The 2014 snap elections to the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) that took place on Oct. 26, 2014 will likely go down in history as a watershed election in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history. For the first time, instead of a closely divided legislature with pro-Russian and pro-European parties nearly equally matched, the October 2014 election produced a parliament where pro-European parties will hold a dominant majority. With 97.83 percent of the votes counted, six parties cleared the 5 percent threshold: People’s Front (22.17 percent), Petro Poroshenko’s Block (21.82 percent), Samopomich (11.01 percent), Opposition Block (9.35 percent), Radical Party of Oleh Liashko (7.44 percent), and Batkivshchyna (5.68 percent). Of the six, only the Opposition Block, composed primarily of member of the rump Party of Regions of the former president Victor Yanukovych, can be termed as pro-Russian. Two other pro-Russian parties that had a chance to enter the parliament – the Communist Party of Ukraine and Strong Ukraine headed by Serhiy Tyhypko, a former banker and one-time deputy chairman of the Party of Regions – did not clear the threshold securing, 3.09 percent and 3.86 percent, respectively.
As a result of the fact that the elections were conducted using a mixed electoral system, with 50 percent of seats filled by proportional representation based on the party list vote and 50 percent in single-member district races, the pro-Russian caucus in the Rada will be larger than the share of seats secured by the Opposition Block. Some of the Opposition Block candidates won in the single-member districts in the east and the south, and some of the nominally independent candidates will also join the Opposition Block caucus in the Rada. According to one calculation, out of some 100 independents who as of the current count got elected in their districts, as many as 81 may join the Opposition Block caucus, which will put the size of the Opposition Block caucus at 112 in the legislature that will have 423 members. The implications of this dramatic shift in the Ukrainian parliamentary landscape are profound. For one, Ukraine is guaranteed to form a pro-western coalition government. Moreover, this coalition can command a constitutional majority, either independently or together with other pro-western parties, depending how many of the five pro-western parties and independents formally join the coalition.
The new parliamentary configuration puts Ukraine’s course toward Europe on a more solid footing than the Orange Revolution of 2004 that brought to power pro-western president Viktor Yushchenko. During Yushchenko’s tenure, pro-western parties could form at best a very slim majority based on the outcome of 2002, 2006, and 2007 legislative elections. Stalled reforms of the Yushchenko period were in part due to the fact that infighting between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko perpetually threatened to break the coalition between their parties, and the breakdown of the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko alliance handed power in the legislature to the coalition of the Party of Regions and the Communists. A power struggle between pro-western parties over the coalition terms are quite likely this time too, especially between the two front-runners (the presidential party Petro Poroshenko’s Block which was widely expected to win but instead came in a close second, signaling declining support for the president, and the unexpected front-runner, People’s Front, the party of current prime minister Arsenii Yatseniuk). But conflicts between these two largest pro-western are likely to be less destabilizing for the overall political process and less likely to derail the pro-western course that the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko conflict had been during 2005-2010 due to the sheer strength of the pro-western majority in the Rada. With several possible configurations for the majority, a substantial number of deputies, and even entire parties, can drop out of a coalition without a coalition collapsing, or with a different but still pro-western coalition forming in its place. The pro-Russian Opposition Block is virtually relegated to be what it name says: an opposition.
So what are the reasons for this decisively pro-European outcome of the Ukrainian elections? One of the key reasons why Ukraine ended up with the least pro-Russian parliament in post-independence history are the actions of Putin that cut off solidly pro-Russian electorate in Crimea and Donbas from participation in elections, and turned many of those who previously voted for pro-Russian parties to vote differently this time.
The annexed Crimea and the insurgent-controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are the areas of Ukraine that have historically had the most solidly pro-Russian electorate, and removing several million of pro-Russian voters from the voter rolls deprived pro-Russian parties of their voter base. Elections did not take place in 12 electoral districts of Crimea, in nine out of 21 electoral districts in Donetsk oblast, and in six out of 11 districts in Luhansk oblast. Given the number of registered voters in these 27 electoral districts, nearly 4 million people who would have voted overwhelmingly for the pro-Russian parties (some 1.8 million in Crimea and 1.9 million in Donetsk and Luhansk) were unable to participate in the elections as a direct result of Russia’s actions vis-a-vis Ukraine.
The annexation of Crimea and Russia’s role in the Donbas also led to major shifts in Ukrainian public opinion which further helped pro-western parties to win. This is not to say that regional differences in Ukraine have disappeared: as the district-level voting results available on the Ukrainian Central Electoral Commission Web site show, the Opposition Block won on the party list in every single district in Luhansk and Kharkiv in the east, in nearly every district in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia, and did well in several other eastern and southern regions, in particular Odesa and Dnipropertrovsk. Given low voting turnout in the east and the south, the pro-Russian sentiment in this part of the country is certainly stronger than the support registered for the Opposition Block in this election, as after the implosion of the Party of Regions there was a void in the party landscape with few attractive options from which voters in these regions could choose. One of the challenges for the new government will be how to win trust of voters in these regions and craft policies that will not alienate those who did not vote for pro-European parties.
Still, polling data shows that the public sentiment in Ukraine has become decidedly less pro-Russian than it has been previously. For example, according to a survey conducted in Ukraine by Gallup on behalf of the International Republican Institute, in September 2014, 59 percent favored Ukraine’s membership in the European Union versus just 17 percent in the Customs union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, while a year ago the figures were 42 percent and 37 percent, respectively. Even more tellingly, support for NATO has substantially increased in Ukraine. According to a September poll by two leading Ukrainian polling agencies, in a hypothetical referendum on NATO membership 44 percent would have voted in favor (35 percent against, while 22 percent were undecided). This is significantly higher than at any time prior. By contrast for most of the time between 2002 and 2009, less than 25 percent of Ukrainians supported NATO membership.
The growing support for pro-western rather than pro-Russian political forces is also evident in the electoral maps based on comparisons between the 2014 and 2012 parliamentary elections. These maps show electoral districts where either pro-Russian or pro-western parties combined won in 2012 and 2014 respectively. The maps clearly illustrate the shift of dozens of electoral districts in southern and eastern regions from pro-Russian to pro-western parties.
If Putin’s fear after the victory of the Euromaidan uprising and the fall of Yanukovych was that Ukraine would turn decisively westward and leave Russia’s orbit, then by his actions in Crimea and the Donbas, Putin, ironically, may have helped created the very reality he wanted to avoid: Ukraine’s pro-western orientation is stronger now that every before. Russia had many levers over Ukraine that did not disappear after the fall of Yanukovych – including gas, trade, and the pro-Russian voters in the south and east of Ukraine – and Putin could have chosen to utilize these levers to prevent Ukraine from moving westward. Had Putin not annexed Crimea and sponsored separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, Ukraine would certainly have had a very different parliament after these elections, with a much stronger representation by pro-Russian parties, through which Russia could have continued to exert leverage on political developments in Ukraine. As it is, Russia’s allies in the Ukrainian parliament will now likely number just over a quarter of its composition.