2010 Ukrainian Presidential Election: Round 1

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In our continuing series of election reports, we are very pleased to have Lucan Way of the University of Toronto provide the following commentary on last weekend’s first round of the Ukrainian presidential election:

The first round of Ukraine’s Presidential election, which reunited all of the major participants of the Orange Revolution save Leonid Kuchma, revealed major changes but some important similarities in the political system that existed in 2004.

The most important and encouraging change has been the introduction of functioning democratic institutions. Relative to 2004, “media was much more open and diverse (if highly partisan) and electoral fraud was largely absent”:http://www.osce.org/documents/odihr/2010/01/42386_en.pdf. Perhaps even more remarkably, the first round suggests that the use of state or “administrative resources”by incumbents no longer yields the same benefits it once did. Most strikingly, access to state resources by President Viktor Yushchenko translated into just 5 percent of the vote – a result that may be the worst performance by an incumbent in modern democratic history. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who had backed Yuschenko in 2004 but now ran against him, did much better with 25%—enough to get into the second round with Viktor Yanukovych. However, she does not seem to have benefitted significantly from state access. Tymoshenko arguably bet heavily on administrative resources when she decided to become Prime Minister in late 2007 at which point there were already signs of an impending economic downturn in Ukraine. Given, her overwhelming desire to become President, Tymoshenko might have chosen to stay in opposition and let others take the blame for Ukraine’s 14 percent economic decline in 2009. Tymoshenko’s decision makes sense in light of the rules of the game that had dominated under Kuchma. Until 2004, access to the government had been a sine qua non for political viability. A government position was about the only way candidates could gain the necessary patronage, organizational resources and media attention necessary to mount a serious campaign.

However, in what is a very good sign for Ukrainian democracy, Tymoshenko appears to have suffered far more as an incumbent who had to take the blame for Ukraine’s dismal economic performance than she benefitted as a government official able to use of state resources to bolster her support. A preliminary picture of the relative benefits of administrative resources emerges from a comparison of her performance last Sunday with her party’s performance in 2007 parliamentary elections and Yushchenko’s performance in the first round of the Presidential election in 2004 when he suffered significant disadvantages. Overall, she got 5 percent less than her party did in 2007 and about 15 percent less than Yushchenko did in 2004. Administrative resources may have contributed to slightly improved performance in several eastern provinces, where Tymoshenko did better than in previous years. But, these regions were still overwhelmingly dominated by Yanukovych as in both 2007 and 2004.

A second major change from 2004 is that far less is at stake. In the upcoming second round between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych, voters will not face a choice between pro Western and pro democratic forces on one side and authoritarian and pro Russian groups on the other. Both candidates basically reject the possibility of Ukraine’s NATO membership and few believe that Yanukovych will ever introduce Russian as a second language. Neither has particular claim to the democratic mantle. Most notably, in contrast to 2004, Russia has not taken sides – expressing a willingness to work with either candidate.

One might think that the sharp reduction in geopolitical tensions and policy differences relative to 2004 would blur the regional divisions that have long characterized Ukrainian politics. Ukraine has had one of the most regionally polarized electorates in the world. Thus, in the repeat second round of the 2004 election Yanukovych‘s support ranged from just 3 to 7 percent in several provinces in the west to 80 to 94 percent in the east. In the first round in 2004, just 8 percent of his overall electoral support came from the West (representing 22 percent of Ukraine’s total population) while 76 percent percent of his overall support came from the east (48 percent of Ukraine’s population).

Surprisingly, despite the fact that the differences between Yanukovych and Tymoshenko are relatively minor, regional polarization has remained about as severe as it was in 2004. Thus, Yanukovych relied on the east for 76 percent of his electoral support – just as in 2004. Tymoshenko broadened her support slightly in the East relative to Yushchenko (19 percent from 17 percent), but still relied on Western and Central Ukraine for the bulk of her support.

Democracy is likely to suffer whoever wins the second round. This is not just because Yanukovych in 2004 and Tymoshenko more recently have demonstrated a proclivity for authoritarian behavior. In 2007, Yushchenko himself ignored the constitution and shut down the legislature. . The big difference is that both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych—in contrast to Yushchenko – have access to far more effective political party structures (Tymoshenko’s BYuT, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions) that have the potential capacity to control the legislature. Strong parties are typically associated with strong democracy. Yet, in the absence of other countervailing forces (a strong rule of law, civil society, or powerful external democratizing pressure), powerful and cohesive parties may also be used to stifle opposition and to monopolize political control over state institutions. If either Tymoshenko or Yanukovych are able to form cohesive parliamentary majorities after coming to power, they will be in a strong position to subordinate the Prime Minister, pack the courts, and, generally, politicize the state to a degree unseen under Yushchenko.

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