In the run-up to Ukraine’s parliamentary election on October 26, party politics in the country remains overshadowed by the daily uncertainty surrounding the ceasefire in the eastern Donbas area. As in the presidential election of May 2014, electoral participation will be low in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk due to displacements, security risks, and alienation from Kiev.

The parliamentary vote is vital for rebuilding the Ukrainian state, but it is unlikely to change the dynamics of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In fact, it is bound to cement the current political reality of Donetsk and Luhansk operating outside the Ukrainian state structures.

The election comes both too late and too early. On the one hand, it is a necessary belated corrective aimed at restoring democratic legitimacy at the center of Ukrainian politics. The political vacuum left by the Euromaidan antigovernment protests and the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych had been filled by an interim government closely associated with the most vociferous political forces among the protesters.

Gwendolyn Sasse
Sasse is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. Her research focuses on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, EU enlargement, and comparative democratization.
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Over the last few months, with Western support, this interim government increasingly looked like a government intent on staying, thereby fueling Russian-supported separatist mobilization in eastern Ukraine. Ideally, the parliamentary election would have been held alongside the presidential poll in May.

On the other hand, the parliamentary election now seems premature, as domestic and international attention is focused on the conflict and Ukraine’s party scene has been shaken up but not yet consolidated into something new. For the first time since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, there is no clear party representing the political and economic interests of the southeast.

The Party of Regions, closely associated with Yanukovych, has been severely weakened. Its supporters have either defected to other parties, such as the Petro Poroshenko Bloc or Strong Ukraine, quit politics, or begun to consider running as independents. It is therefore unclear which parties would channel opposition to the policies pursued by President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

The current electoral system is a mixed one, with half of Ukraine’s 450 deputies elected via party lists and the other half in single-member districts. This means that individuals once associated with the Party of Regions still stand a chance of reentering parliament, but it increases the uncertainty about their affiliations after the elections. A high number of “floating” members of parliament would make governing effectively extremely difficult.

This will be the first postindependence election in Ukraine dominated by one party—the Petro Poroshenko Bloc. Previous elections had pitted two relatively evenly balanced parties representing different regional interests against each other.

According to the latest opinion poll by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a nongovernmental organization, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc is expected to gain 26.9 percent of the vote. Then come the nationalist Radical Party and the Fatherland Party of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, with about 6.2 percent and 5.5 percent respectively.

At the moment, over a third of the electorate is still undecided. This gives other small parties the chance of crossing the 5 percent threshold needed to enter the parliament. Those parties include Yatsenyuk’s newly established People’s Front, former defense minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko’s Civil Position, and Strong Ukraine, led by former central bank chief Serhiy Tihipko.

The poll put expected electoral participation in the eastern regions at 23.5 percent. This prospect draws attention to the uncertain but legally enshrined “special status” for parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. The law establishing this status, which was passed behind closed doors in mid-September, forms part of the long road to peace in Poroshenko’s negotiations with Russia.

The law has widely been reported as creating a three-year autonomy arrangement for Donetsk and Luhansk. But a closer look at the text of the law reveals ambiguities. Only some as yet unspecified “raions” or administrative units of the two regions will enjoy “local self-government” within a three-year period. There are numerous references to the Ukrainian constitution as the basis of these arrangements and to the continued involvement of central-state institutions.

The law gives the raions in question the option to use the Russian language (and other languages) in education, the mass media, state institutions, and public life. The text also allows local and central authorities to adopt agreements on the economic, social, and cultural development of the raions and to engage in crossborder cooperation with territorial and administrative units in Russia.

The most concrete element of the law is the announcement of local elections in the raions on December 7, 2014. This date, rather than that of the national parliamentary election, could become a focal point in the separatist regions—not least because it would have to be clarified by then which raions are eligible for the “special status.”

The law itself is a defensive, ad hoc measure to facilitate negotiations with the separatists and Russia rather than a forward-looking strategy on the reform of the Ukrainian state. Singling out subsections of the two regions in the east as problem areas in need of special measures confirms the status quo—Ukraine’s de facto loss of control over parts of its territory.

A more productive move would have been a serious commitment to decentralization throughout Ukraine, demonstrating that Kiev is in charge of the state design. This process would also help regenerate Ukraine’s party-political landscape.

While the October 26 parliamentary election is necessary to rebuild democratic legitimacy from within, the vote’s immediate effect will be the opposite: to deepen existing divisions and anchor them in Ukraine’s political system. Kiev’s hesitation on the issue of decentralization has made matters worse.