A Preliminary Evaluation of the Recent Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections
In a recent meeting at the Kennan Institute, James Clem and Gretchen Birkle offered preliminary evaluations of the conduct of Ukraine's recent parliamentary elections. Both Clem and Birkle discussed the implications of the parliament's composition on the country's progress toward democratic reform. While both speakers cited examples that illustrate Ukraine's progress toward holding open elections, they agreed that discrepancies limited the overall fairness of the elections.
Birkle described the pre-election environment in Ukraine. For the first time in Ukrainian history, voters approached the election with a clear agenda. Birkle noted that early polls indicated that most voters were better informed about the elections and many felt strongly about policies for economic stability as well as the need for changes to the political system. According to pre-election polls, eight parties were seen as contenders to gain the 4 percent threshold necessary for a party seat in the parliament.
Birkle added, however, that media coverage of the different political parties was very biased. The connection of major media outlets to specific political groups and journalists' fear of repercussions limited the overall objectivity of the press coverage. Birkle also discussed several aspects of the recently passed election law that had a substantial effect on the overall election. For example, Article 20 of the election law allowed for party representatives to serve on district/polling commissions, however, many of the new commissioners we unable to complete necessary training before the election. Until these problems are addressed, Birkle argued, Ukrainian elections would not be open and fair.
Clem explained the final results of the election and the dramatic differences in those results on the party list ballot compared to the single member districts. The biased viewpoint of much of the media more effectively restrained the anti-presidential forces than provided support to pro-presidential parties. The advertising campaigns of the various political parties were vastly improved from prior elections. As an illustration, Clem showed television clips from a number of political parties. One commercial in particular, produced by the pro-presidential "For a United Ukraine" party, used various themes and motifs of Ukraine's history to evoke a sense of national identity. He argued that this attempt by the "party of power" to utilize Ukrainian national identity in a political campaign represented an important change in Ukrainian politics.
Clem concluded by offering several key observations. First, all of the major parties are poised for the presidential elections in 2004, although Yushchenko's party must do better in the major population centers in Eastern Ukraine. Second, the Communist Party lost a significant number of its seats in the Parliament and appears to be losing its influence with Ukrainian voters. Third, the results of the single member districts illustrate the need to closely monitor the government misuse of administrative resources in the campaign period. Finally, although affiliations with specific parties were split between geographic areas (Yushchenko's support in the West and Central regions, Communists and "For a United Ukraine" in the East and South), the policy agendas of the major factions in the parliament demonstrate a growing political consensus in Ukrainian politics.