The Presidential Election in Ukraine: Mirror of Society In Transition.

Ukraine has remained politically stable in spite of continuous economic decline and widespread impoverishment. The various branches of the political elite have been prepared to compromise and halt political clashes before they reached crisis point.

President Leonid Kuchma has played a major role in preserving stability. He has shown himself to be if not a convinced democrat, then at least a moderate, sober-minded, and flexible politician. His main achieve­ments as an architect of compromise have been the Constitutional Agreement of 1995 and the adoption of the new constitution in 1996. It was also in 1996 that the national currency (gryvna) was introduced.

The mid-1990s saw the rise of economic ‘clans’ and ‘oligarchs’ in Ukraine, who have undermined the real power and influence of the new political parties. The victory that the clans won over the parties in this invisible struggle was reflected in the results of the 1998 and 1999 elections.

What we see on the surface in 1999 is that Kuchma won the ‘great battle’ against the ‘red menace’ — a menace that he and his team had created themselves, both intentionally (through the mass media) and unintentionally (by aggravating the economic situation and impoverishing the people). This victory was not unexpected, especially after the failure of the four left-center candidates to unite behind a single candidate who might have mounted an effective challenge to both Kuchma and the communists.

All the same, many people, especially abroad, wonder how it can be that a majority of Ukrainians have again supported Kuchma — the man whose promises to launch vigorous reforms and combat organized crime have been exposed as mere words. By voting for him, Ukrainians have doomed themselves to another five years of leadership that ‘The Times’ has described as ‘the worst in Europe.’

Why did Kuchma win? What does his victory mean for Ukraine? To what extent does it confirm or contradict commonly accepted ideas about the socio-political situation in Ukraine, such as regional differences and  authoritarian tendencies? What problems did it reveal and how can they be solved?

The candidates

Sixteen candidates stood for president of Ukraine this year. It is convenient to divide them into four groups:

First of all, the three frontrunners:
— Leonid Kuchma, the incumbent president of Ukraine.
— Petro Symonenko, leader of the Communist Party of Ukraine.
— Natalia Vitrenko, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party.

Secondly, the left-center politicians known as the ‘Kaniv four’:
— Olexander Tkachenko, the current chairman of the parliament.
— Olexander Moroz, the former chairman of the parliament and a leader of the Socialist Party of Ukraine.
— Yevhen Marchuk, the first head of the Security Service of Ukraine, a former prime minister of Ukraine, and a parliamentary deputy elected from the Socialist Democratic Party (United).
— Volodymyr Oliynyk, a little-known local official from the central agrarian Cherkasy Province, of uncertain ideological orientation.

Two more candidates came from Rukh, the right-centrist ‘national democratic’ movement that played an important role in winning independence:
— Henadiy Udovenko, a former minister of foreign affairs who headed the more conservative part of Rukh, concerned mainly with statehood and cultural concerns.
— Yuriy Kostenko, leader of the younger and more pragmatic part of Rukh.

Finally, there were seven minor figures standing, none of whom won more than 0.5% of the votes.

The candidates’ assets

Kuchma was supported by over two dozen political parties and civic organizations. Some of these represented wealthy new oligarchs or powerful local officials, while others backed Kuchma because they knew they had no political future without governmental support. Kuchma had the support of part of the former ‘party of power,’ the People’s Democratic Party, which split on the eve of the election, and of the Socialist Democratic Party (United), headed by Victor Medvedchuk, deputy chairman of the parliament and one of the richest people in Ukraine.

Symonenko could hope to retain the support of the 25% of the electorate, including a majority of pensioners and the unemployed, who had voted for the Communist Party in the 1998 parliamentary election.

Vitrenko had attracted much attention as a demagogue. In some unreliable polls she came second or even first in popularity.

The ‘Kaniv Four’ had agreed to cooperate and choose one of their number as a common candidate. Such a candidate would have posed a real challenge to Kuchma, who according to the polls could have been defeated only by a centrist politician. But the plan failed, because the ‘Kaniv four’ were too ambitious to stand down in one another’s favor and also had different ideological orientations: Tkachenko resembles Belorussian President Lukashenka; Moroz calls himself a left centrist, but has never refused to stand under a red flag alongside Symonenko; and Marchuk, while ostensibly a social democrat, is in fact an establishment politician like Kuchma. (After his defeat in the first round, he accepted Kuchma’s offer of the position of Secretary of the Defense Council.)

The election results

The results of the first round of the election on October 31 were as follows:

Candidate Votes "FOR" % of votes "FOR"
Kuchma 9,598,672 36.5
Symonenko 5,849,077 22.2
Moroz 2,969,896 11.3
Vitrenko 2,886,972 11.0
Marchuk 2,138,356 8.1
Kostenko 570,623 2.2
Udovenko 319,778 1.2
Minor figures 288,396 1.5
Against all candidates 477,019 1.8

Why Kuchma and Symonenko?

Thus Kuchma came first, with the Communist Party candidate Symonenko his leading rival. Why did the electors choose these two politicians?

The first and simplest explanation, of course, may be that Ukrainians are conservative and submissive people. They just do not evaluate the situation critically and do not want reforms at all. But this assertion is rather superficial and does not correspond to the findings of sociological surveys. These show that during the first term of Kuchma’s presidency people were very critical of him. The proportion of respondents who thought that ‘things are going in the right direction in this country’ was 13% in December 1994, 14% in December 1996, and a mere 6% in December 1998 (SOCIS-GALLUP). And when asked on the eve of the electoral campaign ‘Who in your view is able to lead the country out of the crisis?’, only 6% named Kuchma.

True, the public trusted the other branches of state power even less. If the level of trust in the president fell from 33% to 17% between 1995 and 1997, that in the government fell in the same period from 15% to 9%, and that in the parliament from 9% to 7%. Trust in public institutions in Ukraine (as in other post-communist countries) is very low. About 35% of the public do not approve of the multiparty system, and do not believe that any existing party or politician is able to lead the country out of the crisis or govern it effectively.

It is striking that in 1997 there were 45% who agreed, and only 16% who disagreed, with the statement that ‘a few powerful rulers may do more for the country than all laws and discussions.’ Some analysts saw these figures as a sign of the authoritarian inclinations of the Ukrainian people. But comparing this survey with others (including my own survey in Lviv and Kharkiv), I came to the conclusion that people only seek a strong and charismatic figure able to lead the country out of the pit into which it has fallen. They want ‘delegative democracy’ rather than an authoritarian regime. The main characteristic of this underdeveloped kind of democracy is that people want to transfer responsibility for the successes and failures of govern­ment in the transitional period from themselves to the president, who is expected to govern as he sees fit.

As for the Constitution with its hybrid parliamentary-presidential form of government, multiparty system, and other checks and balances, it was devised by a political elite over the heads of the people, who were just trying to survive. Of all the new political institutions, only the presidency is really understood and valued highly by ordinary people. When asked in 1997 what powers the president should have, 60% of respondents chose the answer: ‘The president should be the head of the government, fully responsible for domestic and foreign policy.’ Only 7% chose an answer corresponding to the existing mixed form of government; 7% thought it sufficient for the president to act as head of state and be the ‘symbol’ of the nation; and 5% said there was no need for a president. This helps explain why so many people turned out for the presidential election and voted for Kuchma, in spite of their disappointment with the results of his first term.

There were, of course, other reasons for Kuchma’s success. As international observers confirmed, the mass media were not allowed to provide non-partisan and objective coverage of electoral campaign. Kuchma shamelessly promoted himself on state television, while agitation against him was discouraged by the authorities at all levels. Local officials were mobilized in support of Kuchma’s campaign. Many other procedural violations were noted by OSCE observers.

Media bias worked especially to the detriment of those candidates who were less well known to the public. It did less harm to Symonenko, the communist candidate, who was able to rely on his party’s extensive network of propaganda outlets and personal contacts. The main hope of the communists, of course, was that people would vote for their party because they were tired of living in poverty. But almost all experts agreed that Symonenko had no chance of winning against Kuchma.

Permanent economic crisis naturally strengthens left-wing critics of the ‘anti-people’s regime.’ Voters’ preferences have moved leftward during the last five years. It is no coincidence that all three of the candidates who came next after Kuchma in the first round were representatives of leftist parties. So there is a tendency for the ‘red electorate’ to expand, but it has its limits. But in general, as one reader of the Ukrainian weekly ‘The Day’ concluded, ‘the commonsense of the majority of electors overweighed their desire to protest, and of the two evils offered them the electors chose the lesser.’ Kuchma was also right when he remarked after his victory that in those regions where Symonenko gained a majority people voted against their poor life, not for the communists.

It came as a surprise to many observers that the leftist parties did better in central-western Vinnitsa Province than in the industrial east (with the exception of Luhansk Province). In Ukraine as in Russia, the main territorial stronghold of the communists is now not in the industrial areas, but in some of the less economically developed, predominantly agricultural regions.

Parties, clans, and oligarchs

Another common explanation of the election results focuses on the inadequacies of the Ukrainian political elite: the weakness of the parties, especially on the right side of the political spectrum; the shortage of political leaders free of communist-bureaucratic stereotypes in their thinking and behavior; and the domination of real politics by the ‘oligarchs’ (in the sense that it is they who are accumulating real as distinct from formal power).

The present state of the multiparty system is indeed dull. In 1996-98 it was hoped that the mixed (half proportional representation) electoral system would strengthen the party system and structure the parliament politically. Those hopes have been dashed. There are 75 parties in Ukraine now, but they have little impact on real politics. There is no explicit ruling party or bloc, and no explicit opposition either. The eight party fractions and the non-party deputy groups are continually being reorganized. In 1998, the left parties managed to make a temporary coalition with the centrist Party ‘Hromada’ and elected a left-wing chair and deputy chair of the parliament, but they did not have a stable majority. The party system reminds one of a bird with a body (the ‘party of power’) and one wing (leftist forces). The communists remain the only effective opposition to the ‘party of power.’ It is a dangerous situation, for it gives the ideologically neutral ‘party of power’ a pretext to introduce dictatorial rule. The forces in power have a deliberate policy of impeding the rise of strong new opposition parties. During the 1998 electoral campaign, they created pocket parties in order to divert or deceive the electors, and the same practice was repeated, with individual pocket candidates, in the presidential race.

Long before the presidential campaign a series of steps were taken to get rid of any serious right-wing claimant for the presidency and to destroy organized forces that could have given him support. But if rightist politicians and parties were strong enough (in terms of program, strategy, and popular appeal) it would be impossible for the ruling elite to damage them so badly.

The internal crisis of Rukh and other right parties has made it easy to destroy them. Especially important for the ‘party of power’ and painful for the opposition was the breakdown of the most active and influential party — Rukh (Peoples Movement of Ukraine). One part of it – romantics and idealists who followed the former minister of foreign affairs Udovenko — were regarded by the broad public as a satellite of the presidential forces.  The other part, led by Yuriy Kostenko, has little influence because it was blamed for the schism.

There is an urgent need to unite reform-oriented political forces into one, or at most two, political parties. Only then can rightist parties countervail the power of the communist bloc and of the rising Ukrainian ‘oligarchy’ of rich men, who try to combine in their hands economic and political power.

The regional factor

Let us now look at the results of the second round of the election (November 14) in regional breakdown. Ukraine’s provinces fall into four groups:

— Seven western provinces in which Kuchma won an overwhelming majority of votes: Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil, Lviv, Transcarpathia, Volyn, Chernivtsi, and Rivne.

— Seven southern, eastern, and central provinces, in which Kuchma won rather convincingly: Kyiv-city, Kyiv-province, Khmelnytskiy, Odessa, Dnipropetrovsk, and Sevastopol.
— Nine provinces in which the communists won: Vinnitsa, Chernihiv, Poltava, Cherkasy, Kirovograd, Kherson, Luhansk, and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.
— Five provinces in which no candidate captured 50% of the votes: Zhytomyr, Sumy, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, and Mykolaiv.

Many commentators have argued that Kuchma won because the voters in western Ukraine gave a lower priority to economic concerns than to the preservation of state independence, threatened by the communists’ intentions to integrate Ukraine with Russia. The reality is a little more complicated. First of all, western Ukraine accounts for only about 20% of the country’s population, and is therefore unlikely to play a decisive role. Secondly, Kuchma did very well in many provinces outside western Ukraine. Thirdly, while regionalism is a significant factor in Ukrainian politics, it is not all-important. Thus numerous public opinion surveys conducted in recent years show many similarities as well as differences between eastern and western Ukraine. And lastly, to understand fully regional differences, one must make finer distinctions than a crude division into east and west.

In 1991, west Ukrainian electors supported a Rukh candidate, but failed to bring him to power. Kravchuk was elected president thanks to the support of voters in southern and eastern Ukraine. But the west Ukrainians found Kravchuk to be sufficiently pro-independence, and in 1994 they supported him against Kuchma, who also won on south and east Ukrainian votes. Kuchma also, against expectations, did nothing to threaten Ukraine’s independence (if one leaves economic stagnation out of account), and this year the west Ukrainians gave him their support. There is a joke in Ukraine: easterners elect presidents for the country, and westerners love them.

In western Ukraine, the communists are regarded as socially and nationally alien, an occupation force. Unlike in the rest of the country, here people are still alive who remember the suffering associated with absorption into the USSR. This makes anticommunist aspirations firm and definite.

So it is no surprise that in Galicia, the most nationally conscious province of the western region, the communist candidate won only 4-5% of votes, while in the other four western provinces he won no more than 20%.

People throughout the country saw no real alternative to Kuchma on the one hand and the communists on the other, and they preferred Kuchma. And they were quite right. It was not their fault that they were offered such a miserable choice. It was the fault of the Ukrainian political elite, especially of the rightist and left-centrist politicians. Their ineptitude and inability to combine forces behind a single candidate was so obvious that it was natural for the electors not to rely on them.

The 1994 presidential election split Ukraine into eastern (left-bank) and western (right-bank) halves, separated by the Dniper River. This year’s election, by contrast, did NOT polarize the electorate between west and east, unless one defines ‘west’ as consisting of Galicia alone. The most salient division in 1999 was that between agrarian areas, oriented toward the communists, and urban areas, which on the whole supported Kuchma.

Provinces with an anti-Kuchma majority were situated on both sides of the Dniper, reflecting not so much cultural as economic factors, above all the desperate situation in Ukrainian villages. If in the cities people have not been paid their wages for months, in some villages they have seen no money for years. They feel: ‘We don’t care if the communists return to power. We lived somehow under the communists. We just want to be paid our wages. Symonenko promised to do that. Why not give him a try? It cannot be worse than it is already.’

The ‘red belt’ extends across the country from the Belorussian border near Chernobyl in the north to Mykolayiv and Kherson on the Black Sea coast. The Ukrainian peasantry is as conservative as that of any other country. In post-communist countries, ‘conservative’ means pro-communist.

In industrial regions of both east and west, where workers constitute the majority of voters, concerns were also predominantly economic, rather than nationalistic or political. Nevertheless, workers seem to be more politically sophisticated than peasants. Many of them were aware that if the communists returned to power they might stop progress altogether, leading to even worse poverty and misfortune.

Public opinion surveys conduced in Lviv (west) and Donetsk (east) provinces in 1991 and 1998 show differences on such issues as revival of the Ukrainian nation and language, and also ecology, but close similarity on economic issues. It is these commonalities that make the consolidation of the Ukrainian state feasible. In 1994, the two main candidates for president, Kravchuk and Kuchma, happened to differ only on those issues that divide east from west. In 1999, that was definitely not the case.

After the election

There are two visions of Ukraine’s future in Kuchma’s second term: a moderately optimistic one and a totally pessimistic one.

The optimists anticipate a consolidation of power in the hands of the president, who will then try to restart reforms and diminish the influence of oligarchs and criminals (who are often the same people).

But does everything now depend on the president’s will? If so, what motives might induce him to do these things? One answer is: honor, the desire to leave a good imprint on Ukrainian history. But honor is not enough. Kuchma would need sufficient strength to resist the pressures of the oligarchs, and for that he would need to be able to count on the support of strong organized political forces. Unfortunately, there are no such forces. First a new political bloc would have to be built, capable of safeguarding market reform and democracy.

The pessimists expect the further deterioration of socio-economic conditions and a shift toward a more authoritarian regime. The oligarchs who stand behind the re-elected president are not interested in democracy, though they may not be interested in establishing a dictatorship either. So we may expect the growing hidden (under the carpet, as we say in our country) domination of economically powerful people and clans, who will exterminate any real opposition. At its extreme, this scenario leads to the direct seizure of power by the Mafia, with the removal of Kuchma ahead of time by means of impeachment or otherwise.

In my view, the optimists underestimate and the pessimists overestimate the strength and political activity of latent pressure groups. Actually, the oligarchs are not so powerful in Ukraine at present that no political force can curb their appetites. All depends on the ability of political organizations really interested in defending public interests to mobilize public support, as well as on the intentions of President Kuchma himself.