Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 19
1 November 1999

Student protest poster
Student poster mocks the election as a 'theatre of absurdity'
A N A L Y S I S:
None of the Above
A dirty presidential election campaign in Ukraine
Sarah Whitmore

Ukraine's third presidential election offers twice as many candidates as the last one but even less choice. The campaign can scarcely be described as "free and fair," with official bias and harassment of the media being widely documented. Consequently, the campaign has had a deleterious effect on inter-branch relations, the economy and Ukraine's international reputation.

The presidential election is due to take place on 31 October under a majoritarian system, whereby, similar to Russia, the winning candidate is required to gain at least 50% of the vote or the two leading candidates will compete in a run-off a fortnight later. This system has produced political fragmentation, with 13 of the 15 registered candidates expected to remain in the race for the first round. The electoral system has given candidates with no chance of winning incentives to compete, ensuring that individual ambition will triumph over ideology and policy issues at least until the second round, when the winner-takes-all effect will encourage deal brokering.

Since March, the incumbent, Leonid Kuchma, has held a somewhat tenuous lead in opinion polls (20 to 43%) and was widely expected to be re-elected. First elected in 1994, Kuchma beat independent Ukraine's first president, Leonid Kravchuk, on a programme of closer ties with Russia, gradual economic reform, more regional autonomy and recognition of Russian as the second state language. While such issues remain important, they have been largely overshadowed by Ukraine's dismal economic performance over the past five years. In 1994, Kuchma complained that the incumbent had enjoyed privileged access to the media. By 1999, the boot was firmly on the other foot.

The 1999 campaign was much dirtier than its 1994 predecessor, perhaps because since Kuchma shored up its institutional power, the presidency has become more important, although this was not fully reflected in the 1996 Constitution. Now, the presidency clearly represents the ultimate prize in Ukrainian politics, and this type of zero-sum game is likely to increase campaign friction. However, this represents only one part of a possible explanation for the increased incidence of foul play at the top. If in 1994 the campaign was, to a certain extent, about the survival of Ukrainian statehood, then in 1999 it could be interpreted to be about the survival of a regime. A nexus of state officials and businessmen holding the highest political, administrative and economic positions have a strong vested interest in the re-election of Kuchma. In this respect, parallels with the position of Boris Yeltsin in 1996 can be drawn.

Candidates and campaign strategies

Like in the case of Yeltsin in 1996, when planning the campaign, Kuchma's team was scarcely in a position to emphasise the incumbent's successes over the past five years. GDP consistently declined, corruption and cronyism at the top were perceived as rife and reforms had stalled. Therefore, the presidential team's tactic was to follow Yeltsin's successful strategy: to present Kuchma as a cautious, centrist reformer, playing to the electorate's supposed conservatism by emphasising stability. The key weapon was the scare tactic, that is, framing the campaign as a choice between stability and peace (Kuchma) and a "red revanchist," hardline Communist. This was hammered home by dominating the media and other heavy-handed methods.

Of the remaining 14 candidates who were registered, only four consistently gained more than 5% in opinion polls, of which three belonged to the left of the political spectrum. Pro-reform centre-right candidates stood little chance of making an electoral impression, particularly as most parties of that orientation backed Kuchma through his "Zlahoda" (Accord) and "Our Choice - Leonid Kuchma" electoral coalitions. Some of the parties backing Kuchma nominated their own candidates in the first round to raise their own profile. In fact, the reformist camp was deeply divided over whether to support Kuchma, and four of the largest parties (Rukh, People's Democratic Party, Hromada and the United Social Democratic Party) split over this issue. Consequently, there was no real contender to the right of Kuchma. The one who came closest was former security chief and ex-Premier Yevhen Marchuk, whom opinion polls ranked sixth, with only 5-7%.

Although polls indicated that together they could command over 40% of the vote, the left remained bitterly divided. Its main candidates are listed with the most reactionary first. Natalia Vitrenko, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, was dubbed "Zhirinovskiy in a skirt" by the press, although her orientation is neo-Bolshevik. Pledging to sever links with the IMF and bring back nuclear weapons, Vitrenko consistently held second place to Kuchma in opinion polls. The wide media coverage given to her campaign, coupled with the fact that her parliamentary faction regularly votes according to the presidential line, led to suspicions that she was an establishment stooge to split the left. A grenade attack at the beginning of October left her unharmed and boosted her popularity. For Kuchma, she would make the ideal "revanchist" to face him in the second round, but Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko would do just as well. His platform is broadly similar to Vitrenko's, but despite a much larger party machine, he lagged behind her in the polls. Both eschewed all overtures for electoral alliances.

Parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko, the conservative leader of the Peasant Party, failed to attract much support (2 to 4%) despite using the Parliament's rostrum to campaign. Rumours about his involvement in the embezzlement of government funds did not help. A much stronger contender was Oleksandr Moroz, former parliamentary speaker and leader of the Socialist Party who moved toward the moderate left. He generally came fourth in opinion polls (8 to 12%) and was seen as untouched by corruption and therefore as the only person capable of beating Kuchma in the second round - if he could only make it that far. The chances of this happening were temporarily increased by an election alliance with Marchuk, Tkachenko and virtual unknown Oliynyk. Dubbed the "Kaniv-4," they announced they would co-operate and announce a single candidate just before the election.

This co-operation could be seen as a sign of growing political maturity, as the winner-takes-all nature of presidentialism created incentives to narrow the field and increase the (previously very slim) chance of one of them getting to the second round. However, with quite different programmes it would have been very difficult to transfer their collective votes to the chosen single candidate. The fact that this represented Kuchma's nightmare scenario - the possibility of a united-left candidate - was illustrated by the number of media attacks on the "Kaniv-4," compared to Vitrenko and Symonenko. However, overtures to the latter proved fruitless and gradually the alliance disintegrated. Moroz's popularity fell following police accusations that his team was connected with the grenade attack on Vitrenko, which also prompted further conspiracy theories. Tkachenko eventually withdrew in favour of Communist Symonenko. The essence of the alliance was summarised by Marchuk: co-operation was possible while each candidate was sure that he would be the single candidate. The collapse of the "Kaniv-4" meant that the probability of Kuchma's preferred "Yeltsin '96 scenario" of facing a hardline leftist candidate (that is, Vitrenko or Symonenko) was significantly increased.

Dirty tricks

Despite statutory guarantees of equal access to the media for all candidates and advances in the development of independent media in Ukraine, the year preceding the election was a step backwards judged by any criteria. The extent of the incumbent's tightened grip on the media was indicated by the US-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists' naming of Kuchma as the world's sixth worst press enemy in spring 1999. In addition to dominating the pro-Kuchma press and TV (which represented a substantial proportion of all media), government agencies subjected independent media to routine official harassment.

Opposition newspapers such as Den received multiple tax inspections. Pravda Ukrainy and Kievskiye Vedomosti had their assets frozen and were forced to suspend publication. In the case of the latter, it was subsequently bought by oligarch and close Kuchma ally Hryhory Surkis and brought in line. Several TV channels had their licences revoked and were forced to close down. The nation-wide independent TV channel STB, which vowed to give all candidates equal airtime and refused to back any one candidate, endured regular hostile bureaucratic scrutiny by several different government agencies and had its bank account frozen.

The independent media were hounded and dominated by the pro-Kuchma team in violation of statutory provisions, including those forbidding government officials from participating in the campaign. Individual candidates' campaign teams (particularly Moroz's) also complained about the violation of their rights by official bodies. This went beyond obstructing access to the media and included means such as distributing false leaflets and intimidation.

All this has inevitably taken its toll upon public trust. Polls taken in September suggested that more than 70% of those polled expected the election results to be falsified to some extent, providing still further evidence of the deleterious effect of the dirty campaign on Ukraine's self image. To counter the possibility of vote rigging, 12 candidates organised their own count, monitored by the parliamentary Fair Elections Commission. This step could perhaps also be interpreted as pointing to an institutional fissure aggravated by the presidential elections.

The campaign's wider impact

Since the parliamentary elections in March 1998, which produced no overall majority, the impending presidential election has proved distracting to the work of the parliament. 12 of the 15 registered candidates were peoples' deputies (of the remaining three, two are virtual unknowns, the other is the President) and included the parliament's speaker, Tkachenko. The existence of an institutional divide between the incumbent and his main rivals gave Kuchma additional incentive to try to discredit Parliament and thereby discredit the other candidates. Therefore, the presidential election campaign became embroiled in the larger, long-standing power struggle between the President and the Parliament. The failure of the 1996 Constitution to clarify the separation of powers, coupled with Parliament's inability to form a working majority, resulted in extended inter-branch discord and impasse. The president-parliament struggle and the electoral campaign became further entwined when state TV and radio broadcasting of parliamentary sessions was suspended, again restricting Kuchma's rivals' media access. In seeking to damage the (already tarnished) public image of Parliament, the President hoped to gain the upper hand permanently and announced plans to hold a referendum on the creation of a bicameral assembly and constitutional changes if he is re-elected.

The impending election campaign also had a negative effect on the economy. Since July, the value of the hryvnya has been falling. This was possibly a result of government attempts to reduce wage and pension arrears before the election, which could have increased the money supply, despite official claims to the contrary. Share prices also slipped in October, while foreign investment in 1999 fell to half its 1998 level. Although hardly confidence building, these indicators should be attributed to electoral uncertainty and, barring the victory of a "red revanchist," not seen as long-term trends.

The dirtiness of the campaign adversely affected Ukraine's international image. International bodies such as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) reported that the campaign was not free and fair. US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott expressed concern about government pressure on the media and tactfully avoided indicating a candidate preference, in contrast to the US government's unambiguous support of Yeltsin in 1996. Free and fair elections are seen as one of the most basic prerequisites for a democratic polity. The incumbent's campaign tactics tarnished the reputation of the country in this respect.

So, who will win?

It is unlikely to be the electorate. To a significant degree, the widespread apathy can be attributed to the lack of choice. Only one or two candidates are perceived as capable of beating Kuchma, and they are seen as even less attractive prospects. It seems probable that Kuchma will get his "Yeltsin '96" scenario and face Vitrenko or Symonenko in the second round, presuming he is unable to win outright in the first. As pro-reform parliamentary deputy Oleksandr Lavrynovych put it, "It's a choice between the death penalty and a serious illness."

Sarah Whitmore, October 28 1999



This week's theme Refugees and Migration

A New Europe Deserves a New Asylum Policy

Asylum in Hungary

Life in a Czech Refugee Camp

Roma Leaving

Hungary's '56ers


Jan Culik:
Czech Communists Back on Top

Sam Vaknin:
The Myth of Greater Albania (part 3)

Vaclav Pinkava:
Czech Saint Turned on His Head


Interview with Marta Meszaros


Readers' Choice:
The most popular article last week



Hungary's Most Wanted Man Finally Captured

Czech Lustration


EU Hopes


Poland's Moved and Missing


(Baltic news on holiday)


Frana Sramek's Leto on Stage

Central European
Culture in the UK

Cultural Round-up from Poland


Book Shop


Rock Estonian Style

Music Shop

Receive Central Europe Review
free via e-mail
every week.


Copyright (c) 1999 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved