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Ukraine's Election Is Irrelevant

The president will change, but the parliament won't—and that's the problem


The Ukrainian presidential election is less than a month away. To say there's worldwide anticipation would be an understatement. U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt has called it "the most important election in the history of independent Ukraine." The U.S. is sending $11.4 million to Ukraine for the sole purpose of ensuring the integrity of the vote, while Russia is doing everything it can to drum up enough unrest to thwart it—despite the fact that 85 percent of Ukrainians say they plan on going to the polls. But the truth is that a successful presidential election is, as Kennan Institute Director Matthew Rojansky put it, “an almost irrelevant question” when it comes to stopping the crisis. Come May 26, Ukraine could be in an even worse position than it is now.

There are two reasons for this. The first reason is that the elections won’t do anything to change the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, where deep divisions between the ruling parties and opposition have been obstructing lawmaking and constitutional reform. In the last month alone, the Rada has seen protests, brawls, and what interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called a "coup d'etat.” The presidential election, Rojansky says, “doesn’t do anything for the government, which is a parliamentary system. It doesn’t give us a new Rada, it really doesn't solve any of those problems.”

Current members of the Rada have been in office since October 2012, well before former President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown, and the next parliamentary elections aren’t scheduled until 2017. Once a new president is elected, he or she will have the power to dissolve parliament and call for a new election. Petro Poroshenko, the leading candidate, has said he might do exactly that. But even if he does, the parliamentary election will probably be just as logistically fraught as the presidential one. “The separatists announced that they would persecute people who were voting. So the better question is, how many people can risk their health, their lives, to take part in the elections,” said Oleksandra Matviichuk, chair of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties and a EuroMaidan activist.

“Presidential elections aren’t as important now as what civil society does, and parliamentary elections will hopefully come next, because the parliament is still the same—[it’s] the same parliament that voted for all of the laws we’ve seen over the past few months, especially the ones in January,” Maksym Butkevych, a former Ukrainian journalist and EuroMaidan activist, told me, referencing the January laws passed under Yanukovych that banned virtually all forms of public protest. Facing waves of criticism at home and abroad, the Rada later overturned the draconian measures. “These people don’t represent the will of the population or anything, they represent the survival instinct, which is maybe good for them, but not for the country,” Butkevych said.

The second, and more obvious reason why the upcoming presidential election will be no bellwether of change for Ukraine is that all of the candidates running for election, especially the likely winner, have deep ties to the endemic corruption that defined the Yanukovych administration and unravelled Ukraine’s state institutions. Of the 23 candidates registered, there are only a handful of serious contenders, and only two—Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko—are polling in the double-digits.

As I have written before, Poroshenko is a pragmatist who has been in Ukrainian politics for almost two decades. “Throughout his political career, Poroshenko did not espouse the same strong pro-Western views as today,” as Maryla Krol writes in the EU Observer. His political track record “reads like a manual of party-hopping.” “Many Ukrainian politicians are flip-floppers,” Ukrainian scholar Taras Kuzio said of him. "This is one hell of a flip flopper." As for Tymoshenko, her candidacy has by no means been welcomed by Ukraine’s liberals. Try as she might to position herself as a fierce opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a crusader against corruption, she’s still remembered for her tenuous term as prime minister. As Julia Ioffe put it, “It's one thing to be known, in the local parlance, as ‘a woman with balls’; it's entirely another to be called ‘Putin with a braid.’”

The fact that the race is now a contest between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko (and that’s being generous—the latest polls have Poroshenko leading by thirty-some points), is a good indicator of the fact that little has changed in the world of Ukrainian politics. “They both are what you would call oligarch politicians,” says Rojansky. “The gas princess versus the chocolate king; they're both part of the merry-go-round elite class. And neither one of them is substantively offering a new program or vision for Ukraine." Moreover, Poroshenko has urged Tymoshenko to withdraw from the race, most recently by "bribing" her with the position of prime minister, according to Ukrainska Pravda. "The dangerous dimension of this Poroshenko offer is that BYuT"—the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc—"did not win any elections while [it] now controls both the presidency and the government," said Balázs Jarábik, a non-resident Ukraine scholar at the Carnegie Endowment. (Oleksandr Turchenov, the interim president of Ukraine, is a member of BYuT.) That means there probably won't be parliamentary elections anytime soon, Jarábik said.

For what it’s worth, Poroshenko’s wealth is largely self-made, and he has promised to sell his company, Roshen, if elected. He’s the best option Ukraine has at the moment, and has long been trying to steer the country toward closer ties with Europe. “Poroshenko is not [an] ideal candidate, but in the situation in which we’re in right now, it would be great just to elect someone in the first round [of elections],” Ukrainian civil society activist Volodymyr Shcherbachenko said. If Poroshenko does not win over 50 percent of votes in the first round, then a run-off will be held between him and the runner-up to determine who wins the presidency. “What our country needs is stability. If we will be able to elect a pro-western, reliable president—which it seems Poroshenko can be—it could be possible to stabilize the situation and then move to other reforms.”

Those other reforms—constitutional reform first and foremost—are far more important than the presidential election. But they will take much longer, far exceeding the West’s dwindling attention span for the conflict. "Our levers of influence in Ukraine are extremely limited. We default to this mantra that Ukraine needs to be a success, but we need metrics that are achievable given the limited resources and time we have to put into it—we’re not ready to wait 20 years to declare victory,” says Rojansky. "We have a month."