Sunday, September 16, 2007

Everyone to the Elections! Part 1: Our Ukraine/People's Self-Defense

Erik has several research objectives while in Ukraine; one of them is to observe and evaluate the parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in two weeks. Twenty political parties will contest 450 seats in the lower house of parliament. The elections have several "prizes" for the winners. Among the prizes are:

Control of Government: If any party gains the majority of seats in parliament, that party can form the government. The likelihood of a single-party majority government is low at the moment, but that could change. Instead, it is more likely that a coalition will be formed. Potential coalition configurations are the talk of election pundits, with various scenarios being bandied about. After constitutional changes in early 2006, this prize has become more coveted since the prime minister is more powerful than before.

Momentum for the 2009 Presidential Race: Several prominent Ukrainian politicians are eyeing the office of president and will use this election to elevate their status as the most credible contender.

Probably the best known Ukrainian politician outside of Ukraine is the current president, Viktor Yushchenko. He famously helped lead the Orange Revolution after being poisoned with dioxin, and became president in 2004. After that victory, Ukrainian politics fell off international radar screens. To update those of you not following the ups and downs of Ukraine, Yushchenko squandered much of the post-revolutionary "honeymoon" through his failure to meet some of the promises he made (solving a particularly gruesome murder that involved government officials as planners and/or perpetrators), various scandals (related to his Minister of Justice's falsified resume, his son's ostentatious lifestyle, and other issues), squabbling with his co-revolutionary leader Yuliya Tymoshenko and ultimately firing her from the post of prime minister, poorly managing the natural gas crisis with Russia, and failing to notice how his main rival, Viktor Yanukovych, was rehabilitating and modifying his image in preparation for the 2006 parliamentary election.

In the 2006 election, Yanukovych's party won the most seats, and after a post-election battle over government formation, Yanukovych became prime minister.
Yushchenko and Yanukovych have continued battling one another since that election, with Yanukovych pushing the envelope on prime ministerial powers. These political fights led Yushchenko to issue a decree (actually four of them) setting a date for early parliamentary elections. The constitutionality of this decision was questioned, but ultimately all of the sides agreed to hold a new election this fall.

The president's party, Our Ukraine, joined forces with ten other parties to form the Our Ukraine - People's Self-Defense Bloc. The latter group is the party of Yuriy Lutsenko, another prominent Orange revolutionary and (former) Interior Minister. Their main campaign pitch has been to clean up Ukrainian politics (their slogan is - "One Law for All"). However, Yanukovych's Party of Regions recently stole their thunder by having a parliamentary session that eliminated parliamentary immunity (one of the covers for improper behavior by elected officials). Although the session was deemed illegitimate by Yushchenko's side, the parliamentary decision allowed Yanukovych to take away some of this issue's power.

The party planned a big rally down the street from us in L'viv over a week ago. But, as the day approached, it got even bigger. Initially, the main speaker was going to be Lutsenko. On Friday, while strolling on the main square, we were given a flier announcing that the president would speak. On Saturday morning, we saw new posters placed overnight about a concert by Okean Elzi (a popular Ukrainian rock band fronted by a young activist, politician, and son of Ivan Franko National University's rector).

Erik went early to the rally to get a good spot. He settled in the crowd near the Shevchenko monument, just behind a military honor guard blocking a large path to the stage. Erik figured that he might get to see President Yushchenko close up in this spot. The rally began just after 7 p.m., and an enthusiastic crowd of thousands greeted the top candidates from the Our Ukraine-People's Self Defense Bloc. Some of the top candidates on the party's list spoke briefly, focusing on the main talking point: the fight against corruption.
A few storm clouds gathered overhead, but as the rally continued, a rainbow appeared (see the photo on the left). Erik pointed this out to an elderly gentleman standing next to him who said that this was a good sign. Lutsenko took the microphone and with a booming, scratchy baritone, worked up the crowd. He took direct swipes at Yanukovych and the parliamentary speaker, Oleksandr Moroz, and hit all of the party's main plans to strengthen the rule of law in Ukraine. The crowd ate up his speech, interrupting with applause on a couple of occasions and laughing loudly at his anti-Yanukovych barbs.

The president was delayed, and this put off the rally's pacing. Lutsenko took the mic again as the president approached and the crowd began chanting "Yushchenko! Yushchenko!" While the chants reminded Erik of the Orange Revolution (he was in Kyiv in late 2004 in the middle of the mass demonstration), they were not as enthusiastic. Yushchenko took the stage and began to speak. The crowd fell silent, showing respect for their president and his words (this reverence became clear when, at the end of the rally, a man next to Erik was reprimanded by the crowd for yelling "give Lutsenko the mic!" He was scolded with the words "the president is speaking!").

Yushchenko embarked on a long, fairly unfocused, policy speech that covered several issues. He talked about corruption, but also Ukraine's efforts to get into NATO and the EU, Ukrainian universities' efforts to comply with the Bologna Process, why the proportional representation electoral system is better than the mixed electoral system (a part of the speech Erik found quite interesting), poverty and the social and economic problems in Ukraine, and the need for change. Radical change, Yushchenko said, was necessary for Ukraine to be successful. Ukraine can only move forward, not backward. Toward the end of his speech, he promised to work with the other major reform-oriented party, the Bloc of Yuliya Tymoshenko (Lutsenko made this promise too). While this signals to voters that he does not plan to make a deal with Yanukovych, as has been rumored, it also provides voters an incentive to vote for Yuliya (who is arguably more popular here at the moment than Yushchenko).

The president and his party's candidates ended the rally by singing the national anthem of Ukraine, grasping hands above their heads and exiting to the applause of the crowd. The concert began immediately afterward with the opening act, Oleksandr Ponomaryov (pictured below), as the older people exited the square and the younger participants moved toward the stage.

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