What Ukraine’s Election Means for Democracy
Written by: Lucan Way
In 2004, the world watched as the Orange Revolution unfolded in Ukraine, pitting an insurgent, pro-Western opposition, led by Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, against a pro-Russian autocratic government, represented by Viktor Yanukovych. After months of protest, Yushchenko became president in January 2005. Last month, the three faced off against one another in the first round of presidential elections. Yushchenko lost badly, with Yanukovych and Tymoshenko coming out on top, receiving 35 percent and 25 percent of the vote, respectively. A runoff election between the two was held on February 7 to determine Ukraine’s next president. For both better and worse, this election marks a sharp break from 2004: Ukraine is now less dominated by a choice between East and West, yet more mired in rampant cynicism and fears of institutional and political chaos.
Since 2004, Ukraine has evolved into a functioning democracy. Overt government interference in the media has ended, and elections are now much more transparent. The first round of voting demonstrated that access to state financial and “administrative resources” matters less than it once did: under former President Leonid Kuchma, who held office between 1994 and 2004, politicians needed government support to gain the necessary patronage, organizational resources, and media attention to mount a serious campaign. Access to the state’s spoils was a sine qua non for political viability.
This time around, with Ukraine in the middle of an economic crisis, incumbency proved to be more of a liability than an asset. Yushchenko was unable to use his office to manufacture support — he ended up in fifth place with just five percent of the vote, surely among the worst performances by an incumbent in modern democratic history. Tymoshenko, who as prime minister has been responsible for managing the economy over the last two years, received enough support to advance into the second round but fewer votes than her party received in the 2007 parliamentary elections when she was out of government.
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