As Ukraine marks the official start of the campaign season this week for the October 28 parliamentary election, all eyes have turned to President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which will fight to keep its control over parliament amid growing criticism at home and abroad.
“They need to show that the Party of Regions is still the number one party,” said Ukrainian political researcher Serhiy Kudelia.
The Yanukovych regime has earned scorn for what critics say has been a steady lurch toward authoritarian rule. Its drive to centralize power and crackdown on public and political opposition has helped galvanize popular discontent with the government, leading to a dramatic slide in support and the piecemeal consolidation of the opposition.
The jailing of opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for abuse of office has only intensified resentment against the regime.
The ruling party needs to hold onto its electoral majority and reverse a double-digit drop in popular support, which plummeted from about 40 percent in early 2010 to around 20 percent currently, according to a survey of about 2,000 respondents conducted by the Kiev-based Razumkov Center think tank.
The Party of Regions has relied on its control over parliament to ram through controversial legislation, such as a recent bill elevating the status of the Russian language in Ukraine, and will be focused particularly on scraping together a constitutional majority to adopt key changes in the constitution favorable to Yanukovych and the regime, experts say.
For the opposition, the election may be a critical test to see whether public disenchantment with the Yanukovych regime has translated into popular support for opposition policies.
The combined forces of Tymoshenko and another key opposition figure, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, will offer a formidable challenge in the form of the Fatherland party, which may seek to work with a handful of other small opposition parties that make it past the 5 percent threshold into parliament.
If the Party of Regions sees its 194-seat plurality in the 450-seat parliament eclipsed, especially by an opposition willing to work in concert, it could well embolden the otherwise divided and disenchanted anti-Yanukovych forces, experts say.
“I perceive these elections as preparation for the presidential elections [in 2015],” said Serhiy Taran, director of the Kiev-based International Democracy Institute. “These elections will help the opposition to unite opposition forces and make clear who will be the candidate for the presidential campaign.”
Yet others say the opposition stands far less of a chance to put up a fight against Yanukovych and his party. According to Kudelia, the political expert, the electoral landscape is still divided and riddled with smaller “virtual” parties posing as pro-opposition but in effect willing to work with the ruling party once elected to parliament.
He also added that a loophole in a controversial electoral law passed late last year creates room for electoral manipulation and the use of administrative resources. When combined with the lingering mistrust of opposition parties, Kudelia said, the ruling party may in fact receive the boost for which it hopes.
“The problem is that you really lack a very strong, clear-cut [political] opposition to Yanukovych, which may force many people who are ambivalent to vote for the Party of Regions for other reasons,” he said. “They will get perks, individual benefits, et cetera.”
The Kremlin May Capitalize
Russia has traditionally thrown its support behind Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, though to varying degrees over the years. During the Orange Revolution, the Kremlin openly backed the party and its leader, but was quickly embarrassed by the resounding defeat. In the 2010 presidential election, Moscow tempered its position and announced it would work with either of the presidential candidates – at that time, Yanukovych and Tymoshenko.
Today, however, Russia is growing increasingly impatient with the Yanukovych administration. It has ardently criticized Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, especially since the firebrand populist was jailed for abusing office in negotiating an allegedly unfavorable 2009 gas contract with Russia. Yanukovych has also played hardball with Moscow, fending off the Kremlin’s advances to buy up Ukraine’s energy transportation infrastructure and to pull Ukraine into a Russian-led customs union.
Kremlin insiders have become irritated over what they see as Yanukovych’s political games, experts say, and while the election won’t be a seminal moment for the Kremlin, it will still be watching closely.
According to Nikolay Petrov, a regional analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, Moscow has accepted the fact that Yanukovych hasn’t shaped up to be the partner for whom it had hoped back in 2010. If the elections in fact lead to the ruling party’s erosion of power, it may be a good opportunity for the Russian leadership to push its platform for integration even further.
“[The Kremlin] will take his relative failure as a good signal, keeping in mind that the stronger Yanukovych is, the less capable it is to force Ukraine to move in its preferred direction,” Petrov said.
The Western Hand
The West has become gradually outspoken throughout the past two years as Yanukovych has moved to consolidate his power and tighten control over the political landscape. The criticism came to a head last fall, when a Kiev court imprisoned Tymoshenko on charges that the United States and the European Union have openly said were politically motivated and designed to sideline a key political rival.
In the past, the EU has resorted to tougher tactics in punishing Yanukovych. It rescinded its offer of an Association Agreement, which would offer Ukraine tariff-free trade with the EU and other financial benefits, after Tymoshenko’s jailing – but to no avail. Yet depending on what happens in October, experts say, the West may find it easier to pressure the Yanukovych regime.
According to Taran, of the International Democracy Institute, the West can interpret the opposition’s relatively high polling numbers as a signal that the Yanukovych regime is continuing to shed its legitimacy at home.
“The results of the elections will be a very clear message that Yanukovych is not really a guy who is supported by society,” he said.
“It will only prove that the West is correct in saying that Yanukovych is not doing the right things, so I don’t think relations will improve,” said Taran. “On the contrary – it means the West will be much more demanding.”