A striking feature of Ukraine’s parliament is the regularity with which deputies prevent it from working. Josh Black looks at the reasons behind this phenomenon.
For the second time this year, opposition deputies have brought the proceedings of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada to a halt. In an East European version of the filibuster tactic recently deployed by Paul Rand in the US, deputies can close a session by preventing the Speaker from reaching his podium to open the day’s deliberations. Given the physical requirement to blockade the Speaker’s Chair, it is little surprise that an attempt to do so at the end of 2012 descended into a brawl.
The tactic has been used in the past – so much so, in fact, that one has to wonder why the Rada is ever unblocked. A protest earlier this year had its desired effect when the government announced that it would introduce reforms to prevent deputies voting for their absentee colleagues, but the current blockade – initiated following moves to strip Tymoshenko deputy, Serhiy Vlasenko, of his parliamentary mandate – suggests that it may become a recurring motif of this session.
Behind the official explanations, blockades can illustrate either the strength or weakness of the opposition. A blockade can be a useful tactic for drawing attention to an important issue, such as in 2012, when Tymoshenko deputies objected to a Bill aimed at reforming the gas and oil sector. Yet it also exposes the weakness of factions inside the parliament – their inability to force a vote in which the government might suffer a defeat.
Between the 2010 Presidential elections and the October parliamentary 2012 elections, blockades were relatively scarce as both government and opposition concentrated on effective electioneering. Since then, the governing Party of Regions has increased its majority, the democratic opposition lost support and two new parties – the nationalist Svoboda and centre-right UDAR – entered the fray. This may suggest that Tymoshenko’s group have given up on positive campaigning and are in a revanchist phase as they hope for greater pressure on the Administration from external actors such as the EU.
Nonetheless, the sight of UDAR deputies leading the recent blockades suggests that political optimism may only be one of many factors behind the phenomenon. One may be the Presidential elections three years hence. The Batkivschnya faction leader, Arseniy Yatseniuk, recently accused both President and Speaker of a “scheme for the destruction of the last stronghold of democracy and parliamentarianism.” This is ironic, given his faction’s complicity in the reversion to the semipresidential political system in place before constitutional reforms in 2006 increased the importance of the Rada.
Indeed, parliamentarism has never been much in vogue in Ukraine. The Orange Coalition was initially opposed to weakening the presidency, seeing this as the instrument they would use to force through reforms following their victory in the 2004 Presidential elections. Instead, Victor Yushchenko ended up compromising the power of the presidency as the price of holding it. Both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko apparently had doubts as early as 2005 and rarely made the best of an awkward period of cohabitation. Moreover, as Sarah Whitmore has pointed out, the Verkhovna Rada is dominated by the workings of its committee systems – these are often seen as the main prize for deputies, and the place where most programmatic work is done.
According to a recent poll, 77% of Ukrainians disapprove of the activities of their parliament, with 43% supporting the idea of a blockade. Nonetheless, there is a decided preference for compromise, suggesting that the tactic may as likely backfire on the opposition. Only time will tell.