Spring brings hope and new life, but what can we expect from parliamentary elections in Ukraine, which may happen sometime later this year or take place as scheduled in October 2019, preceded by a presidential vote in or before March 2019?
On the surface, little seems likely to change. The latest election surveys place Ukraine’s seasoned political warhorse Yulia Tymoshenko ahead of beleaguered President Petro Poroshenko and suggest it will be a closely fought battle between them in the second round. Thus, with two pillars of the existing closed political system as frontrunners, it’s a case of déjà vu. Voters will be offered a choice of faces, slogansб and symbols rather than policies and strategy.
Poroshenko, despite his plummeting popularity, would seem to have the upper hand. With the ugly war with Russia in the Donbas continuing, the first line of campaigning for Ukraine’s commander-in-chief is the creation of a credible Ukrainian army capable of defending the country. He also takes credit for rallying external support and overseeing the adoption of a visa-free regime with the EU for Ukrainian citizens.
Torn between being a statesman, businessman, and power broker, Poroshenko has ended up disappointing many who voted for him by not pursuing reforms as consistently as had been expected after the Revolution of Dignity. Instead, he has presided over a continuation of a connected cartel. Still today, this shady disparate consortium acts as the real government of the country controlling parliamentary factions, the media, and much of the economy.
The clash between the defenders of the status quo and the forces for change intensified during 2017 and has raised concern among Ukraine’s foreign friends and donors. Last year it was epitomised by the attempts to clip the wings of the independent National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) and to retain control of the judiciary.
Tymoshenko, a veteran schemer with plenty of skeletons in her own closet, through her long-running battles for influence, money, and control, has lost her place within the ruling circles and she wants to get back in. She appears obsessed with getting power for power’s sake and the Ukrainian Passionaria excels in populism and telling people what they want to hear.
As with most of the other political factions, it is hard to say what Tymoshenko and her party actually stand for, apart from wanting to replace Poroshenko, and what difference she would make. Optimists like to think she would shake up the stagnant system, whereas sceptics believe it would be more of the same, if not worse.
Poroshenko’s main challenge at this stage is not Tymoshenko, or a resurgence of the remnants of the Regions Party from the Yakunkovych era in their “Opposition Bloc” incarnation, but of the divisions both within his own bloc and within its ally in the majority parliamentary coalition, the Peoples Front, and also between these two competing entities.
Clearly, frantic horse-trading is happening behind the scenes. Given Poroshenko’s low ratings, is he already being seen as a political liability by his entourage and current allies? If so, who will break with him first? Or will he himself realise that the game is over? Here the role of the prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, seems critical. A protégé of Poroshenko, the former mayor of Vinnytsya and parliamentary speaker has been distancing himself from the president.
As summer approaches, and things become clearer, there could still be a few surprises. A huge number of the electorate are undecided, or disillusioned and apathetic. Some elementary configuration of the political forces currently represented in and outside of the parliament can be expected. Who will the Akhmetovs, Kolomoiskys, Firtashes, and other oligarchs back?
The presidential election could produce jokers from the pack: Okean Elzy star Sviatoslav Vakarchuk could pull off a political coup, if he persuades himself to run; likewise, comedian and actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy may lighten the mood of the fight. Will right wing forces unite in an umbrella party, possibly around a revamped Svoboda? And should Groysman move away from Poroshenko, the president might still have a trump card up his sleeve: appointing the hero of Ukraine’s recent Stockholm Arbitration Court victory over Gazprom, Naftogaz chief Andriy Kobolev, as prime minister.
We will see.
Bohdan Nahaylo is a British-born veteran Ukraine watcher, journalist, historian, former senior UN official, and author of a modern history of Ukraine – The Ukrainian Resurgence (University of Toronto Press,1999).