The end of Ukrainian parliamentarism?

By Orest Zakydalsky, Toronto-based Researcher and  Analyst

In democracies, legislatures traditionally serve as the center of political debate, of creation of policy, and of discourse between opposition and majority. In authoritarian or one-party states, legislatures are rubber-stamps for the executive or the party. There is a third, Ukrainian, way – legislature as circus. While Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada has not yet become a completely irrelevant institution – as the Russian Duma has become for the Kremlin – it is certainly headed that way, and the prospects for a change in direction do not look good.

(Media Credit/Associated Press)

2010 was a year of farces in the Verkhovna Rada – the formation of an unconstitutional coalition; egg-tossing and umbrellas during the ratification of the Kharkiv treaties; culminating in the beating of opposition deputies by a group of Party of Regions deputies (who looked and acted more like Tony Soprano’s sidekicks than parliamentarians) in mid-December. These travesties, though disturbing in themselves, are indicative of a wider problem in Ukrainian politics – because deputies don’t represent any specific constituency or ideology, they are beholden only to the party machines or economic interests that put them on closed electoral lists. They are thus unaccountable to any electorate; this unaccountability turns the Rada from an institution of lawmaking, policy discussion and discourse into political theater – put on by a group of “elites” who jealously protect their political or economic interest, think nothing of hopping from party to party, from opposition to majority (and back again), and have long ago forgotten their roles as representatives of the people.

(Media Credit/Agence France Presse/Getty Images)

Whatever the difficulties and absurdities of the Kravchuk, Kuchma and Yushchenko presidencies – and there were many – under these presidents Ukraine’s parliament at least served as a reliable check and balance (if for different reasons than in established democracies) on the power of the executive. Indeed, under Yushchenko, parliament became arguably a more powerful institution than the presidential administration (or secretariat as it was called under Yushchenko). Paradoxically, the constitutional reform of 2006, which enshrined the supremacy of parliament also sowed the seeds for an ineffective, farcical and increasingly (since the election of president Yanukovych) irrelevant institution.

(Media Credit/Associated Press)

The problem with all this is that it drives political discourse back out to the street – because they feel (rightly) that nobody represents their interests, Ukrainian citizens have no choice but to voice their displeasure through public protests. That Ukrainians are willing to do so (despite increased pressure by the Yanukovych regime) is undoubtedly to their credit. But if the only way those who oppose the government’s policies can be heard is to go out to the maidany, the country inevitably gets stuck in a vicious cycle of protests, with no meaningful democratic or economic reforms (and, perhaps more ominously, very little incentive for Ukraine’s political “elite” to initiate the necessary reforms).

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