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UKRAINE'S ELECTION WAS A LEAP IN A TIME MACHINE -
YET MORE LEAPS WILL BE NEEDED

By Peter Voitsekhovsky
Research Director, U.S.-Ukraine Foundation

Just a year ago, such a parliament for Ukraine could not be imagined: with notorious tycoons gone, with legislator seats no longer given to party bosses' chauffeurs and masseurs, nor to pop music celebrities, and with young and passionate civic leaders ousting the grim post-Soviet bureaucrats.

Nearly two-thirds of the new parliament will be new faces - people who previously did not belong to the political establishment. The remaining third will comprise only a handful of the former Party of Regions members. The majority of the former Yanukovych faction did not even try to run in the new elections. Many of those who did try, lost - among them, notably, the group led by Serhiy Tihipko under the brand of "Strong Ukraine." Likewise, the Communist Party failed to get even close to the required 5% threshold - it mustered only less than 3% of the vote nationwide.

But this election did not change the country's politics overnight. Like before, there are numerous complaints of dirty campaigning and sophisticated electoral fraud in single-seat districts. "Inchoate citizens" showed their continued strong presence: the two parties of former Yanukovych buddies gained together 45% of the vote in the Donetsk region, and nearly 30% in most other East-South regions (including Kharkiv, Odessa, and Dnipropetrovsk). Likewise, the Communist Party gained around 10% in those regions (its highest result was 12% in the Luhansk oblast). Some candidates speak with frustration about the incongruent behavior of voters who "sincerely go out on the Maidan to demand justice, but then naively sell their votes [for cash or gifts] on the election day."

It should not be surprising, therefore, that a few emblematic figures whose names became symbols of corruption under the old regime were able to win again in single-seat districts - for example, Serhiy Kivalov in Odessa or Oles Dovhyi in a rural district near Kirovohrad. For now, that can be just an effort of such individuals to survive, but can they make a political comeback later - like Yanukovych did after the Orange revolution?

Successful revolutions take place in people's minds first. This election outcome reflects a "revolution in progress" in the minds of Ukrainians, a.k.a. the shaping of a civic nation. It was triggered and accelerated by the dramatic events of 2014: civic protest and mobilization against domestic oppression and a foreign invasion. At the same time, those developments impacted voter turnout in a way that gave the young generation a stronger voice this time. For both of those reasons, this election can be seen as a leap in a "time machine." It produced a tectonic change that would otherwise have taken years and years to come.

Younger candidates and younger voters made the difference. In large part, this factor explains the unexpected boost of "Self-reliance" where the majority of candidates were in their twenties and thirties -- as opposed to the failure of "Civic Position" whose top twenty candidates' average age was close to 50.

An outstanding difference of this election was a failure of traditional campaign technologies based on advertising with vague and meaningless slogans. The parties that relied on expensive advertising essentially wasted the money; the parties that did best in this election were those that had the most popular bloggers on Facebook, observes Yuri Butusov, an insightful journalist and a civic leader. He concludes that "the time of fashionable political technologists for hire is gone - they are now archaic ballast... The ideology and communication of political parties should be framed by respected intellectual leaders rather than by those who control cash flows in the party bureaucracy."

The young civil society leaders now entering the new parliament may be able to change the country's politics. They speak of the need to change "the system that they all dislike" - which is controlled by top party officials. Those young activists will try to work more actively across party lines. They already discuss creating an inter-party caucus of civil society activists that would challenge the old establishment. Ideally, they should be able to make pressure for change as a joint group and make party lines less relevant altogether.

The challenge faced by this new political class is truly formidable: to reinvent Ukraine's post-Soviet state - to make it modern, effective, and inherently responsive to the people. This means, in part, the need to destroy ugly post-Soviet forms of collusion between big business tycoons and political leadership. It also means a transition to open and transparent public policy process, with open hearings and debates, as well as open and transparent financing of political parties and campaigns.

But legislators alone will not be able to accomplish that change. Reforms will fail if the state does not create a new merit-based bureaucracy, with a different work culture. As of today, its culture remains essentially Stalinist, claims Pavlo Sheremetawho served as the Minister of the Economy for several months after the fall of Yanukovych. Individuals like Sheremeta who come in trying to change the system get ousted for being alien; and if they stay, they internalize the system's old culture.

Such fundamental reform is extremely difficult even in peaceful times. But is it even possible in the times of war? The ongoing low-intensity war in the Donbas and its threat to escalate any moment to a full-scale war with Russia may serve as the pretext for keeping the government machine intact for the time being. On the other hand, some people say that the war may be the main catalyst for change - because it reveals the depth of the crisis of governance. The nation's war effort is a striking example that shows government's incapacity in contrast to an amazing capacity of the volunteer movement. More and more people feel that the country will simply not survive unless it reinvents itself, so the government may be forced to stop imitating reform.

"We are only at the start of the transformation that stems from the conflict of the new civil society with the old state," remarks Yegor Sobolev, an emblematic leader of "Self-reliance." In his opinion, that conflict will keep the country in turmoil for at least another decade. With that understanding, many Ukrainian commentators predict that the new parliament will not stay in office for its whole 5-year term. New early elections may be called much sooner - and they will likely signify another big leap for Ukraine.

Written by Peter Voitsekhovsky, Ph.D., Research Director at the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation.  Opinions expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. Dr.Voitsekhovsky can be reached at:  pvoit@usukraine.org


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