Ukraine: Yanukovych’s limited mandate

Ukraine is a diverse nation with a strong civil society. This could restrain a potentially authoritarian political leadership. The “Orange” leaders may have lost the election, but a limited mandate means the new president will have to make concessions and Ukraine has a chance of remaining democratic and, therefore, on the European track, believes Oleksandr Sushko
Oleksandr Sushko
10 February 2010

The change of president in Ukraine gives rise to two major questions concerning the “post-Orange” future.  What will the new government do to improve national governance?  Is there a real threat that democratic institutions and freedoms could be eroded?

The predominant political rhetoric of the time has described all recent Ukrainian elections (presidential 2004, parliamentary 2006, 2007) as “decisive”, “crucial”, “final battle” etc. It is now clear that, as long as we have a democracy, nothing is final and a decisive election today will be followed by another equally decisive election next time. No politician in the foreseeable future will be able to overcome the natural heterogeneity of the Ukrainian nation. A Ukrainian-speaking leader may be replaced by a native Russian-speaker; NATO enthusiasts may be defeated by neutralists; people in power who are comfortable in Moscow may lose to those feel at home in Brussels. In 2004 it seemed that the “heroes of Maidan” had come to power forever. Are they now defeated forever? As long as there is democratic political competition, nobody in Ukraine wins or loses forever.

The opinions of the political leaders on the EU, Russia, NATO, US may vary, but the only thing that matters is commitment to democratic norms, practices and values.  The real question is whether the new Ukrainian leadership will act to strengthen the rule of law and democratic institutions, or attempt to advance elements of the model well known, euphemistically, as “sovereign democracy”.

The most probable future scenario for Ukraine is a continuation of its slow but evident move towards becoming a western-type social and political entity and, ultimately, an integral part of the West. At the same time, the short-term prospect of poor governance and fragile democratic institutions constitutes an obvious threat to this general trend:  democratic practices may be eroded by a government whose background means that they are less committed to democracy than the previous incumbents.

Unfortunately, current international and domestic circumstances are not conducive to strengthening democracy in Ukraine (especially as compared to 2004-2005).

First of all, the regional tendency is away from democracy. According to Freedom House reports, the last 3-4 years have seen a clear erosion of democracy in Eastern Europe. Russia is the most remarkable case, but other countries of the region such as Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Belarus have also demonstrated either no progress or further degradation of democratic institutions. There are no guarantees that Ukraine under its new leadership will be able to keep its status as the only “free state” in the CIS.

In addition, negative domestic developments (institutional chaos, disorder, poor governance) have led to society becoming more skeptical about the principles of democracy.   The overwhelming belief is that strong leaders can do much more for the country than laws, rules and debates. Political forces which positioned themselves as “democratic” proved unable to deliver efficient governance, so there is an element of disappointment in both the politicians and the principles associated with them.

In this connection there is a growing risk that democratic processes in Ukraine will be eroded under the new leadership. There have been some early warning signals during the presidential campaign, such as growing media corruption.

Fortunately, however, there is some room for optimism that the democratic changes in Ukraine are irreversible.

Ukrainian election outcome

Blue  represents districts where Victor Yanukovych won, red denotes regions won by Yulia Tymoshenko.  

First of all, the very narrow gap between the candidates (3.5%) and the lack of absolute majority (49% of votes) give the winner Victor Yanukovych de facto a limited mandate from society. He lost in 17 of the 27 regions of Ukraine. The former opposition leader will not be able to stabilize his rule without making considerable concessions to his opponents and efforts at building a consensus. His first statements after the exit polls showed at least a basic understanding of his limited social legitimacy and a readiness to work for the confidence of those segments of society which did not vote for him.

Secondly, local elections on May 30 will certainly not give Yanukovych a majority in most of the regional councils  (he can only be sure of about 10 of the 27 regions). At the same time, on the national level the political opposition (which is supposed to be quite strong) will play an important role in the parliament. Opposition to him will be no less strong than his own past opposition to the “Orange” forces.

Thirdly, Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions has achieved its goal and brought him to power, but will now face constant challenges as the party in power. Different centres of influence will compete for better positions in power. Growing competition will erode the party’s unity, as some years ago it eroded the unity of the “Orange” forces.

Fourthly, civil society in Ukraine is doing rather well. Susan Stewart’s analysis, based on Civicus criteria, gives Ukraine quite high scores in comparison with countries that joined the EU in 2004/2007.   It is suggested that the relative strength of civil society in Ukraine could prevent possible attempts by the political leadership to undermine democratic practices.

Ukraine is a complex nation with a strong civil society, which is the most valuable “Orange legacy” and places natural limitations on any attempts to undermine the democratic achievements.  It is not the essential institutions (which are obviously weak), but Ukraine’s political/social diversity that will be the most important insurance against a monopolisation of power, and authoritarianism.

The newly elected president’s relative (limited) social legitimacy will be likely to restrict his ability to govern by his own will and perceptions only.


Oleksandr Sushko is Research Director of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic cooperation, Kyiv, Ukraine

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