Analysis: Ukraine's Political Math

MOSCOW, Russia -- Ukraine's March 2006 parliamentary election campaign is underway with the orange camp divided and the political party leading in the polls, headed by ex-prime minister and former presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych, positioned to become the country's political powerbroker.

Yanukovych (L) and Yushchenko

Polls report that Yanukovych's Party of Regions enjoys the support of around 25 percent of the electorate, which would translate into 165 mandates in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada (federal parliament). The pro-presidential Our Ukraine People's Union (NSNU) is in the process of creating an election coalition called the Our Ukraine Yushchenko Bloc with five other parties.

NSNU's current standing in the polls has the support of 13 percent of voters -- possibly winning 93 parliamentary mandates. The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, headed by the former prime minister and Yushchenko's orange revolutionary-in-arms, has 12 percent support and could win 88 seats.

Watching the poll numbers has never been as important in Ukrainian politics. As part of the compromise to resolve the political upheaval after repeated vote fraud in the 2004 presidential election, then candidate Viktor Yushchenko agreed to political reforms -- to come into effect at the start of next year -- that will transform Ukraine from a presidential republic to parliamentary republic.

At the time, this compromise did not foresee that the leading personalities of the Orange Revolution would soon become political rivals. This same compromise could possibly see Yanukovych become prime minister with powers, in many ways, greater than the president's.

Yanukovych has good reason to feel confident. Not only has the Orange Revolution turned against itself after Yushchenko fired Tymoshenko's government in September, but the issue the "orangists" won with last year is no longer theirs -- the crusade to end corruption. The public's perception of Yanukovych has not really changed since his ill-fated presidential bid, nor has Yanukovych's campaign platform -- pro-business and pro-Russia.

What Yanukovych is banking on is the continued political change on the ground and rivalry among his two main competitors. Both of whom, it would appear, will eventually see his party garner the most votes and make the Party of Regions the center partner to build a coalition with either Yushchenko or Tymoshenko.

Yanukovych's political math, at this point, adds up to electoral victory. During the contested presidential election last year, Yanukovych's negatives exceeded his positives -- and he still won almost half the votes.

Approaching the March parliamentary election, Yanukovych's appeal is virtually unchanged. To his advantage, his chief rivals are in the same situation. Both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, to be sure, remain popular with their respective core supporters, but both cores have shrunk significantly since the Orange Revolution.

Public opinion polls also suggest the average Ukrainian is disillusioned with elections, but still values some of the benefits of the Orange Revolution such as greater media freedom. Based on historical data, voters believe that the March vote will be unfair and no different from past elections.

This could be explained as political attitudes and belief in state institutions change slowly in every political culture, but the lack of significant economic and political successes since the Orange Revolution also appears to be in play.

A review of each party's electoral list may explain mainstream disillusionment with the political elite. Yanukovych's party list includes, beside himself, Ukraine's richest oligarch, Rynat Akhmetov, twelve managers of companies united in Akhmetov's corporation, Capital System Management, four candidates associated with the Shakhtar Donetsk soccer club owned by Akhmetov, Yanukovych's son, his lawyer and press secretary.

The pro-Yushchenko NSNU party list also raises some eyebrows. A month ago, Yushchenko asked the NSNU to remove from the electoral list some of his Orange Revolution companions who have been accused of corruption and then fired from government posts in September.

This party, which hopes to have Yushchenko head its list, ignored the president's plea. When the party list was finalized on Dec. 3, some of those same individuals, with opaque links to big business like Petro Poroshenko, were placed on the NSNU election list in positions guaranteeing their election.

The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc has yet to finalize its electoral list. This is not surprising. Tymoshenko can count the support of some of the biggest names in Ukrainian politics and the contentious infighting as to who will be slated to occupy the top positions continues behind closed doors.

Tymoshenko's cadre includes long time ally and former Security Services head Oleksandr Turchinov, Mykola Tomenko, the former Vice Prime Minister and current deputy head of the Reforms and Order party, and Oleksandr Zinchenko, Yushchenko's former chief of staff and the person who first publicly accused Yushchenko's closest advisors of corruption, which precipitated the sacking of Tymoshenko government.

All have big names, but are also ambitious and have the reputation of being staunchly independent. This bloc will be difficult to manage, even for the amazingly resourceful Tymoshenko.

For the average voter, the three major parties are set to appeal to the hearts and minds of the electorate as if it were business as usual. This is what disappoints voters most. After a people's revolution, politics should not be about business as usual. It is not surprising that many Ukrainians have lost faith in the Orange Revolution: President Yushchenko is perceived as incapable and indecisive, Tymoshenko was deemed an incompetent economic manager while prime minister and quick to play the nationalist card, and Yanukovych treads water as his opponents undercut each other.

Even more disappointing is the sad fact that all three electoral blocs cannot shake continued allegations of corruption. Yushchenko is unwilling or unable to separate himself from individuals close to him who have dubious business reputations, Tymoshenko has never explained why her personal net worth could be in the billions of American dollars when serving as a public servant, and Yanukovych, just as tainted as his opponents, has no problem with having the country's wealthiest on his party list.

It is ironic that Yanukovych has probably understood Ukraine's electorate much better than his Orange rivals. His message is quite clear -- Remember me? Of course you do. I haven't changed and remember how the economy grew when I was prime minister? During Tymoshenko's time in office, Ukraine's GDP growth dropped to 4 percent after being 12 percent under my watch.

He can easily claim that he isn't any worse than his opponents when it comes to business as usual. Yanukovych has the added advantage of asking the question -- Who are Yushchenko and Tymoshenko? Are they the people you thought they were a year ago?

Yanukovych is angling that the electorate will do the political math and will conclude that he may have not been right a year ago, but in the present he is.

Source: UPI