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After Ukraine's Elections, What's Next?

The parliamentary elections are over and—surprise!—the Regionnaires won, as they and everybody else in Ukraine knew they would, despite the fact that they are deeply unpopular and would, in a fully fair and free election, have suffered an embarrassing defeat. But if you have the money, you can buy as many votes as you need, which the Regionnaires did with wild abandon. If you control the electoral committees, you can make sure the vote count is just right. And because half of the deputies were now elected in first-past-the-post majoritarian districts, the Regionnaires will be able to do what they do best: buy them and their votes at several million dollars a pop, which of course is pocket change for Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt party. With an estimated 188 deputies, the Regionnaires will have ten fewer deputies than they had before, but still hold a plurality of the total (450).

Somewhat more surprising is the distribution of deputies among the non-Regionnaire parties. The Fatherland party of former Foreign Minister Arsenii Yatseniuk and imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko will have 103 deputies. Boxer-turned-politician Vitalii Klitschko’s Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform will have 40. The Communist Party of Ukraine, headed by multimillionaire Petro Symonenko, will have 32, and the right-wing Freedom Party of the charismatic Svengali, Oleh Tyahnybok, will have 37. (These were the figures after 98.82 percent of the votes were counted.)

The Regionnaires, the Communists, and the Svobodites are all radical parties, but with different twists. Yanukovych’s pals are radicals in deed, but not in word: they talk moderation, but dismantled democracy, assaulted Ukrainian identity, and impoverished the population in a little under two years—an impressive achievement for any wild-eyed revolutionary. The Communists are radicals in past deeds and in present word: they helped build “mature socialism” but are now gray-haired Stalinists who talk “proletarian dictatorship” but prefer to ride in plush limousines. The Svobodites are radicals in word—they say they wish to enthrone ethnic Ukrainians atop the multinational Ukrainian state—but not in deed: in the few areas of western Ukraine where they’ve run local councils, they’ve proven themselves to be incompetent blowhards with a penchant for corruption.

Remember: Regionnaire radicalism made the impressive growth of both Communists and Svobodites possible. Until recently, the CPU seemed like it was going to join the “garbage heap of history,” as the Soviets used to put it. And Svoboda seemed fated never to exceed the 5-percent barrier and remain a regional party in some western Ukrainian districts. Once the Regionnaires went on the attack, however, it was inevitable that there would be an equivalent counter-attack by political forces claiming to defend the two constituencies the Regionnaires have dissed the most: all workers and all Ukrainians.

The result is a radicalized electorate. If you think of the party-list vote as reflecting general popular attitudes, then more than half of the population supports radicals: 30 percent went for the Regionnaires, 13 percent for the Communists, and 10 percent for the Svobodites. Real or faux radicalism will not make the Ukrainian Parliament a more stable, measured, and reasonable place. Quite the contrary, expect the clash of radical rhetoric to intensify and the institution to become fully dysfunctional. That means that the burden of Regionnaire misrule will now fall fully on poor Viktor Yanukovych’s shoulders. The sultan will have to plunder and mismanage the country completely on his own, which means that the blame for anything that happens (and there’s almost certainly not going to be any praise) will fall on him as well. His prospects for winning the 2015 presidential elections will dim accordingly.

But there is more potentially good news. Despite the prolonged extremist assault by Yanukovych and his merry band of Regionnaires, about 40 percent of the electorate did vote for democratic parties (Fatherland and UDAR). That’s less than the entire radical share of the vote, but it’s more than any of the radical alternatives. That matters because it may now be possible for the democrats to outwit the radicals. It’s hard to imagine just how the Regionnaires could consistently rule together with the Communists. The two sides can agree on discriminating against Ukrainian language, culture, and identity, but—despite the Communist elites’ love of fast women and fine wines—the two will have difficulty agreeing on a socio-economic program. After all, the Regionnaires favor the oligarchs and themselves. The Communists say they support the proletariat and their claims will constrain their ability to become left-wing Regionnaires. If the democrats play their cards right—a very big if—they just might be able to play the Regionnaires against the Commies.

It’ll be easier for the democrats to play off the Svobodites against both Regionnaires and Communists. Despite their fire-breathing rhetoric, the Svobodites who run local governments have turned out to be mediocrities. They have not, as democrats feared they might, discriminated against minorities, promoted “fascism,” incited ethnic animosities, and the like. If their bark is indeed worse than their bite, the Svobodites might at key moments be brought into situational alliances with the democrats that could keep Ukraine from sliding further into the grip of Regionnaire radicalism and misrule.

All of which means that, with a little bit of luck, the democrats will be able to use the dysfunctional Parliament as a base from which to project some influence and prepare for the 2015 elections. If they could then agree on a single candidate—say, Tymoshenko or Klitschko—who knows? They might even win and end the Yanukovych Era.

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