Can a Wartime Election Be Successful?

Ukraine is holding a vote amid so much unresolved conflict.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters
This weekend, Ukraine will hold a parliamentary election, but only part of the nation will participate. Crimea has fallen to Russia and eastern Ukraine is still widely dominated by pro-Russian separatists, who consider the territory they control a sovereign nation. As a result, 30 out of 450 parliamentary seats will remain vacant.
Born in Kiev but raised in the United States, I have never been able to cast a ballot in an American presidential election, nor did I ever feel, given rampant corruption, that my vote would be counted if I bothered to vote in Ukrainian elections from overseas. When Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ran in May, just months after a mass uprising had toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, I felt a sense of national pride I hadn't felt for my birth country before. I read the news constantly, calling family several times a day while checking pro-Ukrainian blogs, all to feel a connection. I wanted, for the first time, to vote. When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was struck down over eastern Ukraine, presumably by pro-Russian forces, my feelings for Ukraine deepened. Yet today, just days before the October 26 election, I feel disenchanted. Many of my fellow countrymen seem to agree.
War has taken an extreme toll on the people of Ukraine, claiming roughly 3,600 lives and turning villages and cities into war zones. And the conflict will be at the forefront of the election. As the BBC's Steve Rosenberg notes, "Many of the parties have included military figures on their party lists, hoping to benefit from a wave of patriotism. Among the candidates are leaders of some of the Ukrainian volunteer battalions."
But patriotism can only do so much to convince people to trust the electoral system at a time the country is so fragile. “Everyone understands that if we don’t fix the system, the pond will simply cease to exist,” Dmytro Shymkiv, an aide to Poroshenko, told The Economist. Yet parliamentary elections are unlikely to overhaul that system.

"The new parliament is likely to be dominated by old faces wearing new masks," The Economist wrote. "The odious Party of Regions is gone, but its spirit has been reconstituted in the Strong Ukraine and Opposition Bloc parties. Oligarchs including Rinat Akhmetov, Sergei Levochkin, and Dmitry Firtash, who has faced bribery charges from American officials, are said still to influence the make-up of party lists, including [Prime Minister Arseny] Yatseniuk’s People’s Front. Igor Kolomoisky, the most powerful oligarch and the governor of Dnepropetrovsk, stronghold of the anti-separatist resistance, has no party of his own but will control many votes."

Still, not all is lost. Poroshenko, who is widely trusted and democratically elected, set up his own bloc for the parliamentary election. This week, the BBC predicted that his bloc would garner 30 or more percent of the vote, the highest percentage of any party or bloc. "The new parliament may be more patriotic but, with so much influence from the old regime and the oligarchs, may prove unable to agree and drive forward the reform agenda the country so badly needs," the Ukraine expert Andrew Wilson has observed. "In which case, many predict that a 'new Maidan'—a new round of even more radical protests in Kiev—could be on the cards."

"There are a huge number of pro-Russia politicians and officials or corrupt ones in parliament and the defense ministry," explained Yevgen Shevchenko, a soldier in one of Ukraine's volunteer battalions who is running for parliament, in an interview with the BBC. "When I went to the front, my friends helped me to buy a uniform, flak jacket and helmet. Nothing was provided."

Dissatisfaction with Ukraine's leaders is coupled with concerns over Russia's actions and intentions in the region. While Ukrainians want Poroshenko to be their champion, they are regularly reminded of Vladimir Putin's strength and capacity to further destabilize the country: He tames wild animals, cavorts in Italian palaces, and blows off Germany's top politician.