In just over two and a half months’ time, on March 31, Ukraine will be holding Presidential elections, followed by parliamentary elections a little later in the year. Despite mounting discontent by most Ukrainians with the slow pace of much needed reforms and a lack of any real commitment by the current government towards fighting endemic corruption, these elections are highly unlikely to change the existing power structure dominated by oligarchic money and influence. Ukraine will probably wind up with more of the same of what it has now. The reason for this is the way elections in Ukraine are currently structured, and until the rules change, Ukrainian elections will keep resulting in the same kind of Presidents and parliamentary deputies that have plagued Ukraine since it gained independence in 1991.
Let’s examine at the processes responsible for this. One of the biggest differences between Ukraine’s electoral system and the ones we are familiar with in Canada, the U.S. or in most European countries, is the fact that there are no real political parties (as we understand them) in Ukraine. Although there are political organizations in Ukraine that claim to be parties, they are not based on a defined political ideology or a set platform of values and programs. With few exceptions, they are organizations funded by oligarchs and led by strong personalities, usually populist in nature, with ambitions to gain and keep power. Parties are formed and dissolved with frequent regularity creating deliberate confusion and uncertainty within the electorate. The few “real” political parties get lost in the shuffle, and are further hampered by the fact that the Ukrainian media is almost completely controlled by oligarchs, who use their media power to further their political agendas.
In the current elections, there will likely be twenty or more candidates vying for the presidency. Most of these will be what I call “artificial” candidates whose sole purpose for running will be to siphon off votes from the leading candidates to make sure that none get a majority in the first round. According to the rules, if no candidate gets an absolute majority in the first round, there is a second run-off round between the top two vote getters in the first round. Looking at most recent polls, the top three candidates in terms of popularity are Yulia Tymoshenko, incumbent Petro Poroshenko and comedian/media personality Volodymyr Zelenskiy, with none of them garnering higher than 14% popularity. Unless something drastic happens one of these will wind up as President, though I think I would be safe in saying that the vast majority of Ukrainians would not want any of these choices as President. However, unless the many real opposition voices all coalesce around a single candidate, Ukraine is doomed to having either another self-serving oligarch or a comedian as President.
The system for electing members to Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, is no better, with ample opportunity for wealthy oligarchs to manipulate the results for their own purposes. Half the seats (225) are elected on a constituency basis as we have in most North American or European countries, however the other half are filled by appointment from party lists. Basically, any party that succeeds in getting more than 5% of the popular vote nationwide, is entitled to a proportional share of the other 225 seats. So, if a party gets 10% of the vote, it gets 10% of the 225 seats reserved for proportional representation. Parties that qualify, select whomever they want to fill their seats in parliament. Typically, these appointments go to individuals that contribute the most to party coffers at election time. In effect, the very rich are able to buy their way into parliament, gaining all the benefits of office, not the least of which is almost virtual immunity from legal prosecution.
In the 2014 elections, there were 29 parties that fielded candidates, with six parties getting at least 5% of the vote. Needless to say, many of these 29 parties were artificial creations meant to dilute the vote. No party got more than 22% of the vote. This type of system virtually guarantees that no party is able to gain a majority in parliament on its own. This leads to a lot of backroom bargaining to form temporary and shifting coalitions to pass any legislation. Political manipulation becomes rampant. It is little wonder then that so little progress has been made over the last four years in terms of real change.
The 2019 elections for President and a new parliament will proceed much in the same way as those in the preceding decades since independence, with unfortunately, much of the same kind of result. Ukraine will once again have a President and Parliament whose primary interest will be to preserve the status quo as much as possible. The only real difference is the fact that as the Revolution of Dignity demonstrated, the people of Ukraine will no longer just stoically accept being lied to and manipulated by the government and the ruling elite. They have served notice that the government must make real efforts at change or there may be more “revolutions” forthcoming.