Ukraine’s parliament closed on Friday, June 15, after a tense two-month crisis. This was a success for Yulia Tymoshenko and her eponymous bloc (BYuT), who were the only political forces consistently calling for early elections since the collapse of the Orange coalition last year. On April 2 President Viktor Yushchenko followed suit, disbanding parliament and calling for early parliamentary elections later that same month.
BYuT has come out on top in Ukraine’s spring 2007 political crisis. Tymoshenko could again become prime minister if Orange forces win the September 30 parliamentary elections. And if not this year, she could set her eye on the 2009 elections.
Recent developments suggest that Tymoshenko’s political fortunes are on the upswing. After only eight months Tymoshenko lost the prime minister’s post in September 2005 when corruption allegations surfaced against the president’s business entourage. Yushchenko then dismissed the government, a right he had under the 1996 constitution but does not have under the 2006 version. The move had two strategic consequences for his political allies.
First, the Orange camp fractured for 18 months. Our Ukraine and BYuT did not reunite until February 24, 2007. Oleksandr Moroz’s Socialists and Anatoliy Kinakh’s Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, both of whom had defected to Yushchenko in the second round of the 2004 presidential elections, had supported two Orange governments in 2005-2006/7 but moved to the Anti-Crisis coalition of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in 2006-2007.
Second, the Orange split permitted Yanukovych and his Party of Regions to revive their fortunes. In the seven months between the September 2005 cabinet crisis and the March 2006 parliamentary elections, the Party of Regions effectively doubled its popular support.
The Party of Regions placed first in the 2006 elections, and likely will do so again in September, but it cannot count on a landslide, especially in western-central Ukraine, where there is a greater degree of political competition with no dominant political force. Tymoshenko is steadily gaining ground across the country.
BYuT is seeking to use the 2007 elections to dent the popularity of the Party of Regions in its eastern-southern Ukrainian stronghold. Most members of the Party of Regions live in eastern (62%) and southern (21%) Ukraine, but in the 2006 elections BYuT placed second in every region of eastern-southern Ukraine except the two Donbas oblasts, the Crimean autonomous republic, and the city of Sevastopol.
Polls have consistently put BYuT in second place nationally, making it the leading Orange political force. Between the 2002 and 2006 elections BYuT tripled its support from 7.26% to 22.29%, while Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine declined from 23.57% to 13.95%.
Part of this growth is due to disillusionment with President Yushchenko, which led to a large defection of Orange voters from Our Ukraine to BYuT and changed the configuration of national democratic forces. Our Ukraine has recovered some since 2006, and now includes the Yuriy Lutsenko People’s Self Defense group (focusing on the youth vote) and Ukrainian Rightists (based largely on the two wings of Rukh) among its members. However, Our Ukraine’s expanded bloc still is unlikely to dent BYuT’s leadership of the Orange camp.
Since the 2002 and 2004 elections Tymoshenko has successfully improved her public image. Prior to the 2002 and 2004 elections, Tymoshenko’s ratings had been influenced by her time as president of United Energy Systems (1995-97) and political alliance with disgraced prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko’s Hromada (1998-99). Both made Tymoshenko seem an ally of business.
But to become prime minister, Tymoshenko must first win the 2007 elections. She and Yushchenko realize that the September election will be close. Polls suggest that neither the Blue (Party of Region) or Orange camp will score a landslide victory. Instead, each faction is likely to win somewhere around 45-55%. Therefore, they need to fight for every percentage vote. The number of votes wasted on parties that will fail to cross the 3 percent threshold will leave a large number to be distributed among the four leading political forces.
They must also tame the rivalry within the Orange camp. In the 2006 elections the Orange camp won, but it took three months to pick an acceptable prime minister and parliamentary speaker. Yushchenko and Our Ukraine refused to adhere to the pre-election agreement that the Orange party that placed first would receive the prime minister’s position. Our Ukraine also refused to back Moroz for speaker, causing the Socialist Party’s defection. This gave the Party of Regions and the Communists enough votes to establish the Anti-Crisis coalition and a parliamentary majority.
This split is less likely today. The national democratic wing of Our Ukraine now dominates its leadership. Our Ukraine leader Vyacheslav Kyrylenko and Lutsenko have ruled out a coalition with the Party of Regions. (In 2006 Our Ukraine, then controlled by its business wing, sought a grand coalition with the Party of Regions). In an interview with Izvestiya in Ukraine, Tymoshenko repeated her stance that BYuT would either be in a “democratic coalition” with Our Ukraine or in opposition. Yushchenko has also stated his support for a “democratic coalition.”
The 2007 elections will likely return Tymoshenko to head the government if the two remaining Orange forces win a majority of seats and, as is likely, BYuT comes first among the orange camp. If the Party of Regions and Communists win a majority, Tymoshenko will head the opposition, giving her a launching pad for the 2009 elections. Either way, she is poised to again be a major force in Ukrainian politics.
(press survey based on www.byut.com.ua; www.tymoshenko.com.ua; Ukrayinska pravda; Natsionalna Bezpeka i Oborona, no. 10, 2005; Politchniy Portret Ukrayiny, no. 33, 2005; Izvestiya v Ukraine, June 1)