Parliamentary Showtime

One of the few positive features of Ukraine’s 2010 Presidential elections was that international observers found them basically fair and democratic. The assessment was not exactly wrong, but like the West’s input with regard to Ukraine in general, overly superficial, and for many Ukrainians sadly off the mark. Many of those same Ukrainians are bemused by the meeting held yesterday, 10 March, between President Yanukovych and ambassadors from G8 and European Union countries. During this meeting, the President apparently spoke about the law passed on 9 March by a small majority in the Verkhovna Rada which changes the constitutionally enshrined method of forming a governing coalition. It would seem that the diplomatic representatives all nodded their heads, and found the argument that the infringement of the Constitution was required for the sake of stability compelling.

It is entirely impossible to agree with the diplomats and difficult to understand how they can reconcile their position with commitment to democratic values. 

 In late 2004 Ukrainians affirmed the best principles of democracy by peacefully insisting on their choice of presidential candidate – and won. The victory on 7 February 2010 of the then discredited Viktor Yanukovych was in accordance with the rules of democracy. To that degree the positive assessment remains correct, and Ukraine continues to stand out among most post-Soviet neighbours, such as Russia, where election “results” are long known in advance.

 However the 4.36 % prepared to vote “against all” was worryingly large at these presidential elections, and indicates both a critical level of disillusionment and very unrealistic ideas about democratic choice. After 5 years in which the continuing rhetoric about democracy, freedom and European choice from the “Orange” leaders was accompanied by no real reform and by unprecedented confrontation between President and parliament, the sense of malaise was understandable.

 It is only fair to mention that the situation was exacerbated by disastrous constitutional changes rendering inevitable conflict between President and Parliament, which in December 2004 probably seemed a price worth paying to prevent possible bloodshed. There has also been very considerable pressure, both overt and underhand, from those in the Kremlin who experienced the Orange leaders’ victory as a personal defeat. This has had a destabilizing effect especially in the Crimea and Donbas region which did not support the Orange Revolution.

 The list of reasons, and others to blame, can be continued yet they only delay acknowledgement of fundamental problems which still need to be resolved. Almost no systematic reforms were undertaken and any striving for transparency and openness remained on paper.  Ironically, the undoubtedly greater degree of press freedom following the Orange Revolution meant that people were subjected to daily information and speculation regarding behind-the-scene deals between politicians supposedly from different sides of the barricades.

 It is difficult to say when the rot set in. The apparent unity between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko ended after only 7 months, but the real chaos and disorientation for Ukrainian voters probably stems from the parliamentary elections in 2006. Since those elections resulted in a sudden about-turn by the Socialists who had supported the Orange Revolution in 2004, but now joined forces, as a whole faction, with Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions and the Communists, there has been a long saga of instability, backstabbing and total lack of certainty as to how a faction, individual parliamentarians or even the President will behave.

 It is telling that in early elections called in 2007, i.e. after they changed sides, the Socialists failed to enter parliament at all. This should have been a lesson to other politicians, but there seems little evidence that they have paid heed. It is possible that they no longer need to, that there is a critical point of disorientation which has now been reached.

 The public have no power over candidate lists, which are effectively drawn up by party bosses depending how much money or other support they are offered. With the system of total proportional representation brought in through the constitutional changes, this means that a voter only chooses party A rather than party B, not individual representatives. This may work if party A’s behaviour is predictable, however the events of recent years give voters little grounds for any confidence that, for example, their party will not join forces with a party they would never dream of voting for.

 The present Constitution sets out a system for forming a coalition which has grave drawbacks, but does provide one safety mechanism.  Article 83 states that a coalition is formed from factions, not individual National Deputies. That can seem to encourage an imperative mandate situation where deputies are stripped of their will, and must simply follow the party line. In fact, however, there is another side to it.  Following the presidential elections it became clear that the delicate balance in parliament could not be toppled by whole factions changing sides, however there were individual deputies within those factions who were happy, for whatever reason, and the reasons hypothesised in the media are less than flattering, to change sides.

 The changes to the Verkhovna Rada Regulations adopted on 9 March unlawfully change the Constitution and make it possible for coalitions to be formed by factions and individual deputies. This means that Ukrainians who could only cast their vote for specific parties, whose members they have absolutely no control over, may now have a government formed because certain deputies proved ready to ignore the mandate vested in their party, not in them as individuals.

 The fact that this is unconstitutional is fundamental, however so too is the undoubted mockery seen of the principle of democracy.  Civic society is committed to democratic values, and would respectfully ask the international community to stop turning a blind eye to those who flout them.  

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