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(Editors Note: Roughly four months after the March 26 parliamentary elections, a new Ukrainian government finally took office. Viktor Yanukovich, whose Party of Regions won the largest number of seats with 32 percent of the vote, was named prime minister. Yanukovich emerged victorious largely because of a split within the reformist camp involving the Socialists, led by Olexander Moroz, the party of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former populist prime minister who proved to be a polarizing figure, and Our Ukraine party led by President Viktor Yushchenko. Yanukovich was the Kremlin’s preferred candidate in the 2004 presidential elections but lost out to Yushchenko, a pro-Western candidate, thanks in part to a grassroots popular uprising that became known as the Orange Revolution. Yanukovich promised he would not steer Ukraine back toward Russia’s orbit but also, echoing the wishes of most Ukrainians, said he does not favor joining NATO. Among his first orders of business was securing a fairer gas deal with Russia, a recurring point of contention between Moscow and Kiev.)
The following is the text of cfr.org’s guide to Ukraine’s elections, originally published March 24, 2006.
Ukraine is a vastly different place politically a year and a half after the Orange Revolution swept into power the pro-Western presidency of Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko has delivered some needed reforms, including more freedom of speech, government accountability, and democratic pluralism. But Ukraine’s economy has faltered, his standoff with Russia over gas supplies backfired, and his Orange coalition is in shambles after he sacked populist Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Going into the March 26 polls for parliamentary elections, the pro-Kremlin party of Yushchenko’s former archrival, Viktor Yanukovich, enjoys the most support, fueling speculation of a grand coalition between the two erstwhile adversaries. Others envision a revival of the Orange coalition, despite the previously unhappy political marriage between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko. Most experts say whatever coalition emerges will be short-lived, given Ukraine’s turbulent politics.
Why are Ukraine’s parliamentary elections significant?
They are the first parliamentary elections since the November 2004 Orange Revolution and the results will indicate whether Ukrainians prefer to continue the reforms set in motion by Yushchenko’s team or return Ukraine to a pro-Russian alignment. Under new constitutional reforms, moreover, Ukraine is now a parliamentary, versus a presidential, republic. The powers of parliament will be expanded to include the right of the majority party to pick the prime minister and most of the cabinet. (Previously these posts were selected by the president.)
Candidates from forty-five blocs, including boxers, pop stars, and accused criminals, are vying for 450 seats in the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. The parliamentarians will be elected to five-year terms. Under new election laws to increase the number of smaller parties, political blocs must receive only at least 3 percent of the national vote to win a presence in parliament; still, no more than five or six parties are expected to meet this threshold. The three main political groups are Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine Party, Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, and Tymoshenko’s own political bloc.
Why has Yushchenko’s popularity slipped?
Experts say Yushchenko has made a number of mistakes. First, the former central banker has failed to improve Ukraine’s economy, whose growth fell from 12 percent in 2004 to under 3 percent the following year. However, a record amount of foreign direct investment—some $7.9 billion—flowed into Ukraine in 2005. Ukraine’s economy also received a boost when the European Union elevated its status to a market economy, a move recently taken by the United States as well. But Yushchenko’s popularity plummeted after a dispute earlier this year with Russia over Ukraine’s natural gas supplies, which led to a fivefold spike in energy prices and an agreement involving a trading company with dubious ties.
A range of other issues, including Russia’s blockage of imported dairy products like cheese, exposed Ukraine’s vulnerability to Moscow. Many of his erstwhile supporters, including Tymoshenko, say he has not fought corruption and has refused to prosecute oligarchs, many of them from the Donetsk oblast, or province, in eastern Ukraine, who stand accused of pillaging state assets under the former regime. Further, he has failed to prosecute those responsible for the 2000 murder of investigative journalist Georgy Gongadze as well as the September 2004 poisoning of the president himself. Regardless of the outcome of the elections, Yushchenko will retain his post until 2009.
What are the main political blocs vying for power?
Party of Regions. The party of Yanukovich enjoys an approval rating of around 30 percent, the largest of any political bloc, but not enough to make a majority, meaning he will have to form a coalition with another political bloc. Yanukovich’s political comeback was fueled in part by the 40 percent of the population who did not support the Orange Revolution, most hailing from the heavily industrialized and Russian-speaking eastern half of Ukraine. The former prime minister favors stronger ties with Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia by creating a Common Economic Area among the four states. He also supports symbolic gestures like restoring the Russian language, dumped after independence in 1991, as an official state language alongside Ukrainian. And he opposes the country’s entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a stance shared by the vast majority of Ukrainians.
Yanukovich, twice arrested in the past for robbery and other charges, is remembered most for rigging the 2004 presidential elections and losing to Yushchenko in an election runoff. But experts say as prime minister, he would be unlikely—or unable—to reverse Ukraine’s course toward becoming a more fully functioning democracy and market economy. "Saints don’t become sinners overnight," wrote Fred Kempe, assistant managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, in a recent op-ed, "yet Mr. Yanukovich’s shift shows even retrograde politicians need to play by a new set of rules." Experts say Yanukovich’s campaign also benefited by hiring a U.S.-based public relations firm to reform his image.
- Our Ukraine. The party of President Yushchenko has seen its approval ratings slide drastically in recent months, partly as a result of his split in September with the popular Tymoshenko. Her replacement, Yuri Yekhanurov, is seen as a more stable, business-friendly leader. Yushchenko’s bloc favors a continuation of his current reforms on privatization, an energy strategy that includes diversifying the country’s energy supplies by 2030, and eventual membership into NATO, the European Union, and World Trade Organization (WTO).
- Tymoshenko’s bloc. Most of Tymoshenko’s supporters are those disillusioned by the Orange Revolution. Tymoshenko, a former oil tycoon herself, frightened off many foreign investors last year with her pledge as prime minister to investigate 3,000 privatization deals. But many Ukrainians are attracted to her firebrand speeches and high-pitched criticism of President Yushchenko. She favors creating a larger social safety net for the poor, lowering food prices (a recent spike in the price of potatoes has many Ukrainians worried), and taking a tougher stance against corruption. Her party is polling neck-and-neck with Our Ukraine.
What are the most likely post-election political scenarios?
Because no political bloc currently enjoys enough support to form the needed majority, a coalition must be formed and political horse-trading is likely. The Rada has sixty days to form a majority and cabinet, otherwise the president has the option of dissolving the parliament. The two most widely discussed coalitions are:
- An Orange Alliance. This would revive the merger of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party and Tymoshenko’s bloc and lead to a continuation of Ukraine’s course to join the European Union, NATO, and the World Trade Organization. Most analysts say such a coalition is only possible if Our Ukraine were to receive more votes than Tymoshenko’s bloc, which would make her party the junior partner. She has actively sought to reclaim the post of prime minister, but Yushchenko’s camp is against the idea because of Tymoshenko’s previous record of political infighting.
- Alliance of Our Ukraine and Regions Party. This so-called grand coalition would likely emerge only if Our Ukraine receives less support than Tymoshenko’s bloc. But there are a number of obstacles to this arrangement. First, the two parties stand for two opposite sets of principles, experts say. "The political bloc that I head categorically stands for the complete separation of clans and criminals from the government," Yushchenko told reporters March 21. He said Yanukovich’s bloc "represents one of the most powerful of such clans." Others say this "blue-orange coalition" would symbolize a betrayal of the ideals of the Orange Revolution and represent a victory for the Kremlin.
Are the elections expected to be free and fair?
Yes. There are about 2,000 international election monitors in Ukraine and, so far, there are few reports of the kind of fraud found during previous elections. However, because a nationwide voter registry does not exist, there have been some reports, particularly in the provinces of eastern Ukraine, of falsified voter lists.
How will the election affect Ukrainian-Russian relations?
If Yanukovich is selected prime minister, relations should improve, experts predict. Still, a number of unresolved issues remain between Russia and Ukraine, not least of which is the leasing rights of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, stationed off Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Yanukovich may also reverse the recently passed customs rules aimed at preventing arms and drugs smuggling from Transdniester, a breakaway province of Moldova, and into Ukraine. Transdniester authorities and Moscow called the move an illegal economic blockade, while the European Union welcomed the actions. On the flipside, if an Orange Alliance is resurrected and Ukraine eventually joins NATO, expect Ukrainian-Russian relations to worsen, experts say, despite Yushchenko’s iterations to the contrary.