Saturday, February 6, 2010

Richard Nixon, Al Gore, and Today's Ukraine

According to political lore, Richard Nixon and Al Gore ultimately assented to elections that they believed opponents won improperly. Both the 1960 and 2000 presidential elections in the US were close contests, and supporters of the ultimate losers argued that vote manipulation and/or biased administrative decisions determined the winner, rather than the proper translation of the "people's will." They did not mobilize street protests, or endlessly extend appeals. While elections can sometimes be too close to produce a definitive result that satisfies everyone, democracy requires good winners and good losers.

Ukraine may be faced with a similar scenario on Monday morning. While conventional wisdom holds that it is Tymoshenko who will come up short in the vote count, it may be quite close depending on how effectively both campaigns have mobilized their supporters. Tymoshenko has promised to take demonstrators to the streets if democratic practices are not followed; both campaigns have requested permission to hold rallies in Kyiv.

The election, and its aftermath, may have important implications for Ukraine's democracy. Both the winner and loser - as well as supporters - need to accept the results and occupy their positions as leader of the executive, and leader of the opposition. The winner should resist the temptation to overreach in the assertion of his/her mandate. Moreover, constant change to political institutions undermines the development of stable competitive politics. The loser should resist the temptation to endlessly appeal the decision and disrupt governance practices. Power changes hands in democratic societies; if the loser learns lessons from failure and applies them to the next campaign, the outcome may be different.

Yanukovych himself may, perhaps ironically, serve as an example. If he wins tomorrow's election, his narrative turns into the tale of a political phoenix. He lost the 2004 election and suffered political humiliation. Recognizing that he needed to change his image, he hired consultants and followed their advice. His tone softened a bit, and he followed a set of talking points. His party's victory in the 2006 parliamentary election [1] marked his return as a viable electoral force. While he failed to extend his victory in the 2007 parliamentary election, the winning coalition had a bare majority, experienced infighting, and faced the economic crisis as the standing government. His team's actions, as well as some "luck," may take him from embarrassing defeat to victory.

1. Technically, the Party of Regions obtained the most votes, but did not "win" the election. However, Yanukovych's allies were able to cobble together a coalition that briefly ruled until early parliamentary elections tipped the balance to Tymoshenko's team in 2007.

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