Friday, February 12, 2010

The Winner in Ukraine? Democracy

Last Sunday Ukrainians went to the polls and helped Viktor Yanukovych pull off one of the greatest (and perhaps unlikeliest) comebacks in recent political history. Yanukovych defeated his rival, current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko by 3.5% to claim the country’s presidency. And while some have lamented the result as the apparent end of the Orange Revolution, it could just as easily be seen as a triumph for democracy in Ukraine. Here are four reasons why:

The elections were free and fair. Unlike Yanukovych’s ham-fisted attempts to rig the 2004 presidential - which sparked the pro-democracy uprising that came to be called the Orange Revolution in the first place - the 2010 vote was declared free and open by international observers. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe went so far as to call the election “high quality”, quite different from their recent assessment of elections in neighboring countries like Russia and Georgia. Going hand-in-hand with a fair and open election are the development of a free press and the allowance for public debate – two things that exist today in Ukraine, but in few other places in the former Soviet Union.

The result wasn’t pre-determined. Ukraine’s February 7 election was perhaps a first for a country that was once part of the Soviet Union in that no one knew who was going to win beforehand. Even in elections in the post-Soviet space that have been declared “fair” or at least “fair enough”, one party – usually the ruling party – is so dominant that no one actually believes they’re going to lose. But in Ukraine it really was a question as to who the winner would be: Yanukovych or Tymoshenko.

The election wasn’t based on personality.
Another persistent feature of politics in the post-Soviet world is that they’re often more influenced by a particular politician’s personal image than their actual platform (think of Russia’s Vladimir Putin). The gruff, bland Yanukovych though could never be thought of as being the center of a “cult of personality”. If anything, that is a description that does fit his opponent. Even Tymoshenko’s supporters can have a hard time pinning down what she truly believes; in her time as PM, Tymoshenko has gone from talking like a pro-Western Ukrainian nationalist, to advocating closer and warmer relations with Russia. Her political party feeds into the whole cult of personality idea – it’s called simply the “Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko” and its main platform is to support her policies. But in the end, Tymoshenko’s personal magnetism wasn’t enough to bring her a victory at the ballot box.

Finally, voters held their politicians accountable. In a democracy elections give the population a chance to hold their leaders accountable for their actions (or inactions). The results of the presidential election show that the Ukrainians have learned this lesson. In the heady days following the Orange Revolution, its two leaders, Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko promised to reform Ukraine and lead it into the 21st century. In reality European integration stalled, corruption increased, and the economy stagnated and then contracted (granted the global recession had a hand in that last one). Voters turned Yushchenko out in the first round of the election, giving him less than 6% of the vote; last Sunday they passed a similar verdict on the leadership of Yulia Tymoshenko.

Still, the political situation in Ukraine is tense with Tymoshenko continuing to threaten to challenge the results of the election alleging fraud in polling stations across the country. But Tymoshenko has yet to offer up any proof of widespread irregularities and the OSCE blessing of the vote undercuts her claims. Nor does she seem to be able to summon up “street power” – the ability to turn out tens or hundreds of thousands of supporters in mass public protests for her cause, despite her earlier threats to launch a “Second Orange Revolution” if she thought the vote was rigged, leaving her campaign to threaten to launch a series of legal challenges. Tymoshenko at this point is being urged to concede defeat, even by some of her most vocal Western backers; world leaders including President Obama and Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili have called Yanukovych with their congratulations on his victory.

The February 7 election shows that the people of Ukraine have learned some valuable lessons about democracy, hopefully PM Tymoshenko will learn them soon as well.
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