LONDON, October 28 (RIA Novosti) — Sunday’s Ukrainian parliamentary elections are being over analysed by the international media and by elements of the Russian press. This is because there is a misunderstanding that these are elections between competing parties with differing ideologies, such as those that take place elsewhere in Europe and throughout the world. This is very far from being the case.
Ukraine this year has experienced a major power struggle between two factions of its political elite. In February 2014, one faction won the power struggle by resorting to a violent coup that gave it control of the levers of power. Since then, this faction has moved to consolidate its control over the country by eliminating what is left of the defeated faction. Having secured control of the Presidency and the government and purged the Constitutional Court and media, it has now made use of early elections to purge the country’s parliament – a fact admitted to by Poroshenko in his election decree. This is intended to be followed by a thorough purge of the state bureaucracy, the police and the army, as authorised by a draconian albeit unconstitutional new “lustration” law. The intention is that by the end of this process, there will be no remnant of the rival faction that held power before the coup in February represented in any body of the state power.
The banner under which this purge is being carried out is, of course, “anti-corruption” and “democracy”. Neither should be taken too seriously. That slogan, “the fight against corruption” is a perennial catchphrase that has been repeatedly used since the 1980s; it was used in the former Soviet Union by pro-Western liberal factions who desired to discredit and eliminate their opponents. As the post-Soviet history of both Russia and Ukraine show, in practice pro-Western crusaders against corruption are largely unconcerned when it is committed by those they count amongst themselves. As for “democracy”, pro-Western liberal factions in both Russia and Ukraine have long since reinterpreted this word to mean a political system where they hold power and their opponents don’t.
That what is happening in Ukraine is a purge and that the parliamentary elections should be understood in that way is revealed in the way in which the two parties most closely identified with the defeated faction – the Party of the Regions and the Communist Party – were destroyed before the elections to prevent them from taking part. These parties were eliminated not just by an administrative act, which is undemocratic enough, but via sustained political violence and the persecution of their leaders and supporters. Although an attempt has been made by supporters of the defeated faction to create a substitute political force in the form of the Boyko Opposition Bloc, its chances of withstanding the political violence and ongoing purge and having an effective presence in the new parliament despite its surprisingly good showing in the elections are minimal.
What explains much of the misunderstanding about the elections is that the present regime created by the faction, which won the power struggle in February and which is carrying out the purge, is itself highly factionalised. The bitter feuds between these factions within the regime should not however obscure the fact that they remain united in their key aims, which are (1) the total elimination from Ukrainian political and social life of the faction that was defeated in February and (2) the realignment of Ukraine in a way that maximally distances it from Russia. In the case of the two leading blocs, the Poroshenko bloc and the Yatsenyuk bloc, it is impossible to see any ideological divide at all. The differences that do exist are entirely matters of tactics and personality.
The elections do nonetheless provide some indication about the balance of forces within the regime and of the regime’s present standing within Ukrainian society.
The elections confirm that Poroshenko has failed to consolidate his position as the country’s undisputed leader. The fact that his bloc came second or tied with the one led by his sometime ally and rival Yatsenyuk shows the extent to which his popularity has declined since the Presidential election in May as a result of the economic crisis and the military defeat in August. If one of Poroshenko’s objectives in calling the election was to consolidate his position at the head of the regime, then that objective has failed.
The relatively poor showing of the Tymoshenko and Lyashko blocks and of Svoboda by contrast show that public support for extreme politics is waning amid the public’s war-weariness.
It should be said clearly that there are no “peace parties” within the present Ukrainian regime. All of the leaders of the various factions that make it up, including Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk, are united in their militant hostility to the separatist (or federalist) aspirations of the people of the country’s east. Yatsenyuk has in fact been consistently more hawkish than Poroshenko.
However if there is no “peace party”, there very definitely is a “war party”, whose talk can be construed as seeking an immediate renewal of hostilities. The comparatively poor showing of the factions most associated with this party, including those of Tymoshenko and Lyashko, shows that behind the monolithic front of the regime’s propaganda, there is little enthusiasm amongst the Ukrainian public for a renewal of the war.
That fact does not however mean that a renewal of the war will not happen. If the history of this year’s power struggle proves anything, it is that in Ukraine it is not governments, elections, parliaments or public opinion that ultimately decides matters. It is political violence exerted by those who control the streets.
This explains the role of Right Sector and of the various Nazi groups. The fact that these groups have little electoral support (a point endlessly made by the regime’s apologists) is irrelevant to their actual political role. This is not to win elections; as militantly anti-democratic organisations they have little interest in doing so. It is to actively terrorize and intimidate the regime’s enemies.
This is the role these Nazi groups played in the coup in February and it is the role they have continued to play ever since. That role however gives them considerable power within the regime since there is always the threat that they will put this violence to use on behalf of groups engaged in the regime’s perpetual inter-factional quarrels. That threat has already been put to use on several occasions, most notably with the pressure these groups exerted on the regime in June to renew the war in June and more recently to enact the new “lustration” law. It is entirely possible that this threat could be used again to force a resumption of the war, even if factional infighting within the regime does not bring that about anyway.
The election however also shows the narrowing political base of the regime. Turnout seems to have been around 52% nationally, much lower than might have been expected following a “democratic revolution”, and suggesting scant enthusiasm for the regime or the range of options it offered amongst the country’s general population. While voter turnout surged in the west, it has tapered significantly in the east and south. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, when the pro-Russian Party of the Regions won 34.4% of the vote, voter turnout was highest in eastern Ukraine: the most active voter turnout was registered in Donetsk region (59.46%), Luhansk region (57.57%), and Zaporizhia region (55.96%), according to the Kyiv Post.During the recent snap elections, the reverse was true, according to Ukrainian radio. The highest turnout was registered in the three westernmost regions: Lviv region (70%), Ternopil region (68.28%), and Volyn region (64.85%). Meanwhile, the lowest turnout was seen among the Kiev-controlled parts of Donetsk region (32.4%) and Luhansk region (32.87%), as well as the predominantly Russian-speaking Odessa region (39.52%), site of the May 2 massacre of Anti-Maidan activists in the Trade Union House in Odessa. On the assumption that most eastern voters who took part in the election voted for the Boyko Opposition Bloc (the nearest approximation to the old Party of the Regions that until February represented the region), it shows that the pre-February political divide in Ukraine between east and west continues exactly as before and that the claim made by the regime’s supporters that the war has somehow won over the people of the east is untrue.
The low turnout in the east and the probable success there of the Boyko Opposition Bloc also incidentally explain why the February coup took place. Given the extent of Ukraine’s political divisions and the abiding hostility to the regime and its policies in the east, it is clear that without the coup and the purge that has followed it, the current government could never have hoped to achieve the untrammelled control of Ukrainian politics and society it aspires to.
The elections are therefore far from being a consolidating or legitimising event as some claim, and may be setting the scene for further instability.
The rebel regions refused to participate in the elections and have made clear that they will continue with the elections they have called for themselves on November 2, 2014. Ukraine is therefore set to witness two rival sets of elections within a week of each other, further crystallising the effective partition of the country which is now underway.
The elections have also failed to stabilise the regime in Kiev or to resolve its internal differences. On the contrary they appear to have worsened them. Instead of one leader – Poroshenko – the regime now has two – Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk. It is generally acknowledged that one of the reasons for the failure of the post-“Orange Revolution” government between 2004 and 2010 was the divisions between its leaders: Yushchenko and Tymoshenko. The falling out occurred when Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s corruption became apparent to the former president, when she attempted to re-nationalize thousands of private assets and re-privatize them in a way that would be personally financially beneficial to her and her allies among the country’s oligarchs.
The fact that turnout was surprisingly strong for the Boyko Opposition Bloc despite low voter turnout in the intimidated east shows that despite the regime’s bid this year for total power, large sections of Ukrainian society are either indifferent to it or reject it outright. Although Tymoshenko had effectively discredited herself by the time of her 2011 arrest and left behind a party that was too corrupt and ineffectual to generate enough popular electoral support in western Ukraine to forgo the need for a second Maidan event, many of her Fatherland Party compatriots managed to revive their political careers by joining the People’s Front of Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Despite the infighting among Ukraine’s leaders (which often results in actual fistfights in the legislature) it’s doubtful that the collapse of the regime is imminent or that the fragile peace in the east has been secured. The consistent pattern since the 2004 Orange Revolution is that inter-factional fighting and the narrowing of the political base has led to further radicalisation. The regime retains a core of popular support in the country’s western regions and in Kiev. Having seized power violently and having ruled violently, this is not a regime that will compromise easily or pass away quietly. In Ukraine, predictions are foolish but the omens are not good and point to further instability and more violence.