More than probably any other participant in the Ukrainian parliamentary elections, Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions is facing up to the truth of the saying that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Having gained a plurality in the new Verkhovna Rada and initially declaring that they will therefore be the “epicenter” of any negotiations on the creation of a parliamentary majority, the Regions are now confronting the very real possibility of being in opposition.
Some of the pronouncements by leading representatives of the Regions betray a confusion regarding their predicament. Claiming to be prepared to compromise on key issues in order to be a part of a governing coalition they have offered often contradictory statements on exactly which questions are core issues and which would be negotiable. At present, the Regions are a frustrated force; a large fly trapped in a relatively small bottle of their electorate’s making. Any realistic chance of the Regions playing a leading role in the formation of a majority will depend not merely on some crumbs but a substantial dish falling into their lap from the table of negotiations being prepared by the Orange camp.
Thematically, it is possible to view the Rada elections as a fourth and final round of the 2004 presidential elections. The initial returns reveal that compared with his haul during the first round of those elections, Mr. Yanukovych has lost around one third of his support and his party has been confirmed as very much a regional power. The Regions have been unable to build upon the inroads made by presidential candidate Yanukovych beyond his native Donbas.
The Orange camp, including the Socialists, have largely retained their share of the 2004 vote. However, within this broad picture there has occurred a kaleidoscopic realignment of forces between Yuliya Tymoshenko’s BYuT and President Yushchenko’s Nasha Ukraina. Confident of receiving the blessing of the Orange electorate to dictate the terms for creating a Rada majority and new government, Nasha Ukraina has been humiliated by the strength of a protest vote that instead appears to have given BYuT a mandate for continuing to implement the more radical, socially oriented vision of the Orange Revolution Prime Minister Tymoshenko was pursuing before her dismissal last autumn.
The arithmetic of the situation points to a straight Orange majority consisting of BYuT, Nasha Ukraina and the Socialist Party. Indeed, all three forces have publicly declared the inadmissibility of any other option. However, reaching agreement will depend on the erstwhile allies-in-opposition being able to overcome continuing deep personal animosities and suspicions as well as substantial political and policy differences. The presence of these pit-falls and obstacles within the Orange camp multiplies the permutations and might yet produce an unexpected outcome.
The immediate political future can be divided into two interrelated, critical phases. The first involves the formation of a majority in the new Rada. The second involves this majority then agreeing on a coalition government. Failure to achieve these landmarks within a legislatively defined timeframe could see the president choose to exercise his newly acquired right to dismiss the Rada.
Agreeing in principle to the formation of an Orange majority is the relatively straightforward part. The Socialists and BYuT have already signed a draft agreement on cooperation. Nasha Ukraina, however, has declared it can only approve the document after a party leadership gathering scheduled for April 7. While arguing the need strenuously to adhere to procedure when adopting significant decisions, Nasha Ukraina’s position might just as reasonably be interpreted as buying time in order to develop an effective strategy for the more important phase of negotiating government portfolios, including, obviously, the key post of prime minister. Reduced to its essence, this tactic seems to reflect an increasing desperation – a stalling for time in the hope that a credible alternative might present itself to the looming specter of a Tymoshenko premiership – something quite unpalatable to many of Nasha Ukraina’s key figures - including, by some accounts, President Yushchenko himself.
Before the ballot, BYuT and Nasha Ukraina (at the latter’s initiative) had agreed that the preeminent Orange force would propose their candidate for prime minister. The Socialists have since accepted such a formulation. Following Sunday’s shock results, BYuT has made it clear that this means Ms. Tymoshenko. This position is being presented as non-negotiable and is bolstered by the incontrovertible fact that the combined vote for the Socialists and Nasha Ukraina falls short of BYuT’s total. Nasha Ukraina’s maneuverings therefore appear to be a backtracking bordering on a lack of good faith. The disorientation is understandable. Lacking contingency plans, Nasha Ukraina has almost been reduced to hoping a solution to their Tymoshenko problem will arise deus ex machina.
BYuT is continually placing Nasha Ukraina on the defensive, accusing it of prevaricating in order to strike a deal with the Regions. Nasha Ukraina has begun hinting at the possibility, albeit still very remote, of accommodation with the Regions under very specific conditions. Betraying impatience, Ms. Tymoshenko has gone on record that if she does not become prime minister then Nasha Ukraina will have to come to terms with a Yanukovych premiership, thus implying that she is prepared to reach an accommodation with the Regions. Adding to the confusion, she has also said that if Mr. Yanukovych becomes prime minister, then BYuT will go into opposition. Since March 26 the political landscape has been shrouded in a fog of threats, bluffs and posturing laid down by BYuT and Nasha Ukraina as they maneuver for advantage. (In contrast, and as if to underscore what’s at stake at the national level, negotiations between BYuT, Nasha Ukraina and the Socialists following the March 26 local elections have already produced several coalition agreements at the oblast and city levels.) But personal animosities and political differences aside, there are also substantial policy differences on the path to creating a stable, cohesive coalition government.
The March 26 vote revealed that the populist message of the Socialists and BYuT is closer to the expectations of the Orange electorate than Nasha Ukraina’s more centrist post-September (ie, post- Tymoshenko government) one. The Orange electorate wants the campaign against the vestiges of the old regime to continue. Some commentators have argued that with the next elections four years away, Ms. Tymoshenko, as prime minister, will pursue more moderate policies than in her previous incarnation. Maybe. There are certainly lessons to be drawn from her previous time as head of government. Equally, however, she could seek to consolidate her own and her party’s popularly sanctioned preeminence within the Orange camp by continuing from where she left off last September. Such a turn of events would be acceptable to the Socialists. As part of the coalition negotiations they are demanding free medicine and education within five years and an almost stifling regulation of land sales. (In addition - and, at the risk of speculating too deeply around interpersonal dynamics - pursuing a more populist line might also appeal to Ms. Tymoshenko for the very reason that it would be unpalatable for some leading figures in Nasha Ukraina. The rubbing of salt into political wounds is not an unknown practice.)
President Yushchenko is correct in observing that the debate on cabinet portfolios and policies must be subordinated to the search for a common ideology. History showed that relations within the Orange camp began to turn sour almost immediately over differing interpretations of how President Yushchenko’s “Ten Steps Toward the People” program should look in practice. Thus, while consensus should be established over the desirability of an Orange majority, strains could again test the viability of the reconstituted Orange camp once the discussion turns to appointments and policy implementation.
Any Rada majority has essentially thirty days to form a government. Although the mechanism is still unclear it seems likely that each individual deputy (rather than just the heads of the participating parties and blocs) will sign a document committing them to working as part of the majority. Moreover, a measure known as the “imperative mandate,” which prevents deputies from migrating between factions, was introduced as a constitutional amendment in order to enforce party and faction discipline. However, there is no legal or political mechanism for preventing the emergence of individual dissenters or ‘opposition’ groups within blocs or parties or for expelling them once they arise. Given the size of the Orange factions, given their simmering differences and internal tensions it is not difficult to imagine individual deputies or groups of deputies being tempted to break ranks and vote against the general line either through conviction - or because of that bane of civilized parliamentary behavior, bribery.
Nasha Ukraina is clearly struggling to regain the initiative and is understandably trying to keep its options open. But there is an increasingly clear thread running through the process that was set in motion after March 26. For better or worse, whether through choice or through resignation, it will be Nasha Ukraina – and by extension President Yushchenko - that will find itself in the position of having the final word on whether the Orange coalition survives, what the Orange Revolution will mean in terms of policy content - and, indeed, whether the new Rada will be able to survive much beyond what promises to be a very painful birth.
Markian Bilynskyj is the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation's Vice President and Director of Field Operations in Ukraine.
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