Are U.S. Elections Cleaner Than Ukraine's?

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website
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When U.S. voters head to the polls next week to choose their president, they can take pride in an electoral system far superior to what, for example, Ukrainians experienced in their parliamentary elections last weekend.

Or can they?

True, the Ukrainian government jailed the main opposition leader, former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, well ahead of the vote. Lavish state spending helped candidates of the ruling Regions Party win mandates throughout the country’s east and south. In many cases, wealthy Ukrainians effectively bought their way into the parliament.

That said, consider the U.S. The two-party system locks out many candidates who could have national appeal. Billionaires, some of whom built their fortunes in part thanks to government subsidies, are lavishing unlimited funds on their favorite candidates through political-action committees.

All told, one wonders whether the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe assessment of the Ukrainian elections could not just as easily apply to the land of the free: "Considering the abuse of power and the excessive role of money in this election, democratic progress appears to have reversed.”

For all its flaws, Ukraine’s was a bona fide election, an act of high political drama of the kind people in neighboring Russia can eye only wistfully as their country sinks into gray authoritarianism. There were plenty of upsets, notably in the capital, Kiev. Money was not everything: Ten multimillionaires tried and failed to get into the parliament, known as the Supreme Rada. Opposition parties, albeit including one with an abhorrent platform, took a large share of the vote.

With 97 percent of the vote counted by late Tuesday night, President Viktor Yanukovich’s Regions Party was on track to win about 200 seats, probably enough to build a ruling coalition with the Communists in the 450-member parliament. The ruling party gained 74 seats with about 30 percent of the national vote. It garnered the rest in single-mandate constituencies, where pro-Yanukovich candidates sometimes hid their affiliation so they could win in opposition strongholds. The result looks like a slight improvement on the 195 seats the Regions Party held in the outgoing parliament.

The ruling party’s tactics merited the OSCE’s disdain. To help guarantee a parliamentary seat for Alexei Azarov, son of Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov, the Ukrainian government allocated about $21 million to projects in his Donetsk Region constituency in 2012 and 2013, compared with a paltry $2 million in 2011, according to the Ukrainian magazine Focus (where I serve as an editorial consultant). Azarov Jr., whose picture was all over the local press and dozens of billboards throughout the district even though he actually lives in Vienna, made it clear that the windfall was his doing. Pragmatic locals quickly recognized on which side their bread was buttered.

Azarov's is probably the most extreme example, though other ruling-party candidates reportedly used the power of their offices or their fat purses to get votes. One observer in the industrial city of Dnepropetrovsk photographed a children's playground decked out in Regions Party colors. Built with city money, it had been touted by a Regions candidate as his contribution to the community. The same candidate provided free WiFi in a local park, requiring users to enter his last name as the password.

Such power plays were universally effective only in the east and south of Ukraine, the ruling party's traditional base. Elsewhere, money and clout didn’t always prevail. Two of Ukraine's 100 richest men, retail magnate Igor Balenko and oil tycoon Stepan Ivakhiv, failed to get into parliament. Another eight multimillionaires suffered more or less humiliating defeats. Real-estate developer Vadim Stolar lost in a Kiev district after filling it with his billboards and spending a fortune fixing hallways and potholes.

In a protracted battle in another Kiev constituency, well-connected Oles Dovgi spent months and untold sums on gifts such as food packages and manometers marked with his name. He lost to a little-known candidate representing UDAR, a party led by boxing superstar Vitaly Klichko (the party’s name translates as “blow” or “strike”).

“To me, this will be the most symbolic victory in this parliamentary election,” journalist Mustafa Nayyem wrote on Facebook about Dovgi's defeat. As of this writing, Dovgi was still hoping for a last-minute reversal as votes were counted and recounted. It appeared the result would stand.

The opposition carried Kiev as well as central and western Ukraine. In the national vote, Timoshenko’s Batkivshina (“Fatherland”) party took second place with 25 percent despite its leader’s imprisonment. Boxer Klichko's UDAR won almost 14 percent, better than expected and narrowly beating the Communists. In one of the election’s biggest surprises, the ultra-nationalist party Svoboda got into parliament for the first time, with 10 percent of the vote. All the opposition parties fared relatively poorly in single-member constituencies, where it was harder to beat money and power. Yet if they manage to band together, they will be a force to reckon with in the parliament.

Klichko’s party, which presents itself as a moderate liberal force and a champion of small and medium business, ran on a pragmatic economic program not too heavy on social promises. Its leader, one of Ukraine’s few international celebrities, proved willing to compromise with Batkivshina: Right before the election, the parties made a deal not to compete with one another in several dozen constituencies.

Svoboda leader Oleg Tyagnybok campaigned relentlessly, traveling throughout Ukraine and sleeping in the back of a Toyota Sequoia. His party, which has not been above openly anti-Semitic rhetoric, has vowed to rid Ukraine of Russian influences, ban abortions, crack down on gays and nationalize whole sectors of the Ukrainan economy.

Many of the votes for Svoboda came from people who do not share the party’s extreme views. “God forbid they come to power,” IT specialist Roman Petrusha wrote in a comment on Facebook. “Yet they will make a good opposition. This is a chance that parliament will not just be a Yanukovich toy. Svoboda's crazy program does not matter: No one will give them the power to implement it.”

Many Ukrainians, especially educated city dwellers, are looking for someone -- anyone -- to take on Yanukovich and a regime they see as rampant with corruption and nepotism. “Until we see a prospect of a better life, our life is a fight,” wrote public-relations executive Victoria Bondar on Facebook. “It's still better than standing still and adapting like chameleons.”

Journalist Olga Kashpor, writing in the magazine Focus, likened the populace’s relationship with Yanukovich to one of domestic abuse. “The half of Ukraine that voted for Regions is like the woman whose husband beats her but she won't even hear of divorce,” she wrote. “He's family, he brings money home and he doesn't hit too hard – not hard enough to kill, at least.”

The regime's opponents have gained a foothold in parliament that is only a distant dream for their Russian counterparts -- a position they can exploit to challenge the president at a time when the Ukrainian economy is in shaky condition. The country faces an almost-certain currency devaluation, an increase in bread prices and, next year, a possible debt crisis. The OSCE may yet be surprised at how seriously Ukrainians take their democracy when push comes to shove.

Could U.S. voters show the same fighting spirit if, say, their political system proved too dysfunctional to resolve the problems facing their country? We'll see.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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