Ukraine's Presidential Elections – A Step in the Right Direction

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On May 25, Ukrainian businessman Petro Poroshenko became Ukraine's fifth President, winning in the first round with some 55 percent of the vote, the first presidential candidate ever to do so.

Voter turnout was very high except for the two areas of Eastern Ukraine, which was expected. In the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, armed pro-Russian separatists systematically shut down local election commissions, preventing them from holding the vote by occupying their offices, stealing ballots and voter information from officials at gunpoint, destroying ballot boxes and even kidnapping officials.

Hence, it is estimated that only about 20 percent of the population of these oblasts were able to vote. However, the very fact that they did so demonstrates that they were ready to risk their own safety to support a unified Ukraine, as does the fact that thousands of Ukrainians living in occupied Crimea travelled to other parts of the country to cast their vote.

A Vote for Democracy and Unity

The vote has not only provided Ukraine with a legitimate, democratically elected leader, it has also underlined that Ukrainians overwhelming support a united Ukraine. Poroshenko ran a pro-European and pro-reform campaign and won. It is a reflection of Ukrainians’ desire to be part of the European Union (EU) as a democratic country that has full respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms.

Hence, the argument that Ukraine is a divided state; that half the population does not support European integration, but rather closer ties with Russia, has been left high and dry. Nevertheless, while Poroshenko’s election offers Ukraine a fresh start, the challenges are enormous. The new president is taking on a broken and crisis-ridden country.

Stabilising the Country

Poroshenko's first task will be to take steps to try and stabilise and secure the country, especially with crime in the eastern-most region on the increase and at serious risk of becoming a lawless territory.

Shortly after the election result, the leaders of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ imposed martial law and declared that they were planning to ‘clean up’ the region of foreign (Ukrainian) forces.

While the Ukrainian security forces will continue with their ‘anti-terrorist operation’, a strong emphasis must be placed on increasing border and cyber security, and countering the militants’ threat to civilians in the East. However, it will be extremely difficult to effectively secure and stabilise these regions by military means alone.

Despite its commendable efforts, Ukraine’s security forces are broadly corrupted, inept, and frequently disloyal and in need of a total overhaul, which cannot be done immediately due to lack of resources and rampant corruption. Furthermore, a solution to the crisis in the East cannot be found at gunpoint. It can only come though political dialogue, compromise and inclusive democratic governance.

There are a number of important steps that need to be taken in the coming months: Ukraine must move ahead with important constitutional reform, including the decentralisation of regions. There should be parliamentary elections followed shortly by local elections.

Parliamentary elections are expected to take place by the end of the year and should result in a broader political representation in Parliament that reflects the new realities and will provide a chance for Ukrainians in the Donbas region to elect their representatives.

Despite the fact that the current government was legitimately nominated by the Parliament with a constitutional majority, it is not representative of the entire country, in particular the East with 16 of the 21 ministers coming from Western and Central Ukraine and mainly from the party of former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.

In order to achieve a balance, there needs to be far reaching constitutional reform. This will require electoral law reform that will bring Ukraine back to a proportional system rather than a majoritarian system and with open lists. The threshold to enter parliament, which is currently at 5 percent, could also be lowered as this would open the door for new parties to enter. The Euromaiden Movement could evolve from a public movement to a political party, which would give it a stronger voice.

Secondly, the new constitution should include decentralisation of regions, allowing them to have more control over their own affairs in terms of language, education, economic and cultural issues and, very importantly, enable them to elect and control their own governors.

Significantly, the high voter turnout has demonstrated that Ukrainians have rejected the much promoted concept of Russian President, Vladimir Putin, of a Federalised Ukraine, which foresaw a weak central authority in Kyiv with most of the powers in the hands of regional leaderships, which would have possibly led to the disintegration of the Ukrainian state.

Ukraine needs to maintain a strong central power, particularly at a time when it is rebuilding itself. With the change of constitution towards a parliamentary-presidential system, the parliament will have the power to authorise reforms and deliver on the new social contract.

The process of constitutional reform has already begun. An Interim Special Committee was established on March 4 of 15 MPs representing various political factions and parties, although the majority is from Batkivschyna, including the head of the committee, Ruslan Knyazevych.

Three drafts have been sent to the Venice Commission for comment as Ukraine should produce an end product that is in line with European standards. There are also on-going public debates and discussions. So far three rounds of all-Ukrainian national unity dialogue and two extended sessions on decentralisation reform have taken place in different cities around the country.

Bringing the decision making process closer to citizens is of great importance. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has promised the new document by September. In the meantime, Poroshenko could propose that the Donbas region come under direct presidential rule which would mean the presidency and not the government – which separatists maintain is an illegal, fascist regime – would be their interlocutor. Although it remains questionable whether any form of dialogue is likely to take place.

Fighting Corruption – Time for a Zero Tolerance Approach

A further priority is the fight against corruption and establishing a real rule of law, something which Ukraine has never had. Rather Ukraine has a sort of legal anarchy: whoever controls power controls the law.

In Ukraine, corruption is a fact of life. For the last quarter of a century, Ukraine’s political elites and oligarchs have systematically worked to consolidate their power and wealth, turning some regions into fiefdoms and creating self-serving power structures that have drained the state and left ordinary Ukrainians on the breadline or worse.

It impacts big business, law enforcement, public procurement, education, the police and even the smallest transactions between people on the street. Transparency International’s Corruption Index for 2013 put Ukraine at 144 out of 177 countries. Concerted efforts to eradicate corruption – with both a top-down and bottom-up approach – and establishing the rule of law are crucial for Ukraine to attract the sort of foreign investment that it needs to tide over the country’s economic woes.

While signing the economic part of the Association Agreement with the EU, which is due to take place in the coming weeks, will give a strong impetus to establishing a robust rule of law and curbing corruption, it will be insufficient without strong teamwork and national consensus within the country itself. Personal interests must become a thing of the past. But with business and politics so firmly cemented together it may take a decade or longer to break them apart.

Russia's Next Move

Russia remains crucial to a solution for the crisis that it provoked in the first place. Despite the fact that Vladimir Putin has declared his willingness to work with the new president and recognise the will of the Ukrainian people, Russia is unlikely to shift its position.

Moscow has been unable to achieve the mass support it wanted in either Eastern or Southern Ukraine; support for pro-Russian separatists in the East has dropped and the latest opinion polls show high support for the East remaining part of a united Ukraine.

Today, Russia has no influence over the decision making process in Kyiv, with the Party of Regions having crumbled to pieces. However, President Putin will make no concessions but will rather look to the West to make concession as part of a diplomatic solution.

While the new Ukrainian leadership should seek to improve relations with Russia, this scenario seems very unlikely in the short term. Hence, it may well be the case that Ukraine will be left with a second breakaway state on its territory.

However, the degree to which Moscow continues to support pro-Russian separatists in Donbas remains to be seen, as they have now taken a life of their own and were never Russia’s key target in this region. Kharkiv was of particular importance but it failed to fall to the separatists. Yet, without Russian support, the ability of these separatists to survive will be limited.

Beyond taking steps to secure the country to the best of their ability, Ukrainian authorities must focus on building a strong and democratic state that has respect for the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedoms, which will be beneficial to the region and its entire population.

The writer is a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre

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