Among the political goals announced by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is a plan to unify the political parties that comprise the “Our Ukraine” bloc into a single political party (Ukrayinska pravda, February 13). Yushchenko signed a “declaration of principles” regarding a new Our Ukraine party (Ukrayinska pravda, January 21, February 2). Besides the Our Ukraine members, the declaration was also aimed at the Center parliamentary faction that broke away from the pro-Leonid Kuchma parliamentary majority in spring 2004.
Roman Bezsmertny, the man assigned to organize an Our Ukraine party, has been skeptical that there will be sufficient interest in merging independent groups into a single party. Bezsmertny also strained his relations with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko when he asked her to step down as head of her own Fatherland Party after entering government (razom.org.ua, January 25).
The idea of creating a unified pro-Yushchenko party is nothing new. It originally surfaced in 2000 when Yushchenko was prime minister, but few national democratic parties would agree to a merger. Zerkalo nedeli (January 29) believes the problem lies in the fact that each party inside Our Ukraine wants to become the nucleus of the future unified party. Already parties are maneuvering for that position.
Yuriy Kostenko acted first by renaming his wing of Rukh as the Ukrainian People’s Party (UNP), an attempt at imitating the European People’s Party, of which Our Ukraine is an associate member. The European People’s Party unites center-right conservative and Christian democratic parties in the European Parliament (razom.org.ua, January 28).
Next, the Reforms and Order Party, led by Finance Minister Viktor Pynzenyk, changed its name to “Our Ukraine,” infuriating other members of the bloc.
Any unified Our Ukraine political party is likely to be more liberal in its orientation than the traditionally national-democratic orientation of Rukh. The Our Ukraine bloc includes the centrist Solidarity Party, led by Petro Poroshenko, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, and the Razom group led by Deputy Prime Minister Oleh Rybachuk. Yushchenko clearly favors Razom and Solidarity, as they obtained the largest number of government positions and regional governor positions.
Yushchenko’s revived interest in unifying the parties in Our Ukraine is twofold.
First, a unified pro-presidential party would support his democratic and economic reforms. While supporting unification, Yushchenko himself has never expressed an interest in leading such a party. Former president Leonid Kuchma failed to create a pro-presidential “party of power” during his ten years in office. An attempt to transform the People’s Democratic Party into a party of power after the 1998 elections when its leader, Valeriy Pustovoitenko, was prime minister, proved disastrous.
Second, Yushchenko wants to have a unified party in place for the March 2006 parliamentary elections, the first to be held using a fully proportional election law. Under the mixed system used in 1998 and 2002, only half of the seats were elected proportionally, with a four percent threshold required. The remaining seats were based on a majority vote in single-mandate districts.
The new election law has a compromise three percent threshold, which was lowered to assuage the fears of the centrist camp, which traditionally had performed better in single mandate districts. There are plans to raise the threshold to five percent, which is the norm in other proportional systems.
Meanwhile, the political parties in the pro-Yushchenko camp are reluctant to unify. If anything the opposite could be take place.
Kostenko, of the Ukrainian People’s Party (UNP), warns that Our Ukraine, which was created as a bloc for the 2002 elections and still has the largest parliamentary faction with 101 deputies, may disintegrate (Lvivska gazeta, February 14). He argues that Our Ukraine has fulfilled its purpose by polling first in the 2002 elections and propelling Yushchenko into power.
Kostenko’s party is one of two offshoots from Rukh, the main political force that mobilized support for state independence in 1988-91. Both Kostenko’s UNP and Rukh, led by Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, have stated their unwillingness to merge into any new Our Ukraine political party. Instead, Kostenko has called for the creation of a center-right bloc of two or three parties to campaign for the 2006 elections. But, his plans may be thwarted by two factors.
First, Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn has successfully changed the name of his own People’s Agrarian Party to the People’s Party (UT-1, February 11). The new name is very similar to Kostenko’s UNP and will inevitably confuse voters.
Second, there is already a “rightist” bloc led by Prime Minister Tymoshenko. The “Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc” includes her own Fatherland Party, the Ukrainian Republican Party “Sobor,” and several less well-known parties. Kostenko’s UNP feels more at home in Tymoshenko’s bloc than in Our Ukraine.
Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party grew out of discredited Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko’s Hromada, the first and only dissident oligarch party. Fatherland then merged in 2002 with Stepan Khmara’s Conservative Republican Party. The liberal Yabluko party, led by Mikhail Brodsky, caters to Russophone leaders of small- and medium-sized businesses and is also planning to merge with Fatherland (maidan.org.ua, February 14).
Tymoshenko may actually have the best credentials for creating a unified party. Fatherland is far better organized than any of the political parties inside Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine, itself a testimony to Tymoshenko’s organizational skills. Her position will be further enhanced in September, when constitutional reforms will increase the role of parliament and government at the expense of the executive.