Big Changes Coming to Ukraine’s Parliament

A year ago this weekend, Maidan was empty. A few blocks away, on Hrushevskoho Street, the Party of Regions controlled the parliament. 700 kilometers to the southeast, Donetsk was quiet. Crimea was Ukrainian. Euromaidan had not yet entered the Ukrainian vocabulary.

One year later, everything has changed. Everything, that is, except the members of parliament. Ten months after the start of Euromaidan, seven months after Yanukovych’s ouster – the same MPs who were elected under Yanukovych are still sitting in the Rada. But this is not for long. On October 26, 2014 Ukrainians will return to the polls to select a new parliament.

The changes to the Ukrainian political landscape will be drastic. A handful of new parties and political factions will enter the Rada for the first time; several former political heavyweights will exit. All the polls indicate big wins for Ukraine’s pro-European and reformist parties. President Poroshenko’s supporters, the Bloc for Petro Poroshenko, in tandem with Klitschko’s UDAR party, is expected to lead the polls. Other pro-European parties expected to enter the next Rada include the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Anatoliy Hrytsenko’s Civic Platform Party. The newly-minted party of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleksandr Turchynov, which splintered off from Tymoshenko’s party, has been making big gains in recent days.

Perhaps more important are the parties that might make their exodus from the parliament. The disgraced Party of Regions is sitting out of the elections. The Communist Party is running, but is unlikely to surpass the five percent cutoff to get seats. Business tycoon Serhiy Tihipko’s Strong Ukraine has benefited from the Communists’ and Regionnaires’ fall, making it the only party likely to enter parliament explicitly trying to curry votes from pro-Russian voters. More surprising is the downfall of controversial nationalist party, Svoboda. The latest polls indicate that the party is unlikely to gain any seats. Apparently, the party’s image overhaul, attempting to cast off its more radical and far-right reputation, isn’t going over well. Oleh Lyashko’s populist and confrontational Radical Party will benefit at the expense of Svoboda, and the party is trailing behind only the Poroshenko Bloc in the polls.

By all indications, pro-European and pro-Maidan political parties will dominate the next Rada. Of all the political factions expected to enter parliament, only Strong Ukraine explicitly does not support the legacy of Euromaidan or Ukraine’s European choice. The political momentum of the country has shifted decisively and drastically in the pro-European direction, advocating reform, closer economic and political relations with the European Union, and a shift away from Moscow’s orbit. Whether these changes in Ukraine’s outlook and composition are possible is another story.

The problems of corruption, shady politics, and incompetence still plague the Ukrainian political system. Months after Yanukovych’s downfall, the mobilization and demands of activists all over the country have still failed to produce much tangible change. There remain little checks on rampant corruption. A watered down lustration bill was finally passed by parliament, but its actual implementation will prove even more difficult than its adoption. Ukraine’s politicians and officials have every incentive to prevent their own lustration. The judicial system remains just as rigid and corrupt as ever. The oligarchs still control the political strings. Ukraine’s political parties, which briefly cooperated after the initial success of Maidan, have already started to revert to their usual internal bickering, backroom deals, and “fractionalism”. In a healthy and established political system, it’s hard to imagine the existence of five or six mainstream parties advocating similar policies.

Does this mean that Ukraine is doomed to repeat the tragedy of the Orange Revolution? Hardly. Even despite the worrying backsliding into the “old way of doing things”, Ukrainian society is as engaged as ever. Only an engaged and ever-vigilant populace can press the new parliament to make the changes that are needed. Ukraine’s young, post-Soviet generation, is the country’s hope and future. One of Maidan’s added benefits, and which will perhaps prove the most lasting, is that young Ukrainians have been politically mobilized. This has been noted by foreign government delegations visiting Ukraine as well. The British MP John Whittingdale, upon visiting Ukraine on a fact-finding mission, noted the encouraging number of young people joining political parties or seeking election to the parliament or local offices. The parliamentary elections are important, in that they will likely signal Ukraine’s irreversible direction to Europe, but they are just a start to a long process. Reforms and political action in the short-term are needed and necessary. But the best hope for Ukraine lies in the long-term.

Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center