Sunday, January 24, 2010

Ukraine’s Perplexing Elections

The Economist; The Presidential Election Shows that the Orange Revolution is Out of Puff, No Matter Who Eventually Wins
Guardian UK; Ukraine Voters Weigh In on Orange Revolution
WSJ; Viktor Yanukovich Wins First Round of Ukraine Election

This week’s Ukrainian election was marked by ironic results, as voters rejected their once-respected leader, Viktor Yushchenko, in favor of the very man who was found guilty of rigging an election against Yushchenko in 2004. In the 2004 election, the Ukrainian Supreme Court allowed a re-vote that removed the fraudulently elected Viktor Yanukovich, putting Yushchenko in power. During this volatile time, voters rose up in outrage through demonstrations and protests against governmental corruption, bullying, and abuse. This uprising was known as the “Orange Revolution,” and even though Yushchenko supported this movement, he ultimately failed to effect real change.

Ukraine has never been a completely sovereign state, as Russian leaders kept Ukrainian assets and asserted control over the country after they granted the country “independence” in 1991. During the early 1990s, Ukraine suffered severe economic stress, mostly because its new independent leaders didn’t have much experience running an economy. Half-hearted economic reforms in latter half of the decade came with a semi-authoritarian government that became the root of the evil and corruption that the Orange Revolution sought to purge.

Many international observers have praised the latest election as a huge step in the right direction because it was without disruptions and generally free of corruption, a sign that Ukraine has matured politically. Only about 5% of voters supported incumbent candidate Yushchenko, while 35% voted for former vote rigger Yanukovich. Yanukovich faces a Feb. 7th run-off election against the Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko who earned 25% of the recent vote (because neither candidate earned a majority of the votes). The country is divided between these two candidates: The industrialized, Russian-speaking east and south support Yanukovich despite his checkered political history. The center and east support Tymoshenko, who, despite running on a platform of corruption reform, has voters leery of her reputation as a “power seeker” with close ties to the gas industry. Both candidates say they are seeking a positive relationship with Russia and would like to strengthen presidential powers and end the historical bitter rivalry between the president and the prime minister.

A new leader will enter the political post as the country faces a possible national bankruptcy, an unclear legal environment, and a parliament run by big business. Despite these challenges, he or she should be aided by the country’s enthusiasm for much-needed change.

Discussion Questions:
1. Has a country truly matured as a democracy if it elects leaders with histories of political deceit?
2. Have Ukrainians come to accept political corruption as an intrinsic part of government?
3. Given Ukraine’s past political challenges, it is reasonable for Russia to maintain some degree of control over the country?

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