Ukraine loses a prime minister

As foreshadowed earlier this month, Bulgarian prime minister Plamen Oresharski has resigned, paving the way for an early election to be held on 5 October. But it now looks as if there’ll be a bigger eastern European election at around the same time, with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko set to get his way with an early parliamentary poll.

On Thursday Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, tendered his government’s resignation after the two smaller parties in his coalition, Udar and Svoboda, announced they were pulling out in order to pave the way for elections, now expected in the (northern) autumn. Deputy prime minister Volodymyr Hroisman will take over as acting prime minister.

The existing parliament was elected less than two years ago, in October 2012, but that already feels like a world away in Ukraine. It originally had a majority for the broadly pro-Russian Party of Regions, supporting then-president Viktor Yanukovych, but since the departure of Yanukovych in the Ukrainian revolution earlier this year, many of its MPs now sit with other parties or as independents.

It was always to be expected that the change of government would lead to fresh parliamentary elections, and that was one of Poroshenko’s priorities when he was elected in May. The separatist insurgency in two eastern provinces has posed difficulties, so there’s some suggestion that this week’s developments are a sign that Poroshenko thinks military victory is not far off.

The Ukrainian parliament, known as the Verkhovna Rada, is elected on a mixed system: half of the 450 members by single-member districts (first-past-the-post), and the other half from party lists by nationwide proportional representation, with a 5% threshold. The pro-western parties objected to the current system when it was introduced for the last election, but there seems little prospect of getting agreement on changing it now.

There’s not much doubt that pro-western parties will win a substantial majority. One recent opinion poll put the president’s party, Solidarity, in the lead with 27.8%, followed by another centrist party, the Radical Party, on 15.5%. Fatherland, the centre-right party of Yatsenyuk and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, was in third place on 13.2% and Udar, headed by boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, had 8.7%.

Civil Position, a breakaway from Fatherland, on 5.8%, was the only other party above the 5% mark, but several more were within striking distance: the far-right Svoboda (4.8%), the Communist Party (4.4%), Strong Ukraine, a breakaway from the Party of Regions (4.0%) and the remnant Party of Regions itself (3.8%).

The presence in the governing coalition of Svoboda – which Russian media refer to as neo-Nazi, but which ideologically is probably more like France’s National Front – was the most that could be adduced as evidence that Ukraine had been taken over by extremists. The fact that it is now polling less than half of its 2012 support is further confirmation that any such fears are unfounded.

Even if the insurgency is quickly defeated, the next Ukrainian government will have a lot of problems to confront. The country’s economy is a basket case, official corruption is endemic, and the loss of Crimea is still keenly felt (but now almost certainly permanent). Events of the last few months have made more vivid, but not fundamentally changed, the task that confronts every Ukrainian government: that of balancing between Russia and the west.

But Poroshenko, a chocolate tycoon with little political experience, has so far made a good impression as president. Since his party is the most likely to benefit from the advantage that the mixed electoral system gives to leading parties, the new parliament will probably be more to his liking.

What he really needs, though, is for Ukraine’s notoriously fractious politicians to set aside their squabbling for long enough to start putting the country back together.

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