2012 Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections: Post-Election Report

by Joshua Tucker on November 5, 2012

in Campaigns and elections,Comparative Politics,Election Reports

And now for a brief break from our election coverage for… Ukrainian election coverage!  We are pleased to welcome back University of Kansas political scientist Erik Herron, with the following post-election report on the 2012 Ukrainian parliamentary elections as part of our continuing series of election reports.  Please note that figures regarding votes and seats in this post were current as of October 31, 2012. Much more about the election, including updated results, can be found on Herron’s blog Vse na Vybory.

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In an earlier Monkey Cage post, I commented on the pre-electoral environment in Ukraine. Lucan Way also recently discussed the context and implications of the election. On my blog, Vse na Vybory, I have several posts detailing my on-the-ground election observation as well as some preliminary data analysis. This election report is a summary of the rules and the outcomes which will be integrated with other material for a note in Electoral Studies.

On October 28, 2012, Ukrainian citizens voted in their sixth parliamentary elections since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Turnout matched the 2007 parliamentary elections as over 20 million citizens (57.98%) cast ballots to elect 450 members of the Verkhovna Rada, the country’s unicameral legislative institution. As the first election for national-level institutions since Viktor Yanukovych gained the presidency in 2010, the parliamentary elections were widely viewed as a critical test of Ukraine’s democratic trajectory. While the country had been seen as making progress toward democracy since 2004’s Orange Revolution, the Yanukovych administration had been accused of restricting media freedoms, presiding over flawed local elections, and abusing the judicial system to remove potential electoral rivals from competition. As in previous parliamentary elections, the results revealed that Ukraine continues to be a deeply divided society.

Ukraine has substantially altered its parliamentary electoral system three times since its first post-communist election in 1994: from majority-runoff (1994) to a mixed-member system (1998, 2002), to a proportional representation system (2006, 2007), returning to a mixed-member system for the 2012 campaign. The election rules initially adopted for 2012 were similar to the rules used in 1998: 450 seats, divided evenly into a national PR district (with a 5% threshold, higher than the 4% used in 1998 or 2002) and SMD constituencies determined through a plurality rule. The new version of the law, however, banned blocs of parties and did not include an “against all” option on the ballot. Parliament reinstated the option of dual candidacy that had been ruled unconstitutional and removed from the 2002 version of the mixed system, but it was once again ruled unconstitutional by the the Constitutional Court.

Election rule design has been contentious in Ukraine. The regime-supported Party of Regions and political opposition initially supported the return to the mixed system, but subsequent alterations to the rights of voters abroad and the elimination of dual candidacy prompted opposition discontent.

While the new election rules were predominantly a return to past practices, they included some innovations. Most notably, Ukraine would follow in Russia’s practice of installing webcams in all polling sites (see picture above). The return of single-member districts also required reapportionment and redistricting as the previous elections with local constituencies were held a decade prior. Reapportionment shifted constituencies across regions due to population changes; the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk lost three districts compared to 2002, and they were shifted to Kyiv and the western region of Ivano-Frankivsk. District boundaries were also changed within regions, with some accusations of gerrymandering.

The Ukrainian party system has been divided along at least two prominent cleavages in the post-Communist period. The first is a traditional left-right dimension, featuring variation in preferences about state intervention in economic activities. The second is a national identity dimension, with some parties advocating for the pre-eminence of the Ukrainian language, and an approach to historical interpretation that favors folk heroes and symbols associated with resistance to external forces (e.g., WWII era partisans), and a strong foreign policy orientation toward accession to European institutions. The other end of the identity dimension supports enhanced status for the Russian language, a more benevolent view of Soviet-era history, and recognition of important historic, cultural, and economic connections with Russia.

In the 1990s, Ukraine’s party system was inchoate, with many proto-parties contesting elections amid shifting party affiliations among politicians. The 2002 parliamentary election was critical notably for demonstrating the then party-of-power’s weakness and the development of a strong opposition in the Our Ukraine bloc. The 2004 presidential election further enhanced the opposition’s status as post-election protests led to a re-vote and victory by the opposition presidential candidate.

Since 2004, the Ukrainian party system has experienced consolidation and institutionalization processes, although the party system retains strong elements of personalized politics that have characterized electoral competition since independence. Following 2004’s Orange Revolution, two parliamentary elections were held using nation-wide party list proportional representation with a 3% threshold. Five parties gained seats in both elections, and four of the parties won seats in both contests: the Party of Regions, Bloc of Yuliya Tymoshenko, Our Ukraine, and Communist Party of Ukraine. The Socialist Party of Ukraine gained seats in 2006, but was replaced in the Rada by the Bloc of Volodymyr Lytvyn.

Since 2007, some parties have undergone rebranding due to new election rules and changes in political conditions, and several parties merged to enhance coordination. The pro-regime Party of Regions incorporated the Strong Ukraine party, led by a former presidential contender and member of government. The Bloc of Yuliya Tymoshenko, which emerged after 2007 as the leading opposition party challenging the party-of-power, reclaimed its party name: Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) and merged with the Front of Change, led by former Rada speaker Arseniy Yatseniuk, to offer a joint list and coordinated constituency nominations in the districts. The “United Opposition” also incorporated small parties into its campaign, including Reforms and Order, People’s Self-Defense, For Ukraine, and the People’s Movement. Other prominent opposition organizations, such as Vitaliy Klychko’s UDAR and Oleh Tyahnibok’s Svoboda contested separately on party lists. Svoboda coordinated SMD nominations with the United Opposition, but pre-election withdrawals were controversial as UDAR alleged that the United Opposition had not fully cooperated.

Since Viktor Yanukovych’s victory in the presidential election of 2010, several events have raised concerns about the status of democracy and the likelihood of free and fair competition in the parliamentary elections. The most serious issue is the jailing of former opposition leaders, including former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, Justice Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, and Defense Minister Valeriy Ivashchenko. While these former officials were ostensibly convicted of charges related to the abuse of power, international and domestic observers have alleged that the prosecutions are politically motivated.

The most substantial policy decision, in terms of its likelihood to mobilize voters and influence the fall 2012 campaign, was the debate over the status of the Russian language. Ukraine is linguistically divided, with some citizens preferring to use Ukrainian and others Russian. [A hybrid, Surzhyk, is also spoken in some parts of the countryside.] Ukrainian is the country’s state language, but Russian is widely spoken, especially in eastern and southern regions. The “Ukrainization” of the country, in which Ukrainian became the language for education and other official interactions, has been used by political actors to mobilize citizens in traditionally Russophone regions. The debate over the language law, which would allow Russian enhanced status in some regions, prompted widespread protests by advocates of Ukrainian national identity. The formalization of the new law led some regions to elevate the status of Russian while others actively opposed a change.

Another critical factor in campaign was the perception that the Party of Regions would use administrative resources to secure election victories. Local elections, held in Fall 2010, evidenced substantial administrative problems in several regions. Domestic and international observation groups identified significant violations of proper procedures in some municipalities, but these alleged violations did not affect the certification of results.

Domestic and international monitoring groups vary in their assessments of election day activities, but most note that while violations occurred, they were not widespread. However, many expressed concerns that election fraud could influence results in the SMD races which will be key to post-election coalition formation.

The Central Electoral Commission has not yet processed all of the protocols, but 98% are completed. At this point in time, the results are the following:

To form a coalition, the Party of Regions needs 38 deputies to reach the “magic number” of 226 for a majority. Cooperation with the Communist Party will not be enough to establish a majority; Regions will need another party and/or independent candidates to sign on to the agreement. Batkivshchyna and Svoboda are not potential coalition partners, leaving only UDAR. The failure of UDAR to sign a pre-electoral coalition agreement with other parties implies that it might be willing to negotiate with Regions, although some comments from the party suggest otherwise.While most of the results track closely with pre-election polling and exit polls, the relatively weak performance of UDAR and strong finish of Svoboda are surprising. Some pre-election polls suggested UDAR might finish in second place and many thought it might benefit from this speculation on election day. Svoboda, a right-wing nationalist party with roots in western Ukraine, was on the edge of the threshold in the final public opinion polls. Its surge suggests that Svoboda may have served as a target for protest voters, but more research is needed to better understand its success.

Negotiating with independent candidates will be costly for Regions, both in terms of resources and longer-term coalition stability. Independents will require payoffs to join and maintain allegiance to any coalition. While Regions has resources, this parliament is likely to be less stable and more contentious than the most recent convocations. The Rada may not return to the extreme factionalization of the 1990s and early 2000s, but it is likely to be more fractious than the last two convocations.

[Photo credit: Erik Herron.]

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