The "dangers of what will happen during Ukraine's presidential elections are very great," according to Taras Kuzio, Resident Fellow, Centre for Russian and East European Studies, and Adjunct Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto. At an 18 December 2003 Kennan Institute seminar, Kuzio, along with Rostyslav Pavlenko, Director of Programs, School for Policy Analysis, University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and Paul D'Anieri, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, and Director, Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Kansas, discussed recent political developments in Ukraine related to the upcoming presidential elections in October and how they might affect the country's future.
The 2004 elections will be important, according to Pavlenko, because "for the first time since independence, there is a clear chance that the incumbent party will be forced to go into opposition." Current president Leonid Kuchma is required by the constitution to step down at the end of his term, and it is not clear that his supporters could put forward a candidate capable of defeating popular opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. All three speakers agreed that many people within the current ruling elite are fearful of a Yushchenko victory and are engaged in various political schemes that may cancel elections or give the parliament the power to elect the president. If these schemes are successful, they could have disastrous consequences for Ukraine's political development and its status in the international community.
Pavlenko provided an explanation of the methods Kuchma's supporters are using to prevent a Yushchenko victory. A group of 50 pro-presidential parliamentary deputies submitted an inquiry to the Constitutional Court asking if Kuchma could run for a third term as president, and the court responded that he could. However, Pavlenko noted that Kuchma himself appears not to want another term and instead has come out in support of changing the constitution to allow the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) to elect the president. A proposal to this effect has already been approved by the Constitutional Court, but Pavlenko believes that there are political obstacles that may prevent its being approved by the Verkhovna Rada. "The pro-presidential majority has to unite with the Independents and the Communists to have the 2/3 majority necessary to change the constitution. The Communists have shown their intention to comply, but under one condition—the institution of a purely proportional representation system for parliamentary elections," he said.
According to Pavlenko, Kuchma's supporters will not have the time to choose a candidate capable of defeating Yushchenko if the constitutional change fails. D'Anieri disagreed, saying that a candidate with support in Eastern Ukraine—such as current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych—could defeat Yushchenko even if the elections are free and fair. He argued that Yushchenko would likely receive a plurality but not a majority in the first round of elections, making a second round necessary. He noted that survey data show that although Yushchenko has a strong support base, especially in Western Ukraine, "a huge amount of voters are undecided now, or are supporting candidates who are unlikely to make it through to the second round." Many of these undecided votes are in the East, and D'Anieri believes that if Yushchenko runs against Yanukovych in the second round, most of these votes will go to Yanukovych.
D'Anieri argued that the ruling elite's focus on preventing the elections demonstrates that "the oligarchs are almost as afraid of each other as they are afraid of Yushchenko." Kuzio supported this idea, saying "attempts to change the constitution are as much attempts to deal with a Yushchenko victory as to deal with a Yanukovych victory." He argued that Kuchma, rather than creating a unified party of power, used divide-and-rule tactics to control several competing clans. The clans, according to Kuzio, have not agreed on a successor to Kuchma and therefore do not want to face the uncertain outcomes of a democratic election. Both Kuzio and D'Anieri noted that Yushchenko's best hope for winning the election is that some clans would rather see him as president than a rival clan leader.
All three speakers agreed that if Kuchma wins a third term, or if through some form of political maneuvering the elections are not held as scheduled, it will be a tremendous blow for democracy in Ukraine. Kuzio argued that this election is important to the people of Ukraine, who do not want to lose their right to vote for president, and also important to the international community. D'Anieri agreed that these elections will have important consequences for Ukraine's place in the world. If Ukraine turns away from democracy it "will very much be left with Russia to deal with, because Western Europe and the United States will be dealing with it only on a very superficial level. I think that's hugely important for the future of Europe," he said.