The Symonenko debacle undermines Ukraine’s electoral legitimacy


If you were one of the few voters left in Donetsk prepared to cast a vote in Sunday’s Ukrainian presidential election, the chances are fair that you were considering a vote for Petro Symonenko.

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But Symonenko, a Donetsk native and the candidate of Ukraine’s Communist Party (Комуністична партія України) announced his withdrawal from the election on Friday, after an escalating war of words with Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov who, last week, directed an inquiry into the Communist Party’s activities with an eye toward its possible disqualification:

Turchynov said on May 18 that he had sent the request to the Justice Ministry and that he believed “a Ukrainian court will put an end to this matter.” According to the presidential website, the country’s security service has documented the party’s role in the separatist movements in the east and determined that several party members have acted “to the detriment” of Ukraine’s interests.

Ukraine’s Communist Party is an unreconstructed Soviet-style party, which draws support from the south and the east of the country, where ethnic Russians are predominant and where rebels are now giving the Ukrainian central government so much trouble.

The Communists win votes by appealing to nostalgia, especially among older voters, for the more predictable days of the Soviet Union. As you might imagine, it’s a party that has generally won a decreasing share of the vote in Ukrainian elections as fewer and fewer Ukrainians from the Soviet era are still around to vote for it, not unlike Gennady Zyuganov’s  Communist Party in Russia.

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Though Symonenko (pictured above) made it to the runoff in 1999 against former president Leonid Kuchma and won 38.8% of the vote, he won just 4.97% in the 2004 election and otherwise overshadowed by the Orange Revolution, and he won just 3.54% in the 2010 election. In the most recent 2012 parliamentary elections, the Communists won 32 seats the 450-member Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s unicameral parliament, and they allied with former president Viktor Yanukovych, then the leader of the eastern-based Party of Regions (Партія регіонів).

So while it’s clear that though Symonenko may have picked up some votes in the May 25 presidential election from those areas that are currently under complete or partial control of pro-Russian separatists, there’s little chance that he would have won the election, especially with polls pointing to a first-round victory by Petro Poroshenko, a wealthy businessman who made his fortune selling chocolate, over former pro-Western prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Instead, at a candidate’s forum on Friday, Symonenko declared his withdrawal from the race, decrying Turchynov’s interim administration:

”We understand that the fight against censorship and dissent gives the only answer to the question of the elections: in our opinion they will be illegitimate. Therefore, the Communist Party has decided and today we, Communists, have withdrawn our candidate to save Ukraine from arbitrariness, which takes place today,” the Communist Party leader said during the debate between the presidential candidates on the air of the UT-1 TV Channel on Friday.

Symonenko was destined to be a minor candidate, with no real opportunity of winning the Ukrainian presidency. So it’s hard to understand either the interim government’s bumbling attacks on the Communists, or the verbal spat between Turchynov and Symonenko in the Ukrainian parliament last week, where, at one point, Turchynov, the speaker of the parliament, demanded that Symonenko’s microphone be turned off. The risk is that Turchynov has elevated Symonenko, whose name will remain on the ballot, into a martyr. It could also delegitimize the Ukrainian vote even further in the eyes of those who matter most — residents in Donetsk and Luhansk oblast, who will ultimately need to accede to the election results if Ukraine is to achieve any unity.

It’s absolutely vital to Ukraine’s interim government and any future Poroshenko government that this weekend’s presidential election is conducted on the most free and fair basis possible, in contrast with the independence referenda last week in Donetsk and Luhansk and the status referendum directed by Russia on March 16 in Crimea.

There’s already enough doubt in the minds of eastern Ukrainians about the constitutional legitimacy of Turchynov’s pro-Western, unelected interim government. Ukraine must ensure that the presidential vote and, parliamentary elections late this year, proceed as smoothly as imaginable. The voting can’t just be ‘three standard deviations’ fairer than the bogus referenda — the voting has to be at or near ‘best practices’ by the international standards for a democracy.

Even assuming that Symonenko and the Communists are working in league with the separatists, there’s no good reason for Turchynov, leading an unelected, interim government to harass the single Donetsk-born, relatively pro-Russian candidate days before a presidential election. It’s an incredibly short-sighted move, and it will haunt Kiev’s efforts as it tries to build unity in the aftermath of the national elections.

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