A Test for Ukraine’s Democracy

Is Ukraine in danger of seeing its recent democratic gains slip away?

March 9, 2006

Is Ukraine in danger of seeing its recent democratic gains slip away?

The "Orange coalition" that came to power with the election of Ukraine's president Viktor Yushchenko formally imploded on September 8, 2005.

That was the day when Mr. Yushchenko dismissed the government of his erstwhile ally, Yulia Tymoshenko.

But the topsy-turvy nature of Ukraine’s politics continued. Just three months later, Ukraine's parliament voted to dismiss the government of prime minister Yuriy Yekhanurov. This development followed a gas deal with Russia that will increase Ukraine's energy costs by $1.5 billion a year, or just under 2% of GDP.

The immediate winner of this political turmoil appears to be Viktor Yanukovich, the Russian-backed candidate who lost the 2004 presidential election that precipitated the Orange Revolution.

In the lead-up to Ukraine's parliamentary elections, Yanukovich's Party of Regions is polling well ahead of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine Party and Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party.

While disappointing for many western onlookers, those in the Kremlin are surely thrilled. Nonetheless, the turning of the tides in Yanukovich's favor is not the biggest reason for concern.

A vibrant opposition is, after all, the basis for a vibrant democracy. One needs to remember that Yanukovich won 44% of the vote in the re-run of the second round of Ukraine's 2004 presidential election.

What is really advancing his cause is one straightforward economic statistic: In the first year of the Yushchenko presidency, growth in Ukraine's GDP fell from 12.1% in 2004 — when the much-maligned "apparatchik" Yanukovich was still prime minister — to 2.4% in 2005.

To that, add reformist President Yushchenko's own admission, upon dismissing the Tymoshenko government, that his "Orange coalition" partners could not work as a team — and then his signing of a political pact with Yanukovich to gain the Party of Regions' support for the Yekhanurov government.

Under those circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Yanukovich has been able to hang on to his electoral base.

The fundamental question is whether Ukraine's democracy is slipping. Will the parliamentary elections in March 2006 bring to power a government that is committed to democratic principles? Or will it be a re-run of the fraudulent tactics of the 2004 presidential election?

One condition of the pact that Yushchenko signed in September 2005 with Yanukovich was to assure the fairness of the upcoming parliamentary elections in the opera-like drama that seems to characterize Ukraine’s politics.

When in January 2006 all parliamentary deputies in Yanukovich's Party of Regions voted for the ouster of the Yekhanurov government, Yushchenko disavowed his pact with Yanukovich.

Where does that leave their parties' commitments to fair and free elections?

And who will be the ultimate arbiter of justice in Ukraine's society? Parliament's vote to dismiss the Yekhanurov government came on the back of constitutional changes that took effect on January 1, 2006.

These measures shifted the power to appoint the prime minister and most cabinet members from the president to parliament following the parliamentary elections in March 2006. Yushchenko claims that parliament's vote to dismiss the government was unconstitutional.

Looking ahead, what complicates matters is that Ukraine's Constitutional Court cannot arbitrate any potential dispute between the president and parliament.

Ukraine's parliament has declined to confirm the nomination of judges to the Constitutional Court, precluding the court from establishing a quorum. Of eighteen judges on the Constitutional Court, today there are only five acting judges, whereas eleven judges are required for a quorum to open or reject a case.

The parliament is effectively stalling to prevent Yushchenko from appealing to the Court to reverse or modify the constitutional changes that diminish the powers of the president to the advantage of parliament.

In addressing the nation on February 9, 2006 Yushchenko called for a constitutional commission "to draw up a new version of the Ukrainian constitution." Yushchenko has called repeatedly for parliament to confirm the nominees, but his calls have gone unheeded.

Ukraine now stands at the edge of a most dangerous precipice: Its parliament has demonstrated a proclivity toward political instability in the run-up to an election that will determine the face of Ukraine's government.

And its presidency is weakened by the recent changes to the constitution — while the constitutional arm of its judicial branch is for now incapacitated.

By sidelining the Constitutional Court in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, parliament is taking out the ultimate guarantor of the integrity of Ukraine's constitutional process.

This is all the more concerning with opinion polls showing Yanukovich's Party of Regions — led by the same politician who was poised to benefit from the electoral abuse that brought on the Orange Revolution — in the lead, but without an absolute majority to form a government.

In this light, parliament's refusal to approve a quorum of judges to the Constitutional Court is a frontal attack on Ukraine’s fragile — yet hard-earned — democracy.

That would be a true shame. After all, in its 14 years since independence, Ukraine has made great strides toward democracy.

In 1994, Leonid Kuchma upset Ukraine's first president Leonid Kravchuk, establishing the basis for a democratic transition of power in this former Soviet republic. In 2004, Ukraine was pulled back from the brink of electoral fraud, and the forces of democracy prevailed.

Over 68% of Ukraine's eligible voters have gone to the urns in each national election since independence. This would be the envy of any western democracy.

The democratic world will be watching as Ukraine approaches its upcoming elections.

But first and foremost, Ukraine's leadership from all political parties owe it to their 47 million people and future generations of Ukrainians to assure that this period of constitutional change and the upcoming elections will consolidate their country's democratic gains.