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Ukraine: Cancel the Presidential Election! (It’s The Wrong Kind)

The May 25 presidential election does not matter. Ukraine needs a well-balanced parliamentary system.

May 6, 2014

With every day that passes, it becomes clearer that the Ukrainian presidential elections, scheduled for May 25, 2014, will be difficult to conduct – at least, in the case of a second-round run off. The elections could turn into a political disaster.

As Russia is accelerating its covert intervention into Eastern and Southern Ukraine, the likelihood of an orderly electoral campaign and two-round voting, especially in the Donbass region, decreases by the week.

A failure of the elections in unstable regions will provide Moscow with an instrument to question the legitimacy of Kiev’s sovereignty over Eastern Ukraine for years to come.

Furthermore, it will provide fodder for Putin’s propaganda machine which will argue for splitting Ukraine into two states. That, in turn, could set the pretext for an annexation of east Ukrainian territories to Russia, following the example of the occupation of Crimea.

Ukraine’s presidential office: limited relevance

These enormous risks stand in contrast to the ambivalent meaning of the elections, and circumscribed institutional weight of the presidential office.

With the re-introduction of the 2004 version of the Ukrainian Constitution in February this year, Ukraine has once more become a clearly semi-presidential republic, with a relatively weak President.

Unlike under the constitution’s original 1996 version, the President has now once again only limited prerogatives, largely confined to the field of foreign and security policy.

The Prime Minister and his or her government are accountable to parliament — and not to the President. They, rather than the elected head of state, determine economic, financial, social and cultural policies.

Moreover, the two major presidential candidates, Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, are not just presenting themselves as decidedly pro-Western. They are also ideologically indistinguishable from the current government.

No real choice

Westerners may take comfort in that, but they are deluding themselves. Not only have those two candidates reinvented themselves conveniently many a time before. Think ahead to a possible second round run off. The competition between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko would be somewhat meaningless.

That is because their main political aims — Ukraine’s Europeanization, followed by EU accession, and eventual Euro-Atlantic integration — are basically identical.

Many voters in Ukraine’s East and South would, even without Russia’s meddling, probably not care to come to a second-round voting because they do not see either of those two candidates as representing their concerns. It would be easy for Moscow’s agents to sabotage the run-off vote from happening in Eastern and Southern and Eastern Ukraine.

Past as prologue

Moreover, the election of one of them as Ukraine’s new President could reignite new personal quarrels in the divided executive, reminiscent of the acrimonious fighting between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko in 2005-2010.

The election of neither Poroshenko nor Tymoshenko would lead to any substantive programmatic novelty in the conduct of Ukraine’s leadership. Yet, it is likely to lead to more political elite disunity rather than consolidation.

Finally, the ongoing Ukrainian discussion about constitutional reform leans towards a further weakening of the office of the President, in accordance with recommendations by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission for Democracy through Law.

Does the election even matter?

To a considerable degree, the upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections are much ado about nothing.

To be sure, Ukraine needs a new President – first and foremost to end the unclear situation after the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. It is also true that the country’s current constitution prescribes a democratically legitimatized President.

Yet, provided sufficient political will, both of these issues can be solved with relative ease and without the need to hold new countrywide presidential elections.

The better choice for Ukraine would be to switch from a semi-presidential to a fully parliamentary system, in which all executive organs would be dependent on parliament.

It could do so relatively quickly through a comprehensive political reform which could also take care of some other open issues. The rebalancing of Ukraine’s political structure could be achieved by sensibly changing the composition of the current governing coalition, as well as of the parliamentary presidium.

For a change of the relevant paragraphs of the Constitution, a two-third majority in Ukraine’s parliament, Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council), is needed. Such a majority could be secured in a package deal that could reconstitute significant parts of the current political leadership of Ukraine.

A consensus-oriented political system

A bargain between Ukraine’s political elites would include the following five formally fixed or informally agreed arrangements:

1. Geographic balance
Ukraine’s major political posts should be filled with holders who would, in combination, represent as balanced as possible all or most major components of Ukraine’s plural society.

Such a consensus-based arrangement would see to it that each of the country’s four main political offices — i.e., the President, Prime Minister, Security Council Secretary and Speaker of Parliament — would be filled with a representative of one of Ukraine’s four macro-regions – the West, Center, East and South.

While such a rule does not have to be applied schematically, it could be re-negotiated each time having such an ideal distribution in mind, and in consideration of the overall composition of the political leadership.

2. De-radicalization
Political radicals, or those politicians perceived in one of Ukraine’s regions as being too extreme, should occupy as few as possible high posts in Ukraine’s highest organs.

For the near future that means, for example, that neither expressly pro-Russian politicians like Mykhailo Dobkin or Petro Symonenko, nor ethno-nationalists like Oleh Tiahnybok or Dmytro Yarosh should hold any of Ukraine’s highest political posts.

3. Indirect presidential election
The new President should be able to collect a simple absolute or a two-third majority either in parliament, or in a larger Congress consisting of national as well as regional people’s deputies.

Such a body could be an organ reminiscent of the German Federal Assembly Bundesversammlung. It consists of Germany’s members of the federal parliament, the Bundestag, as well as an equal number of Landtag deputies (state parliaments) and other regional legislatures. It is solely convened, once every five years, for the election of the German Federal President.

Representing the Ukrainian political nation within the country and abroad, the President should be a unifying figure, having the respect of all regional groupings. He or she should play a moderating role in Ukrainian politics, unlike former Presidents Viktor Yushchenko or Viktor Yanukovych.

4. Multiple parties represented in government
The new Ukrainian government should include as many as possible — and, at least, the three largest — parliamentary parties.

That means that, in the most prominent posts, non-controversial ministers should be selected representing the three major factions in parliament, i.e., Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party, Vitaliy Klitschko’s UDAR Party and the Party of Regions or its split-offs and successors.

Given the basic ideological contradiction between Ukraine’s stated aim to integrate with the EU and radical nationalism, the presence of far right politicians in Ukraine’s executive should be reduced to a minimum. This would also deprive East and South Ukrainian separatists from one of their major issues.

5. More non-partisan officials
At least one-third or even half of the Ukrainian state’s major posts, and especially the more sensitive ones, should be filled with respected representatives of Ukraine’s public service, NGO sector and expert community. That rule is already partially implemented in the current interim government.

These non-partisan appointments from civil society or state bureaucracy could include such posts as the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, the Economy, Finance, Culture and Education, the General Procurator, Head of Anti-Corruption Committee and so on.

Other high appointments within Ukraine’s ministries, state services, legal system, Council for National Security and Defense and Presidential Administration should be also made primarily in view of a candidate’s professional expertise — rather than (often divisive) political affiliations of the office holders.

The candidates should include as many as possible specialists with relevant degrees from internationally recognized higher education departments, or/and with experience in reputed transnational public organizations or/and private companies.

Saving the Ukrainian state from collapse

Arrangements such as the one outlined above should be laid down in a new Ukrainian Constitution. However, formulating an entire new basic law for Ukraine will take time.

For the time being, rules like those mapped out above, could be applied via an informal or partially formalized agreement that would function until the adoption of a new Constitution by parliament, popular vote or a constitutional assembly.

Notably, there is an example for such a political contract from Ukraine’s early post-Soviet history. In 1995-1996, the Ukrainian state functioned on the basis of a temporary Constitutional Treaty, adopted jointly by Parliament and President.

Ending convenient illusions

What is important, at this moment, is first and foremost that Ukraine does not slide deeper into crisis — and that it gets out of its current political impasse.

Elections are currently too risky to conduct. Their results seems clear – a victory by Petro Poroshenko. But their orderly execution in Eastern and Southern Ukraine looks increasingly doubtful.

The first order of business, given the continuing subversion of the Ukrainian state by Russia and her agents in the Donbass, is for Ukraine’s political elites to safeguard their nation’s unity and stability.

This means, first, that the upcoming countrywide elections of President should be cancelled and Ukraine should be become a parliamentary republic.

Making changes

That can be easily and legitimately achieved — through an according constitutional reform via a vote by 300 deputies in Ukraine’s national parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.

And it means, second, that the new composition of top state positions should be based on a more or less proportional representation of the various regional, cultural and demographic strands of the Ukrainian population.

Third, the danger of political polarization and governmental dilettantism could be avoided by relying primarily on the appointments of respected technical experts.

Fourth and finally, new parliamentary elections later this year should make sure that the new preferences of the Ukrainian people after the Euromaidan are adequately represented in legislature.

Furthermore, the unicameral Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council), could be complemented with a second chamber, or Senate, representing Ukraine’s regions. In any case, the parliament rather than president should become the principal center of power and legitimacy within the new Ukrainian state.


Ukraine would be better served by an indirectly elected president with limited powers.

Holding Ukraine's presidential election this month will have great risks and few benefits.

Ukraine's president, like Germany's, could be elected by a Congress of national & regional deputies.

Ukraine's major political posts should be filled with a set of holders who would represent a societal balance.

The best path for Ukraine would be to switch to a fully parliamentary system.