Despite Pessimism, the Elections are Worth Celebrating

Despite the pessimism that often permeates much of Ukrainian civic life, including fears that the elections will fail to amount to big changes, there is much to celebrate following Sunday’s electoral overhaul.

Most international observers are crediting Ukraine for conducting a relatively smooth election in extraordinary circumstances. The Ukrainian World Congress (UWC), a diaspora organization that also hosted roughly 300 foreign observers, hailed the success of the election despite war in the east and massive internal problems. UWC vice president, Petro Sztyk, explained that the early parliamentary elections should be seen as a step forward for Ukrainian democracy even if there were isolated incidents with the vote and campaign. “In comparison to the 2012 elections, the most distinguishing feature is the feeling that the administrative resources of the country weren’t being used against the people,” Sztyk said.

Ukrainians voted into office an overwhelmingly European-orientated parliament. Although the ballots are still being counted, either Poroshenko Bloc or Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front received the plurality of votes for closed party lists. Each of the factions received roughly 22 percent of the total vote. In third place came the pro-Western Samopomich [Self-Reliance], Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadoviy’s party. The pro-Russian and Party of Regions-linked Opposition Bloc, Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party, and Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party all made into parliament with less than 10 percent support. In total, radical parties and pro-Russian opposition forces got less than 20 percent of the votes.

With People’s Front and Poroshenko Bloc likely lacking a strong majority even with the addition of MPs from single-mandate districts, it’s likely that that a new government coalition will include both parties plus Samopomich. A three-party coalition of this nature would create a strong pro-European government with largely similar views on the necessity of Ukraine’s westward push, even if they have fundamental differences when it comes to relations with Russia and the resolution of the conflict in the east.

Nevertheless, most Ukrainians aren’t celebrating, and for good reason. The Euromaidan movement did not usher in the level of reform and deep changes to a highly corrupt political culture that many hoped for. Few think that the lustration law will amount to anything. Corrupt officials and former Yanukovych stalwarts in the political system and bureaucracy retain their posts and are likely to continue influencing policy. Approximately 70 lawmakers who voted for the notorious “dictatorship laws” of January 16, which vastly limited Ukrainians’ abilities to exercise freedom of speech and assembly before its repeal, will be re-entering the next parliament in various parties or as independents from the majoritarian districts. Ukraine lost Crimea and much of the Donbas. The economy is tanking, having contracted eight percent over the past year.

Olesya Zhukovska, a student and volunteer nurse who gained international fame after she was shot on Maidan, recently summed up the feelings of many Ukrainians on the eve of the elections. “All the people who were on Maidan know that we went to Maidan with certain goals, and everyone sees that that goal is not just achieved yet,” she said. “They will re-elect the parliament, but I don’t see anything good happening.”

Ukrainians have right to be skeptical. No one doubts that some leaders of the country’s pro-European and ostensibly pro-reform parties have shady backgrounds of their own. Few are holding their breath for a pro-European coalition to suddenly change course and make the Ukrainian political system more transparent and responsive, a move that would undoubtedly undercut their own interests. Ukraine will not reform into a European state with a developed political culture, strong political parties, and a political culture that rejects corruption overnight.

But all the doom and gloom overlooks the positive aspects of a largely clean election that brought to power a strong coalition built on moving westward. Even if it wasn’t for an aggressive Russia bent on dismantling reforms and hobbling economic development, Ukraine was hardly going to become a modern European state with sufficiently high salaries, low levels of corruption, and a stable political system quickly or easily. Changing political culture, especially one as ingrained and corrupt as Ukraine’s, takes time and the relentless work of activists and organizations that keep the government accountable to the people.

The primary success of the Euromaidan movement was not the removal of President Yanukovych from power or the success of a European-looking political coalition. Rather, it’s the proliferation of a politically aware populace and civic organizations—from the volunteers who collect medical supplies for soldiers to the local civic lustration committees that expose corrupt officials at all levels of government. It’s the private citizens who donate their time to such organizations and openly question the decisions of their leaders of whatever political persuasion. It’s that Ukraine held two successful elections in the midst of economic malaise, foreign invasion, and annexation. These are all successes to be proud of, even if the fight is far from over. The elections are still worth celebrating as a small step towards a new country.

 Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center