Oct 28, 2012

The Orange Election

One of the few things we know for sure about democratization processes and democracy is that they are just unable to deliver to everyone in the society at the same time. At any given moment, some will win and others will lose. In time, with alternation of power, the losers might become winners, and vice versa. But in the short term, disaffection and the thought of “did we go through all that [the effort of overthrowing an authoritarian regime] for this?” could appear each time more frequently in the minds of citizens. This disillusionment is not that bad as long as it does not imply that non democratic alternatives could be more successful in listening to everyone’s claims and interests and improving the overall situation of the country. Even more, it can be positive to democratic consolidation as extremists have moderated their expectations about procedures and outcomes in democratic regimes.

In general terms, this might be the illustration of the attitudes of Ukrainians as they go today to the polls to elect the members of parliament. The most often heard name during the campaign was that of the President, Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of the Regions. It is expected that they will win a relative majority of the 450 seats in parliament, half of which are adjudicated through a first-to-pass-the-post system while the other half is adjudicated through a proportional representation system.

The most important challenge for Yanukovych comes from the World Boxing Council world heavyweight champion, Vitali Klitschko and his Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR, an acronym that in Ukrainian means strike; Klitschko is very popular in his country, being named in 2004 Hero of Ukraine, the most important acknowledgement  there). Notwithstanding the popularity of its leader, UDAR acquired significant strength as a political force when it joined efforts with the United Opposition, under the command of Vladimir Berezin, to present a stronger front against the Party of the Regions. The Washington Post mentions that the reason why Berezin, a well-known human rights and environmental activist, is not the candidate of this alliance is that at one moment he fought against a pig processing plant owned by the Vice Premier of Ukraine, Boris Kolesnikov.

There is another question missing: why are Berezin and the United Opposition important? Or, to put it differently, what, or who, is behind their alliance and their position as key opposition players against Yanukovych? The answer is former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, imprisoned since 2010 under accusations of abuse of power when negotiating a gas deal with Russia (she has capital invested in the gas industry), some months after she called fraud against her as presidential candidate in the election where Yanukovych won. From her cell, Tymoshenko has warned Ukrainians to prevent fraudulent actions, while her supporters rally around Mr. Klitschko. Even though her party, Fatherland, is still active, its organizational scope has been reduced by her incarceration.

That is for the political elite, where parties built around strong personalities are competing for power. What about the citizens, their preferences and their attitudes? They do not quite support the government. For them, it has meant raising takes, stricter pensions, the inability to fight against corruption and the rift from the international community due to the imprisonment of Tymoshenko (the European Union is at odds with this measure) and to the lack of reforms as a condition to receive financial help to counter fiscal and economic problems (the International Monetary Fund is of key interest here). This means that, to use the figures mentioned by the Post for the city of Donetsk, the support for the Party of the Regions could fall from 70% it received when Yakunovych won the presidency to 30% according to the most recent polls.

Eight years ago there was a lot of excitement in Ukraine in the midst of the Orange Revolution, an occasion in which the population rallied against accusations of electoral fraud and the second run was repeated. That moment has been pointed out as the democratic breakthrough in post-communist Ukraine. Is the image of the country as a mature, even consolidated, democracy, as suggested above, valid? People are more than aware that democracy will not provide miracles, and have consequently diversified their vote among parties. This also accounts for the apparent lack of intention from part of the government to have everything under its control (at least, plain and overt intentions to control the election), in order to prevent a result that would not let it rule uncontested. Parties are built around “champions”, but voters seem to reward or punish them for their actions (in some regions, people are aware of the pros and cons of having this or that party in parliament), which happens to some extent because there are no other options, these being other parties or other means to exercise power, like some form of dictatorship. In fact, this apathy could be a more central element of new democracies than what the Tocquevillian model suggest.




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