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Monday, February 15, 2010

Ukraine's 2010 presidential election: another power struggle to follow?

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

It's official now: Ukraine's former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the pro-Russian Party of Regions, was declared elected President by the former Soviet republic's Central Election Commission on Sunday. Yanukovych prevailed over Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko by a relatively narrow but nonetheless clear margin of just under three-and-a-half percentage points in a runoff election held last February 7; detailed results are available in Ukrainian at the Commission's website and in English at Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in Ukraine.

As previously noted on Ukraine holds an early parliamentary election, Yanukovych ran for the presidency in 2004, and was initially declared the winner over pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko in a highly irregular runoff election. However, the attempted election fraud triggered massive protests in Kiev, which came to be known as the "Orange Revolution" (after Yushchenko's campaign color); in due course, the runoff election results were invalidated, and in a repeat runoff vote Yushchenko prevailed over Yanukovych.

Nevertheless, the past five years have been characterized by a seemingly endless power struggle between President Yushchenko and his successive prime ministers, most notably among them erstwhile Orange Revolution ally Yulia Tymoshenko (who served as Ukraine's head of government in 2005 and again since 2007) and Yanukovych himself (who held office from 2006 to 2007). Beyond free and fair elections and a free press, little else has been accomplished, and Ukrainian voters have become disenchanted with the Orange Revolution politicians - especially President Yushchenko, who ran for re-election but was eliminated in the first round of voting last January 17, coming in an ignominious fifth place with only 5.5% of the vote. To be certain, Mrs. Tymoshenko did much better than expected in both rounds of voting, but in the end the economic legacy of her government - which presided over a severe 15% contraction of the Ukrainian economy last year, in the wake of the global economic crisis - proved too much to overcome.

Although international election observers have praised the conduct of this year's presidential election, Yulia Tymoshenko stubbornly refuses to recognize Viktor Yanukovych as the legitimately elected president: to the dismay of the Western powers, she insists the election was rigged to the tune of million votes - a figure large enough to overturn the official result - and has challenged the election results in court. In fact, Mrs. Tymoshenko's eponymous political bloc has demanded recounts in several eastern regions, even though an analysis of the runoff vote results shows the election was decided not in the east, but in the west.

Since the attainment of independence in 1991, Ukrainian politics have been characterized by a sharp East-West divide: eastern and southern Ukraine are strongly pro-Russian, while the country's western and central regions are just as staunchly nationalist and pro-West. This was the case as well in the 2010 presidential election, as illustrated by the first round and runoff election maps, courtesy of Serhij Vasylchenko:

In the east and the south, Yanukovych swept with 76.9%, while in western and central Ukraine he polled just 23.8%. However, relative to the 2004 repeat runoff election, Yanukovych's share of the vote in the East rose by only 0.5%, whereas in the West he registered a sizable 8.2% increase. Likewise, Yulia Tymoshenko's 17.8% share of the vote in the eastern and southern regions was just slightly smaller than the 19.2% scored by Viktor Yushchenko five years earlier; in some regions where she is demanding a recount, such as Crimea, she actually had a better result than Yushchenko in the repeat runoff. However, the 70.4% of the vote she polled in western and central Ukraine stood well below the 81.1% won by Yushchenko in 2004.

Moreover, regional differences in voter turnout decline may have also helped Yanukovych, if only slightly. In eastern and southern Ukraine, turnout in the 2010 runoff election fell by 7.2%, to 69.4%, while in the western and central regions turnout declined by nine percentage points, to 69.6% (the overall turnout rate stood at 68.8% because only 10.3% of the expatriate voters - whose votes are tallied separately from those cast in Ukraine proper - bothered to take part in the runoff election).

In addition, a record 4.4% of voters cast ballots against all candidates in the runoff election - twice as many as in the first round, and nearly double the figure in the 2004 repeat runoff; as a result, Viktor Yanukovych will become the first president of Ukraine to win office without an absolute majority. Interestingly, the 2.2% increase between rounds in the number of votes against all candidates correlates strongly with the share of the vote for independent businessman Serhiy Tihipko, who came in third place in the first round; there is no significant correlation with the first round vote for President Yushchenko, who called for a vote against all in the recently-held runoff.

Beyond refusing to concede defeat, Yulia Tymoshenko has made it clear that she has no intention to comply with President-elect Yanukovych's request to submit her resignation as prime minister. While her refusal to step down will trigger a vote of no-confidence in Parliament - which she is expected to lose - Mrs. Tymoshenko will nonetheless remain as caretaker head of government until a parliamentary majority coalition nominates a replacement. No single party commands a majority in Ukraine's unicameral Parliament, the Supreme Council, and negotiations leading to the formation of a new government could take weeks, if not months - assuming a new government can be formed at all without having to call an early parliamentary election. As such, Ukraine - which is in desperate need of political stability to deal with its struggling economy - may be in for yet another protracted power struggle.