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What’s next after Ukraine’s parliamentary elections?

Ukrainians will return to the polls on October 26, as President Petro Poroshenko wishes to cleanse the membership of Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, consisting of notoriously corrupt Yanukovych-era loyalists. Poroshenko’s administration also desires a formal parliamentary faction within the legislative body in order to kick-start the president’s ambitious reform agenda.

Numerous polls from reputable sources suggest a clear victory for Poroshenko’s party. However, despite a considerable number of reform-minded individuals on the ballot given the post-EuroMaidan atmosphere and the ongoing Russian-fueled war in the Donbas, dozens of officials from previous corrupt administrations are also seeking re-election.

Voters are faced with a seemingly easy, but at the same time, difficult decision. Vote for transformation or further transitional stagnation?

Vote for new blood yearning European standards and norms or for shysters who have lined their pockets with public funds and continue to engage in nepotism and clientelism?

Vote for a parliament that strives to live up to Ukraine’s development challenges or for one whose membership seeks to benefit itself rather than all citizens?

While corruption remains deeply entrenched within Ukrainian society, and the number of backroom deals being made leading up to the election is unknown, significant turnover of parliamentarians is highly unlikely. Ukraine’s closed party-list system only serves to reinforce this hypothesis as list rankings are often bought or swapped. Thus, well-known faces and well-connected racketeers will presumably return to the Verkhovna Rada to decide Ukraine’s fate.

Given years of corruption, mismanagement, and negligence and now blatant Russian aggression, Ukraine’s economic situation is dire, and its sovereignty and territorial integrity are under attack. The Russian-fueled war in the Donbas has drained precious resources and deflected the Ukrainian government’s attention away from badly needed reforms.

Regrettably, the human costs continue to rise – at least 42 people die on average every day. Nearly 1,100 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed, thousands of civilians have been caught in the crossfire, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Billions will also be required for reconstruction efforts.

At the same time, the foundations of a new “frozen” conflict in Europe have been laid, as pro-Russian rebels cannot sustain their insurgency without Russian military and financial support.

The West’s collective actions have proven too little, too late. Rhetoric and strongly worded press releases aside, Ukraine is alone in its fight against the Russian bear.

Western media have also already begun to shift its attention toward other pressing problems (e.g., ISIL, Ebola) with global implications. Even within Ukraine, the media continue to be obsessed with war, while considerably less airtime and print space is devoted to discussing the upcoming parliamentary elections and the need for comprehensive, systemic structural reforms.

The grace period and window for reform will be extremely small after the elections. Average, hard-working Ukrainians have clearly indicated that they will not tolerate a continuation of the status quo. Massive reforms must begin immediately.

The entire Ukrainian political system and economy needs to be reset and restructured. This monumental task demands clarity and constant communication from Ukraine’s leadership. Any policy ambiguity will further exacerbate confusion among citizens, fostering greater apathy and disenchantment. International Monetary Fund conditionality must also be thoroughly explained so that citizens can prepare themselves for the inevitable economic discontent they will endure over the coming months and years.

Many have argued that it is impossible to implement reforms during wartime, but Ukraine simply does not have a choice if it truly wants to effectively defend its sovereignty and demonstrate its commitment to European integration. This can only be achieved by creating conditions – which Ukraine has lacked since gaining independence – conducive to sustainable economic growth and investment. Teetering between transformation and transitional stagnation is no longer an option. Reforms are the solution, not a burden.

Alternatively, if leadership, political will, and reforms do not follow after the parliamentary elections, the balance beam between transformation and transitional stagnation will assuredly tip in the latter’s favour. If so, Ukrainian politicians should prepare themselves for the inevitable backlash and the next Maidan.

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press (October 14, 2014)

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by Nick Krawetz

Nick Krawetz holds a MA in Political Studies (International Relations) from Queen’s University and a BA (Double Advanced) in Economics and Political Studies from the University of Manitoba. Nick also volunteers within Winnipeg’s Ukrainian community and has participated in Election Observation Missions to Ukraine.

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