Milana Nikolko is Adjunct Professor at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University and Professor of Politics at the V.I. Vernadsky University in Simferopol, Ukraine. David Carment is a fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal at Carleton University.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s announcement of snap parliamentary elections to be held Oct. 26 is hardly surprising but is significant. As soon as Mr. Poroshenko was elected in May 2014, he spoke of the need for renewal in the the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. By doing so, Mr. Poroshenko is attempting to consolidate his power by bringing to an end the influence that political leaders Victor Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko have had on Ukrainian politics over the past decade. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, Mr. Yanukovych’s Party of Regions held the dominant position with over 34 per cent of the popular votes. Longstanding opposition leader Ms. Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party held close to 31 per cent.
Since then, the Ukraine crisis has dramatically changed the country’s political landscape. Mr. Yanukovych was ousted by his parliament and fled the country last winter, and disoriented MPs from his Party of Regions continued their search for a new leader. Despite her release from prison, Ms. Tymoshenko remains hobbled in her political activities and largely discredited as a significant player on the Ukrainian political scene. The other smaller parties, such as the Communist “dinosaurs,” are about to disappear. On June 24, 2014 the Communist faction of the Ukrainian Parliament was dissolved.
While the benefits to taking advantage of a weakened and divided opposition are apparent, there are also risks for Mr. Poroshenko in calling an election so soon. On the one hand, he does not yet have all his allies firmed up within the faction of parliament that is willing to support his Solidarity party. On the other hand, any further losses in eastern Ukraine could translate into stronger representation for smaller right-wing and nationalist parties including Svoboda and Oleg Lyashko’s Radical party. Mr. Lyashko came third in this year’s presidential elections and has been uncompromising in his stance towards the Russian-backed separatists. His base of support in Kiev among Ukrainian nationals according to some polls stands as high as 22 per cent. The net result, come election day, could be a weaker more divided parliament, a president who lacks a firm political mandate and increasing radicalism among its bloc of right-wing parliamentarians.
Timing is crucial for Mr. Poroshenko. Had he announced the election in May or June he would not have had enough support among Ukraine’s political elites and oligarchs. Further, Mr. Poroshenko was still a relative unknown to many of the electorate and the situation in the eastern part of Ukraine was far from being under control.
By the end of July, however, President Poroshenko had gained international support for his management of the crisis, in particular his response to the downing of the Malaysian Airlines jet, and has been boosted by further sanctions from the West against Russia. Ukraine’s army building on some positive results in its operations against separatists has, since July, narrowed their influence in key cities and has taken control of more territory in the East. However the fighting is unlikely to end soon. Citizens of both Luhansk and Donetsk now face a humanitarian disaster because of heavy bombardment. Should civilian deaths continue to rise as many predict, the president will surely start to lose electoral support among many moderates across Ukraine.
More recently, facing pressure from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is desperate to see Ukraine-Russia relations return to normal, Mr. Poroshenko has initiated negotiations with the separatists on questions of decentralization. Those negotiations are set to take place around the same time the president meets with Vladimir Putin to discuss an end to the conflict. This week’s expansion of the Russian-backed separatist’s claims to territory will change all that of course, as rebels now appear poised to create a land bridge between Crimea and eastern Ukraine. President Poroshenko is clearly trying to make the best of a very bad situation. Whether his gamble to hold early elections will succeed or not depends on a number of factors beyond his control, not the least of which is an unstable and uncertain future for Ukraine’s major political parties in the face of unending war in eastern Ukraine.