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Journal of Democracy 13.4 (2002) 157-166

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Post-Election Blues in Ukraine

Nadia Diuk and Myroslava Gongadze


When Ukrainians went to the polls to vote in parliamentary elections on 31 March 2002, they were choosing the membership of a political institution that is distinctive in the post-Soviet context. Ukraine's 450-seat unicameral legislature, the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council), is the only national assembly outside the Baltic states and Georgia where representatives from all the major political forces in the country can consistently express their views and even pass or delay important legislation from time to time. It is one of the few governmental institutions of any kind in the region that has not been completely taken over by the country's president, where some notion of the need to check executive power still survives, and where real discussions take place about different political approaches to national problems.

For these reasons—and despite the country's (accurate) classification by experts as a "superpresidential" regime—parliamentary elections in Ukraine typically feature vigorous electioneering, high turnout, and active participation by all political forces, including groups drawn from civil society. The 2002 elections were no exception: Turnout reached over 60 percent among the country's 38 million registered voters. Civil society organizations were more active than ever before, with several coordinating their efforts and issuing an appeal as early as July 2001 in which they called on politicians, journalists, and activists to promote freedom and fairness in the upcoming elections. In addition to monitoring campaigning in the districts and providing an army of trained poll watchers on election day, NGOs helped voters to overcome gaps and [End Page 157] distortions in official media coverage and to learn more about various candidates and parties. The 2002 campaign was probably the most expensive and hard-fought of the three parliamentary elections that Ukraine has seen since it became independent in 1991. In addition to setting a record in money spent, the elections also featured the strongest performance ever by prodemocratic parties, the leading group of which (ex-premier Viktor Yushchenko's "Our Ukraine" coalition) won nearly a quarter of the vote on the proportional side of the ballot from which half the 450 seats are filled. (The other half are filled by first-past-the-post contests in single-member districts.)

Despite all the public interest and the encouraging election-night results, however, the larger story of the 2002 voting is an instructive if frustrating example of how, in a country where semi-authoritarianism coexists with vibrant elements of a nascent civil society, a genuine election can leave the victors with few institutional means to exercise the mandate that the voters have given to them. For the overbearing executive branch that dominates post-Soviet Ukraine under President Leonid Kuchma not only uses its control over official media and state resources to try and shape electoral outcomes before the fact, but has now also shown itself willing to undermine the outcome of an election whose verdict it does not like. The authorities had been accustomed to influencing election outcomes successfully through pre-election coercion, bribery, and persuasion; through stratagems on election day itself; or else through control over the vote-counting. This time, however, they found these tried and tested methods somewhat risky given the international attention focused on this election and the increasing sophistication of the civil society organizations that were pushing for an honest and transparent process. Therefore, the propresidential forces found it all the more crucial to secure the levers of power within the Rada, outmaneuvering their opponents who, though in the majority, were unprepared to cope with hardball tactics.

According to the Central Election Commission's official results, six parties or blocs of parties surpassed the 4 percent threshold needed to qualify for seats in the Rada (exact figures appear in the Table on the facing page). As noted above, "Our Ukraine" headed the proportional list with 24 percent of the vote. The Communist Party—hardly prodemocratic, yet classifiable as an antipresidential formation—came in second with just under 20...


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