Why and how the Ukrainian political system should be changed

The violent clashes on Kyiv’s streets and inadequate responses by the authorities are undermining the legitimacy of all Ukrainian governmental institutions – first and foremost of the presidency. One way to lower the current tensions in Ukraine is to finally accomplish an already long-ago recommended major constitutional amendment – the switch from a semi-presidential to a purely parliamentary republic. Such a change at this point in time could ensure to everybody that the future will be different from the difficult present.

Arguably, President Yanukovych himself is not as big a defect in Ukraine’s political system as the institution of presidency. Most Ukrainians hope for a “strong” president to solve their country’s problems. Yet, the use of executive power and presumed authority of a more or less narrowly elected president, as well as his complicated relationship with the legislature has been the source of much political pathology of the last 20 years.

Many Ukrainians argue that, over Ukraine’s post-Soviet history, each president was worse than his predecessor: Leonid Kuchma was worse than Leonid Kravchuk (who, in turn, was worse than Mykhailo Hrushevsky), Viktor Yushchenko was worse than Leonid Kuchma, and Viktor Yanukovych is even worse than the grossly unpopular Viktor Yushchenko. Kuchma’s two-term rule ended with the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko’s support sank to five percent after only one term in office, and Yanukovych might not even get to serve his first term in full, bringing the country on the verge of collapse.

The deeper reason for this frustrating story has not only to do with the doubtful personal qualities of these men, but also with the very system they have been or are operating in. In fact, there is nothing surprising about Ukraine’s sad experience with her failing presidents. International political science has over the last two decades confirmed, in a number of comparative qualitative and quantitative studies, that both presidential and semi-presidential systems are unsuitable, if not lethal, for young democracies – not only in today Eastern Europe, but in other periods of history and regions of the world, too.

The title of one of the seminal papers, in the Journal of Democracy, on the political systems of the post-communist area, by the University of California’s political science professor Steven M. Fish, summarizes the crux of the issue succinctly: “Stronger Legislatures, Stronger Democracies.” The less power the president has the more stable and effective is a young democracy. The only more or less sustainable young democracies with elected presidents have very weak heads of states within a semi-presidential system in which the prime-minister has most powers. In that case, however, the question arises: Why conduct costly presidential elections at all, if the head of state has only little impact on the conduct of governmental affairs and fulfills largely representative functions?

Abolition of presidency through an amendment to the constitution should not be unrealistic. All political forces of Ukraine may find it, for different reasons, acceptable and in their interests. The ruling Party of Regions will, at some point, understand that Yanukovych is too discredited, his authority too tarnished and his rule too shaky to keep him as president, until 2015. An abolition of the office would insure the current ruling party from a revengeful successor in the presidency. The two large opposition parties, Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR and Arseniy Yatseniuk’s and Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna may be interested in getting Yanukovych out, sooner rather than later, through abolition of his office. They will be also most prone to listen to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and Western political scientist recommending a parliamentary republic. The two smallest radical parties, the nationalist Svoboda and Communist Party, may be interested in such a constitutional amendment because they cannot hope to ever get their candidate elected as president.

The switch to a parliamentary system would have to be obviously accompanied by new parliamentary elections according to a significantly improved electoral law that would prevent a repeat of the heavy manipulations in the single-member districts during the 2012 Rada elections. The new parliament would then form a collation that would elect a prime-minister. This would be the new ruler of Ukraine.

In that new system a figurehead President elected, for instance by a joint assembly of 450 Verkhovna Rada and 450 Oblast Rada deputies could also play some symbolic role. He would represent Ukraine abroad, give speeches at various occasions, sign laws, and be the formal head of state. Ideally, this President would represent Central or Western Ukraine, if the Prime-Minister is from Southern or Eastern Ukraine. Or, vice versa, the President would come from Ukraine’s Russophone part, if the Prime-minister represents the Ukrainian-speaking part of the country. Ukraine would become a normal country with a more effective governmental system and less conflicting politics.

The article appeared earlier in the Ukrainian weekly “Kyiv Post.”