Opposition To One-Party Rule In Order

KIEV, Ukraine -- There is no doubt that there is much to criticize in Ukraine’s political system. Significant portions of President Viktor Yushchenko’s pro-Western agenda have been rolled back, the current government is attempting to consolidate control over businesses and media outlets in the regions.

Yulia Tymoshenko the only real opposition in Ukraine

There is significant confusion over who should be in charge, and important agreements, like the latest natural gas deal with Russia, are opaque and confusing.

But, in the midst of these criticisms, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. The fact is that Ukraine may be on track to become the first (semi) authoritarian country in the 21st century to make a successful transition to democracy.

In this case, the term “democracy” does not suggest just a transition to Western-oriented policies or to a government friendly to the United States and the EU. In this case, Ukraine has the potential to change over to a real, functioning democratic government based on political pluralism.

In 2004, Ukraine was a country ruled by fear and intimidation, with little to no free press, and a political opposition that faced not only oppression but threats against the lives of its leaders.

Today, there is regular political debate, a press that (largely) provides information necessary for voters to understand the actions of their leaders, and the existence of strong political parties/blocs that are happy to disclose the littlest negative tidbit about each other. It is a political environment that is characterized at the moment by deep disappointment in the country’s politicians, but grudging engagement in the process.

Of course, the country has far – and possibly many years – to go before a true democracy can be consolidated. Rule of law and government transparency remain major obstacles to be overcome. None of the progress already made is irreversible. Nevertheless, in under two years, Ukraine has come a great distance.

Now, the country stands at the pivotal point. Its leaders must decide how to consolidate and institutionalize the progress already made. If they do not, it could easily be lost.

Until now, the largest gains in Ukraine have been in the areas of press freedom and fair — sometimes freewheeling – political competition. These two achievements, which separate it from the rest of the countries of the former Soviet Union, have largely resulted from continuing battles among elites for political control.

These political battles have led to a de facto pluralism, as no group has been able to consolidate its power entirely, and no leader has been strong enough to control the work of journalists. Not insignificantly, President Yushchenko also has supported the rights of journalists to monitor the government.

But the situation is changing in Ukraine. There are signs that one party, the pro-government party of Regions, is beginning to successfully consolidate one-party control throughout large portions of the country.

This lack of political competition could negatively impact the freedoms that recently have developed. Therefore, Ukraine’s political parties must develop a system of checks and balances that will protect gains already made and guarantee that progress continues. De facto pluralism is no longer enough.

The first step should be the legal recognition of a political opposition, and the passage of laws that will allow members of this opposition to effectively monitor and pressure the government.

Ukraine’s opposition should be granted at least the status of a parliamentary committee. Its members should be guaranteed the right to review, comment on and introduce priority amendments on bills introduced. In short, they should be provided with the tools necessary to undertake their role as a check on the authorities.

To this point, in Ukraine, there is one strong functioning opposition bloc – a fact which places the country far ahead of its former Soviet neighbors. It is led by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and includes members of her eponymous bloc, two Socialists and the non-parliamentary Reforms and Order Party.

Tymoshenko has proposed a sweeping “Law on the Opposition,” based on the guarantees given to opposition structures in Western European countries. Passage of this law, or one similar to it, would place Ukraine in the company of some of the most democratically developed countries in the world. In fact, the majority of Western European states provide significant rights – either legally or based on “historical convention” – to their opposition(s).

Tymoshenko and her allies have had difficulty getting this law considered. This is partially due to the apparently ambivalent position of President Viktor Yushchenko, who on the one hand values the concept of an opposition, but on the other has stated repeatedly that he values compromise and political unity more.

The president and his allies have shown limited understanding of the value of a political opposition, sometimes reflexively falling back on characterizations used during both Soviet times and the regime of former President Leonid Kuchma. At that time, those opposed to the government were characterized as “trouble makers” interested in “destabilization of the state.”

Ironically, given the president’s views, his Our Ukraine parliamentary bloc recently confirmed its transition to the opposition against the government – over Yushchenko’s objections. It is unclear, though, what type of opposition they intend. Some members have spoken of developing a sort of joint opposition institution that might include government officials.

This would, of course, negate the purpose of an opposition, which is primarily intended to protect voters against inappropriate use of government resources and power. This purpose cannot be fulfilled if opposition members are associated with that very government. Therefore, opposition blocs in Western democracies are not connected to government institutions.

Tymoshenko also has spoken of revoking constitutional amendments passed in 2004 that increased the power of the prime minister at the expense of the president. This would be a mistake. It is true that consolidation of power in the prime minister’s hands is generally negative for Ukraine.

But the remedy is not a return to the presidential system that allowed the previous regime to build a borderline authoritarian state. Instead, Tymoshenko and her allies should continue pushing for the creation of a system that allows for an effective opposition, and laws that will increase the independence of the judiciary. Her initiative to eliminate deputy’s privileges also sends an important message of accountability.

She should be supported in this work by the president, who is known to support the need for checks and balances on government structures, and by Our Ukraine, which contains a number of dedicated reformers.

Uniting behind the goal of creating a system for monitoring the government will ensure that Ukraine remains a country making slow but steady progress toward democracy - and an important example of real success for countries facing similar transitions.

Source: Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology & Policy