authorities were especially high. Still, despite the limited use of coercion and administrative interference local officials could not get the results favorable to the ruling party. Apart from the low capacity it may also demonstrate the authorities’ reluctance to resort to obvious falsifications in light of a major monitoring effort by the West. The result, however, is a continued competitiveness of an increasingly authoritarian regime in Ukraine.
Radicals as the Last Resort…
The success of extreme nationalist party “Svoboda” has been stunning for most observers. Until the last few weeks of the campaign pollsters still had doubts whether it could cross 5% threshold. In the end it received 10.4% gaining ten times more votes then in 2007. Even in the largely Russian-speaking Kyiv it received more votes in this election then it had garnered in the entire country five years ago. This outcome reflected declining trust of “orange” voters in mainstream opposition and perception of its weakness in the face of Yanukovych’s pro-Russian policies. It was also fueled by the alliance with the United Opposition, which made it seem less radical to many voters. The voters’ longing for new and strong leaders to replace familiar faces also gave the liberal party “Udar” led by the former boxing champion Vitaliy Klichko a third-place finish despite its first nationwide election appearance. Still, “Svoboda” is likely to play a more decisive role then “Udar” in Ukraine’s political process in the coming years. And given that it’s nationalist policies are intermixed with xenophobia and racism of its key leaders, “Svoboda’s” rise is likely to be a blow to Ukraine’s democratic prospects. The “United Opposition” depends on Svoboda for voter mobilization and symbolic appeal and will need to form an alliance with nationalists for the upcoming presidential campaign. This, however, is likely to keep the country divided and polarized. The opposition’s agenda, at the same time, will be torn by ideological contradictions among its members.
…And Yanukovych’s Last Hope?
The increasing and visible presence of radical nationalists in Ukraine’s opposition movement may, in fact, help Yanukovych revive his flagging support among his core voters. It will allow him to turn the next presidential election into another truly existential high-risk battle with long-term consequences. While Kuchma revived his popularity in 1999 by posing as the last barrier to communist comeback, Yanukovych may portray himself in 2015 as the only guarantor against militant nationalist backlash. This may also give him pretext to use force in case the election goes out of hand. Whatever the outcome, one thing seems clear – in the near future Ukraine is unlikely to have another revolution that is both peaceful and democratic.