Ukrainian voters will go to the polls on 28 October in a parliamentary election that is likely to highlight the deterioration of democracy in the country.
Ukraine's relations with the EU and Ukraine have essentially been put on ice by the jailing last October of Yulia Tymoshenko and three other members of the cabinet that she led in 2007-10. In September, the US Senate passed a resolution calling for a visa ban on officials involved in Tymoshenko's jailing.
There is no appetite in the EU for sanctions, says Hrant Kostanyan of the Centre for European Policy Studies, but he predicts that the election will add to calls for the EU to cut aid and boost support for civil society, as well as to withhold agreement on a free-trade deal and an association agreement.
Opinion polls give President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of the Regions (PRU) a significant but not insurmountable lead. A poll published in September showed the PRU with the support of 25% of voters, and it has momentum: opinion polls in March gave it around 21%. In an effort to rein in the PRU, Tymoshenko's party, Fatherland, has joined forces with the Front for Change, whose leader is a former parliamentary speaker and
foreign minister, Arseny Yatsenyuk. However, the coalition's support has languished, at around 15%.
Much would therefore seem to depend on a new party formed by Vitaly Klichko, a world boxing champion. His party Udar – an acronym that translates as ‘punch' and stands for Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform – is now more popular than the Fatherland-Front for Change coalition. Should it align with Tymoshenko's bloc, it could swing power towards the opposition. However, Klichko has indicated no preference. Dominique Arel of the University of Ottawa says that Klichko may emerge as a “very interesting figure” if he wins support in both the Russian-speaking east and Ukrainian-speaking west – something that other parties have struggled to achieve.
Other parties that may enter parliament are the Communists, currently on 10%, and Svoboda (Freedom), a nationalist party whose current rating – 5% – is also the new threshold for entry into parliament. The threshold has been raised from 3% to consolidate Ukraine's fragmented parliamentary system.
However, opinion polls tell only part of the story, as half the seats will be determined in directly elected constituencies – a decision made in 2011 against the Council of Europe's recommendation but with the opposition's approval.
Here the advantage lies with the PRU. The PRU is the largest parliamentary party – with 195 of the 450 seats in the Verkhovna Rada – and so has the power of incumbency: in Ukraine's previous experience with a mixed system, the many independents who won direct elections typically voted with the strongest party. The constitutional court has since made it harder still to unseat incumbents, by barring candidates from standing for election in both constituencies and lists. That has encouraged opposition candidates to choose the safer option – candidacy via party lists – and has, says Kataryna Wolczuk of Birmingham University, “skewed the playing field” in the PRU's favour.
The European Parliament will send a 15-strong mission to Ukraine on 25 October to assess the immediate run-up to the election. Long-term observers on the ground have already indicated problems.
The European Network of Election Monitoring Organisations (ENEMO) has welcomed the introduction of cameras at polling stations and moves to end ‘electoral tourism', in which voters cast votes in an area that they are visiting rather than where they are registered. However, it has criticised decisions by central and local electoral commissions as lacking transparency, found that breaches of electoral law have gone unpunished, and has identified instances of vote-buying. Arel suggests that it is already clear that these are the worst elections in a decade. Wolczuk, though, says that the election may yet produce a reasonably diverse parliament.
Concerns that the political environment may worsen further ahead of presidential elections in 2015 was accentuated in September by a parliamentary proposal to make journalists, policemen and judges liable to two to five years in prison for libel. After protests from journalists, the EU and the US, Yanukovych said the amendment was a mistake by the bill's author, one of his former advisers. Arel and Wolczuk both predict the idea will re-surface at some point.