THE BLOG
10/24/2014 07:54 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2014

Many Questions Loom Ahead of Ukrainian Elections

This Sunday, October 26th, Ukrainians will elect a new Parliament, continuing Ukraine's democratic process despite an undeclared war in the east of the country. The current Parliament, elected in October 2012, remains largely a holdover from the regime of former President Victor Yanukovych. At Yanukovych's request, this Parliament passed "dictatorship laws" that escalated the violence during the Euromaidan protests. Several current deputies in the Parliament have been accused of supporting the separatists in the east. The Ukrainian people deserve a chance to elect new representatives who will set Ukraine on a better path.

Of the 450 deputies of the Ukrainian Parliament, half are elected by proportional representation from party lists, while the other half are elected from single-seat districts, like Congressional districts in the United States. Currently, the President's party, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, leads the polls at 30 percent. The rest of the parties that have a chance of winning seats are polling anywhere from 7-12 percent.

A major question is whether representatives who made up the majority of Parliament under Victor Yanukovych will hold onto their seats. Yanukovych's party, the Party of Regions, widely associated with nepotism and corruption, disintegrated after Euromaidan and Yanukovych's flight to Russia. Now, former Party of Regions deputies are running under new flags. The most popular of those are the Opposition Bloc and Strong Ukraine parties. However, these former Party of Regions deputies face very low public support, polling right around the five percent threshold needed to win seats in the Parliament.

Unbelievably, these representatives of the old regime are campaigning as though they have not contributed to the current crisis in Ukraine. In TV appearances, they have criticized President Poroshenko for not achieving meaningful reforms, overlooking the obstructionism of Parliament and deputies appealing to pro-Russian sections of the electorate. One candidate even claimed that Russia has not made an incursion into Ukraine, despite reports that approximately 3,600 Russian soldiers have died on Ukrainian soil.

Russia's shadow hangs heavily over these elections. The undeclared war in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions has intensified anti-Russian sentiments and become a central campaign issue. Instead of delivering concrete ideas on how to reduce corruption and reform government institutions, many candidates channel popular anti-Russian sentiment. For example, Oleh Liashko, whose populist Radical Party is polling at 12 percent, campaigns with a pitchfork, a traditional symbol of Ukrainian peasant protest. It's a ridiculous sight to see a man brandishing a pitchfork while shouting anti-Russia messages and cursing Vladimir Putin in a campaign speech.

Parties have also been competing to include popular military figures under their flags. Number one on Tymoshenko's Fatherland list is Air Force pilot Nadia Savchenko, who was abducted and is currently imprisoned in Russia on false charges. Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, who became famous when he refused to abandon his post in Crimea while being surrounded by Russian forces, appears prominently in Petro Poroshenko Bloc's campaign list. Military leaders may make good legislators, but that's not a given.

The most troubling aspect of the election is the fact that approximately 4.8 million Ukrainians will be disenfranchised because of continued Russian aggression. It is obvious that the twelve districts of Crimea, with a population of 1.8 million, will not be represented in the Parliament. Voting will likely not be able to take place in 18 of the 32 districts of Donetsk and Luhansk. This effective disenfranchisement of likely pro-Russian voters could be used as an excuse for continued Russian involvement and support for the rebels. Nevertheless, the election should go forward. The May 25th Presidential election was won by President Poroshenko with 54 percent of the vote and high voter turnout. Russia recognized Poroshenko's victory, despite similarly disrupted voting in Luhansk and Donetsk.

However, further conflict looms over the local elections in Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia has supported the rebel's local elections on November 2nd, despite President Poroshenko's announcement of local elections on December 7th, in accordance with the recently-passed regional autonomy laws. When President Putin and President Poroshenko met in Milan on October 17th to discuss the ongoing crisis, Poroshenko called on Putin to use his influence to stop the rebel's local election from happening. Instead, Putin claimed that these local elections were part of the agreed-upon Minsk Memorandum ceasefire agreement, which grants special autonomy to the eastern regions of Ukraine. Russia will most likely recognize the results of the rebel-organized local elections as legitimate, further entrenching the separatists.

While there are many concerning aspects of the election, there are some positives. For the first time in Ukraine's history, young civil society leaders will be elected into Parliament, appearing on many party lists. These people were leaders of the Euromaidan protests and most of the Ukrainian people respect them. Many of them are journalists, like Sergiy Leshchenko, who has reported on corruption schemes within the government. Now, Leshchenko and his compatriots have decided that criticizing these schemes is not enough, and are running in order to root out corruption from within the government. In addition, civil society activists are campaigning against deputies associated with Yanukovych's government that voted for the "dictatorship laws" in favor of more moderate candidates.

When describing the Ukrainian Parliamentary elections of 2012, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the "Ukrainian people deserve so much better." Hopefully the new Parliament will prove worthy of Ukrainian people.