What threats face Ukraine if a fragmented Verkhovna Rada is elected that does not represent the interests of the majority of Ukrainians?
The latest polls of Ukrainians are showing an unusually large fragmentation of voter preferences while also maintaining enormous pent-up demand for new political parties. All this is signaling more and more distinctly that the country could find itself facing a major crisis that will threaten Ukraine’s political system after the next round of elections. If the current trend towards political fragmentation continues, and the electoral system and the parliamentary-presidential model of government remain unchanged, the incoming legislature could face a period of destabilization the likes of which would be hard to find in the history of the new Ukraine.
Multiplied and divided
A number of polls run just before the New Year’s and Christmas holidays showed that the more new political projects appear on the horizon, the more diffuse and scattered voter preferences are becoming. Clearly, Ukrainian voters want to see new faces and new ideas in politics. These new politicians are busy trying to get those in the undecided camp to their side and to nibble away those who have supported the greybeards of Ukrainian politics as well.
The Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Fund (DIF) and the Razumkov Center both published the results of surveys from December 15-19, 2017, showing that in the proportional part of the candidate lists as many as seven parties have a chance of gaining seats in the next Verkhovna Rada—but each of them with only 6-12% of the vote: Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna, Poroshenko’s Solidarnist, Murayev-Rabinovych’s Za Zhyttia, Hrytsenko’s Civic Position, Sadoviy’s Samopomich, Boyko’s Opposition Bloc, and Liashko’s Radical Party. Altogether, only 55% of those who intend to vote actually support them, and that’s far less than half of Ukrainian voters.
Many of the current parties that have already signaled their intention to campaign in that election are not even close to gaining enough votes to pass the threshold, but so far none of them have indicated any real willingness to coalesce into a political bloc with others. This is especially true of the nationalist camp: right now, only 3.2% of Ukrainians are prepared to vote for Svoboda, while the remaining parties aiming for that same group of voters—Yarosh’s DIA [Action], Biletskiy’s National Front, and Praviy Sektor [Right Sector]—together barely get another 1.8% of voters.
New opposition parties such Saakashvili’s Movement of New Forces, Dmytro Dobrodomov’s Narodniy Kontrol [Control by the People], Viktor Chumak’s Khvyli [Waves] and the Democratic Alliance altogether muster only 3.9% of voters. Last but not least, the dog-eared Agrarian Party of Ukraine has 1.5% support, while Serhiy Kaplin’s populist Party of Ordinary Folks has another 1.2%.
Opinion polls typically report not only a large contingent of undecided voters, but, what’s more important, enormous pent-up demand for new leaders: 67% of Ukrainians think their country needs new political leaders, and only 19% believe that it already has them. This creates a huge field for new faces and new parties to maneuver in.
In fact, just about any new party has a good chance right now. The question is, where will the potential new leaders come from? Right now, polls show that voters are most inclined to trust or trust completely the military 63.4%, volunteer organizations 61.3%, community organizations 44.0%, and anti-corruption agencies, especially NABU, 35.1%. What’s more, complete trust in the volunteers and the military is over 10.0%.
The most support for individuals has gone to stars of show business whose names have been bandied around more actively in the press recently: musician Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, who enjoys 8.9% complete trust while another 37.8% are inclined to trust him, and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who enjoys 6.4% and 34.7% of voter trust. Amazingly, Zelenskiy’s party, Servant of the People, has managed to pick up 4.0% support among those who intend to vote—in less than a month since being founded. Vitaliy Klitschko’s UDAR party benefited from the same enormous demand for new faces in the 2012 election. Similarly today, a properly-organized campaign around a high-profile individual will be enough to bring just about any new team to the Rada.
In addition to political parties already included in opinion polls, it’s likely that as the elections loom, new and revived parties will appear in the camp of those currently in power. Familiar brands like the Petro Poroshenko Block and Narodniy Front are slowly running out of maneuvers. The mutual tolerance that makes sense in the current set-up of the coalition government and Rada, but it will lose its purpose when it comes to re-election. This will become more and more the case the poorer Poroshenko’s chances of being re-elected—even if he manages to do so in the end.
For starters, it’s clear at this point that he wants to establish his own election campaign with PM Volodymyr Hroisman. At this time, only 17.8% of voters are inclined to or completely trust the premier, while he himself is inclined to populist rhetoric in an attempt to grab the “effective manager” niche, that is, the one who is only concerned with the living standard of fellow citizens. The latest polls have given Hroisman decent start-up ratings, with 5.6% in the Center, where he’s already got nearly half of Poroshenko’s ratings of 13.5%, and 3.5% in the South, where he’s almost at a level with him. If he were to decide to campaign independently, it could lead to a serious redistribution of BPP supporters. Indeed, a competition between Hroisman and Poroshenko or between their separate parties in the next election could end up just like the story of the Yushchenko-Yatseniuk split in the run-up to the 2010 election.
Interestingly, it’s probably a bit early to write off the leaders of Narodniy Front. Their embarrassingly low rating, 1.6% of those who plan to vote, could grow substantially if they successfully rebrand the party and organize a solid election campaign. Indeed, these same polls indicate that Arseniy Yatseniuk already has 6.3% trust, Oleksandr Turchynov has 7.3%, Arsen Avakov has 7.7% and Andriy Parubiy is tops with 8.5%. This suggests that, if their party—or even parties—put together an active campaign, they not only have the potential to make it into the next Rada, but are also likely to take away votes from other parties that looked like they would make it in recent polls.
Finally, we have the possibility of a relaunch of Vitaliy Klitschko’s party, UDAR, given that more than 20.0% of Ukrainians continue to trust him. Relations between UDAR MPs in the Poroshenko Bloc and their colleagues in the ruling coalition have been growing more difficult lately. Moreover, the level of trust, 8.0%, in what is probably the most politically active Prosecutor General in the country’s history, Yuriy Lutsenko, is more than enough for him to also try to set up his own political project for the Rada elections. Especially if the ruling coalition is restructured or his relations with other members of the group turn worse.
Forward to 1998?
In short, it looks like there will very likely be even more diffusion of voter preferences towards those who are most closely connected to the Rada. The traditional expectation that the majority of those who are undecided today will be forced to vote for those in the current 6-8% league could well prove wrong this time around. Instead, these votes are likely to be split up among aggressive new candidates in the campaign. A high level of competitiveness and the perception of a danger that the enemy camp might win have played a key role since the beginning of the 2000s, which was especially strong in the campaigns between 2006 and 2012. This could also generate such a war of everyone for himself and all against all that a significant share of the ambitious parties will find themselves below the threshold, with only 2%, 3% and even 4% of the vote.
At the same time, even more parties could make it into the Rada, than the seven that have been listed in recent surveys. In addition to this, the charging up of campaigns and not only a heightened battle for the undecided vote but a redistribution of the votes of the current favorites could lead to a situation where none of those parties that seem to have a good chance today will actually make it. After all, their future opponents haven’t even announced themselves, let alone started actively campaigning.
Given the fragmentation of the current Rada, the next election could even turn out like the long-forgotten campaign of 1998, when half the deputies were also elected proportionally based on party lists and half in FPTP districts. The threshold for parties at the time was 4%—it’s 5% today—, while in the FPTP districts, like today, whoever got the most voted won, even if it wasn’t a majority of the total votes. The result was that eight parties got into the Rada and another four missed the threshold by very little, having picked up 2.7-3.7%. The result was that nearly 13.0% of all the ballots cast were effectively wasted. Altogether, all 225 proportional seats were split among parties that, between them, managed to get only 65.8% of the ballots cast—and only 46.8% of all eligible voters.
Given that the distortion of the people’s will was even greater in the FPTP districts thanks to the principle of relative majority: in some cases, the winners had only 15-25% support in their district, but that was more than anyone else. And so the 1998 Rada was a reflection of the political preferences of what was clearly a minority of Ukrainian voters. Once intramural groups were formed by these MPs, the Rada ended up with as many as 14 separate factions and groups at any one time, whose compositions were relatively unstable. This provided fertile ground for manipulating the legislature, both on the part of the executive and on the part of the oligarchic groups that were just emerging in Ukraine then.
To be—or not to be
However, repeating the negative consequences of the 1998 election in a hypertrophic form today would constitute a far greater threat to the country than it did 20 years ago. At that time, the government model was a presidential-parliamentary republic, when the power and the opportunities for the president and the executive branch to work autonomously were immeasurably larger than they are today. The current president and his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, mostly influenced things through their own powerful factions in the Rada, which had a substantial relative majority if not an absolute one. Without this, the current version of the Constitution will make the president’s position very weak in a patchwork Rada and any Cabinet will be forced to find support in at least 5-7 or even more small factions and groups, a situation that is likely to be exceptionally fragile and short-lived.
This threatens to bury Ukraine in a state of permanent instability, similar to the Fourth French Republic over 1946-1958 or the presidency of Leonid Kravchuk in Ukraine over 1992-1994. Even France, with its unchanging democratic traditions and well-established national identity, was brought to the brink of catastrophe and civil war. In Ukraine, it led to the worst economic collapse in the country’s history over 1992-1994.
In Ukraine today, however, which is living with an unresolved armed conflict and in the sights of the Kremlin’s hybrid weaponry dedicated to destroy the country, fragmentation in the form of federalization, and its possible further subordination, the danger of events going this way is far worse. Hyper-fragmentation of the Rada and the country’s political environment is likely to push Ukraine into chaos that will be beyond the control of formal institutions. At the same time, it will offer broad opportunities for grey eminences to direct political processes and manipulate both the elected Rada and the executive agencies that depend on it, in Kyiv and at the local level. Together with these backroom players, there will be both internal and external centers of power. The armed forces and the special forces, not to mention law enforcement or the judiciary, will become hard to control. The former are likely to feel abandoned and to reorient themselves on external centers of power, while the latter are likely to focus on local interest groups and centers of power.
What can be done to overcome this state of managed chaos is hard to say. It could be the unconstitutional coming to power of a strongman from one circle or another—of course, this cannot happen constitutionally—, or it could lead to the complete collapse and feudalization of the country. In any case, this kind of environment could become very susceptible to the lobbying of federalization for Ukraine—whether de facto or de jure—, or to the insistence that the country is a failed state and its survival, at least in its current state, will hang in the air.