Ukraine Votes West, But What Next?

Fred Weir sums up the preliminary results of yesterday’s parliamentary election in Ukraine, where “the respective parties of President Petro Poroshenko and his ambitious prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, were the big winners, taking roughly 21 percent each”:

The results were a modest setback for Mr. Poroshenko, whose bloc held a commanding lead ahead of polling. He lauded the vote, noting that three-quarters of Ukrainians had endorsed Ukraine’s shift away from the Russian orbit and into Europe‘s. Preliminary results suggest that six parties cleared the 5 percent threshold to take up seats in Ukraine’s unicameral parliament. The liberal Self-Help party, based in western Ukraine and solidly pro-European, took around 11 percent. The ultra-nationalist bloc of Oleh Lyashko came in with just over 7 percent, and the party of fiery populist Yulia Tymoshenko got around 6 percent. One result that polls failed to predict was the surprising success of the east Ukraine-based Opposition Bloc, which pledged to defend the interests of east Ukrainians against Kiev‘s dictates. It received almost 10 percent of votes cast.

While this result represents a victory for pro-Western parties overall, as Weir mentions, it wasn’t the slam-dunk Poroshenko had hoped for, and it will require him to form a coalition with smaller parties and share power with Yatsenyuk, who is as much a rival to the president as he is a partner. For this and other reasons, Bershidsky cautions against getting too excited:

Yatsenyuk did better than expected and power-hungry Poroshenko did worse. That means the president suddenly has a political rival with more popular support than that of his own bloc — setting the two of them up for the kind of infighting that ruined Ukraine’s previous chance at economic and political revival 10 years ago.

Besides, Yatsenyuk, who will probably stay on as prime minister, has done nothing to demonstrate that he might have the stomach for the major spending cuts Ukraine needs, now that it faces a deficit of 10 percent to 15 percent of gross domestic product. A group of Western economists has recently called on the Kiev government to eliminate energy subsidies and shake up the pension system to reduce spending by 10 percent of GDP. After the obvious erosion of his support in the past six months, Poroshenko will be hesitant to allow this, and Yatsenyuk will be wary of jeopardizing his seemingly brilliant political prospects.

Emma Ashford isn’t quite ready to celebrate yet, either:

Until we know the final makeup of the new Rada, as well as which parties ultimately will form the coalition government, it’s difficult to assess how the results will impact the ongoing crisis. Many citizens in Crimea and the Donbas were indeed unable to vote, disenfranchising as much as 19% of the population. The overwhelmingly pro-Western nature of the parties elected may be a double-edged sword: it will be popular with Western politicians, but it is in part a reflection of the disenfranchisement of Eastern Ukraine, and will not be truly representative. Despite this, Russian leaders appear to have accepted the results, signaling, hopefully, a willingness to work with Kiev in the future. Whether any government will be able to tackle Ukraine’s myriad problems is unclear.

“Given these results,” Linda Kinstler predicts, “it will be difficult, but by no means impossible, for Poroshenko to begin to enact the reforms the Ukrainian people have been demanding for so long”:

A cadre of young activists, including former journalists Mustafa Nayyem, Sergey Leshchenko, and Svitlana Zalishchuk, are part of a new generation of politicians likely to secure seats in parliament; they helped drive the Maidan Revolution, and now they hope to carry out its aims, including changing the parliamentary system and eliminating diplomatic immunity. They have already encountered the corruption and shadiness endemic to Ukrainian politics, and have the stubbornness necessary to change it. Maybe they actually will: Sadovyi has already said that in exchange for joining Poroshenko’s coalition and giving the president the majority he badly needs, Samopomich will demand that Poroshenko awards ministerial posts to “the best industry experts” instead of to his “friends, acquaintances, and colleagues.”

Steven Pifer looks to the tasks ahead for the new Rada:

Once the coalition, prime minister and new cabinet are in place, they need to work with Mr. Poroshenko to tackle a daunting agenda of needed political and economic reforms, anti-corruption measures, overhaul of the judicial system and urgent changes to the energy sector. The distraction of the conflict in eastern Ukraine has absorbed most of Kyiv’s attention the past six months. Mr. Poroshenko also said that Ukraine needed a new parliament before it could undertake serious reforms. The president now has his new Rada. It is time to move. Urgent reforms are needed in the economic and energy sectors if Ukraine is to avoid becoming—some would say remaining—an economic basket case.

Previous coverage here.