Dictatorship By Referendum In Ukraine?

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine’s democrats are worried that a law “On the All-Ukrainian Referendum,” signed by President Yanukovych on November 27, 2012, may serve to prolong Regionnaire rule by means of underhanded changes to the Constitution.

The fear is not unfounded.

After all, everyone knows that Yanukovych and the Regionnaires face certain defeat in the 2015 presidential elections.

Crushing the opposition by means of selective arrests and violence only goes so far.

Falsifying election results can work only within a relatively narrow margin of, say, 3 to 4 percentage points.

Instituting a military dictatorship is out of the question in light of Ukraine’s crummy armed forces.

Changing the Constitution in Parliament requires a two-thirds majority, which the Regionnaires don’t have and won’t have.

So why not change the country’s basic law by means of a referendum, thereby enabling “the people”—whom the Regionnaires generally regard condescendingly—to forge their own chains?

At first glance, the idea is simple.

The Regionnaires fashion a series of ambiguously worded changes to the Constitution and then put them up for a yes or no vote.

In particular, they ask the people to approve the parliament’s transformation into a rump legislature elected only in majoritarian districts and the replacement of two rounds of voting for the president with one round.

The masses vote yes. The Constitution is changed.

The Regionnaires buy all the seats they want and Yanukovych rules forever.

As democratic activist Iryna Bekeshkina, the head of the Democratic Initiatives NGO, puts it:

“This will be the end of democracy in Ukraine, inasmuch as the very law on referenda is formulated in such a fashion that only the authorities may conduct, control, and count the votes.”

Bekeshkina has a point, but any referendum concocted by the Regionnaires to prolong their rule could become a two-edged sword.

True, the people could turn out to be as slavish as the Regionnaires hope they are, but, then again, they just might not.

After all, everyone would know that a referendum would be a ploy by Yanukovych and his pals to ensconce themselves in power indefinitely.

And Yanukovych, as everyone knows, is deeply unpopular, while the Regionnaire base in the Donbas is progressively eroding.

Moreover, the economy is a mess and will remain so for many months to come.

It’s not at all clear that the people will opt for self-enslavement.

Nor is it clear that the democrats and an outraged populace couldn’t do well in the majoritarian districts.

The Regionnaires think that everybody is a venal crook.

They’re wrong and, like venal crooks in other parts of the world, they could easily discover that honesty, even in Ukraine, might be a pretty popular policy.

And, however much they try to rig the presidential ballot, don’t bet on Yanukovych’s winning in a first round.

Facing Armageddon, the democrats just might agree on a single candidate; it’s also possible that the incumbent could lose even if he runs against several.

But imagine that Ukrainians do opt for self-enslavement—by a tiny majority.

The result will be a slap in the face to the other half of Ukraine’s population, growing radicalization and polarization, and, not inconceivably, violence.

Imagine that the referendum fails by a small number of votes.

The Regionnaires could falsify the results, but the outrage will likely be even greater.

The only way a referendum would have the desired result is if it passes with a clear majority of, say, 60 percent to 40 percent.

But if Yanukovych’s popularity and credibility were that high, there’d be no need for a referendum in the first place.

Now imagine that the referendum doesn’t pass.

Yanukovych’s illegitimacy will have been confirmed and he will have to choose between accepting the results (and, thus, defeat in 2015) or implementing some form of martial law.

The latter is impossible. The former is unacceptable.

In a word, a referendum is a high-stakes game, one that Yanukovych would be well advised to play with great caution.

Things get more complicated if you look at the fine print of the law.

A referendum can be initiated by the Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament, or by the people.

Neither course promises an easy process for the ruling Regionnaires.

If they want to push a referendum empowering themselves and Yanukovych through the Rada, they’ll have to buy out the 32 Communist deputies, who would be consigned to oblivion in any new redaction of the Constitution.

That’ll mean paying them about $5 million apiece, a total of about $160 million, which is lunch money by Regionnaire standards.

The Stalinists may sell out willingly and then retire to their proletarian palaces in the Crimea, but their hard-core constituents, who probably number about 10 percent of the Ukrainian population, may not take kindly to this double betrayal.

Will they support motions that legalize their irrelevance? Or will they vote against?

Who knows?

And then there’s the pesky people and their ability to initiate a referendum.

As Point 6 of Article 15 states: “An All-Ukrainian Referendum is declared as a result of a popular initiative if there is a demand for it by no fewer than three million citizens of Ukraine, who have the right to vote, and on condition that the signatures regarding a referendum are collected in no less than two thirds of the provinces and no fewer than one hundred thousand signatures in every province.”

Point 6 makes it possible for the democratic opposition to play the referendum game as well.

The democrats could easily collect 3 million signatures in two-thirds of Ukraine’s provinces and, with a little bit of effort, they could probably collect a hundred thousand in all the provinces.

Whether or not the democrats will avail themselves of this weapon is unclear.

But the weapon exists and, if used cleverly by a united opposition, could actually hasten the Regionnaires’ disappearance from Ukrainian politics.

So, will the Regionnaires go the referendum route?


But, since they’re too short-sighted to understand that opening a Pandora’s Box could unleash forces leading to their downfall, that just might turn out to be good news.

Source: World Affairs