After the incident in the Kerch Strait, which ended with Russian coast guards capturing Ukrainian navy vessels, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared martial law in the country with approval from the country’s parliament, Verkhovna Rada. What consequences can this move have for the internal political situation in Ukraine?
The main problem encountered by the Ukrainian authorities at almost every election of this century has been loss of seemingly reliable parliamentary allies at a decisive moment. Such loss was on the one hand the result of their insufficient approval ratings, and on the other, a prelude to their future defeat, because the publicly demonstrated weakness of the authorities pushed their ratings further down.
For example, in autumn 2004, two parliamentary factions withdrew from the ruling coalition before the election, leaving the coalition’s candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, without a majority. In 2010, between two rounds of the presidential election, some of the coalition’s MPs openly played against Yulia Tymoshenko, who was prime minister at the time, and in favor of the opposition candidate Viktor Yanukovych. Finally, in February 2014, during the Euromaidan protests, some regionalists moved away from Yanukovych, voting together with the opposition for a decree condemning violence towards protesters, and next day, with Western mediators’ help, Yanukovych signed an agreement with the opposition, which became the first step towards his surrender.
It looks like martial law introduced by the Ukrainian president belongs on this list, because it did not go as planned. Immediately after the Ukrainian ships were seized in the Kerch Strait, Poroshenko convened the National Security Council, which recommended imposing martial law for two months; the president signed a corresponding decree, but the Ukrainian Constitution requires that it be approved by the parliament before coming into force. The timeframe chosen for martial law suggested that the forthcoming presidential election would have to be postponed, since it must be scheduled by the Rada at least 100 days in advance, with the election process starting 90 days before the chosen date, and Ukrainian law prohibits holding elections during a state of martial law.
Consequently, elections can be scheduled only after the period of martial law is over, but it can be extended using the same scheme as the one used to introduce it. It is the first step that makes a difference. Had the parliament readily approved the decree as it was proposed, one could have reasonably expected any presidential and parliamentary election to be put off indefinitely. And this could mean that martial law would stay forever. A group of MPs turned to the Constitutional Court asking for explanation whether the episode of Russian aggression obliged the president to introduce martial law until such aggression ceases.
The president had reasons to hope that the decree would be approved. The ruling majority in the parliament usually comprises the faction of Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc, the People’s Front faction of ex-prime minister Yatsenyuk and two other groups, Vozrozhdenie and People’s Will. In certain cases, it can include any other faction as well. Notably, the nationalist agenda of the government is usually supported by only a part of the above groups, but it is more than compensated for with the unanimous approval of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchina, Oleg Lyashko’s Radical Party and Samopomoshch of Andrey Sadovoy, major of Lviv. Former regionalists from the Opposition Bloc often vote the same as the government on economic and legal issues.
The People’s Front has a zero approval rating according to polls, so in theory, it should be willing to postpone the presidential election, which would mean postponing the parliamentary one. Parliamentary majority usually looks up to the government and, in theory, should also be happy about the abolition of elections: they get to keep their mandates without spending money on campaigning. Besides, all MPs, except for the representatives of the Opposition Bloc, should fear to be labeled as non-patriots stabbing the government in the back and disrupting the defense efforts.
The reality, however, turned this scheme down. Many politicians immediately said that the election had to be held on time. Three former presidents – Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko – released a statement to that effect. There was no talk about giving up on martial law completely, but rather about not letting it prevent the election and infringe on the rights and freedoms.
Eventually, only Poroshenko’s own faction supported his decree, while even the People’s Front demanded that the period of martial law be reduced, the territory where it is introduced be limited and the presidential election guaranteed. The parliament created guarantees for the latter on November 26, scheduling the election for January 31. Before that, it approved the martial law decree, allowing Poroshenko to save face. Prior to the voting, the president read out amendments to the document from the speaker’s stand. They stipulate that the state of martial law is introduced for 30 days instead of 60 and not across Ukraine, but only in 10 regions bordering on Russia (including at sea) and Transnistria.
Poroshenko also promised the parliament that measures restricting rights and freedoms would be applied only in combat areas. It is unclear how this promise will be kept and whether it has been legally executed, because the text of the parliament’s resolution has not been released yet. The law “On legal regime of martial law” gives broad powers to the military command of the territory where martial law has been introduced. They include alienation of property, restriction of mass media activities, introduction of labor duty, and many other things.
It is equally unclear how martial law will help Ukraine to improve its position in the conflict with Russia and in Donbass within a month. It is clearly unable to change the balance of power in the Black and Azov Seas.
But the president can announce that the regime has improved Ukraine’s combat readiness at any moment. And the parliament is unlikely to dispute this. Yes, the overwhelming majority understands that Ukraine is not facing the threat of a big war right now. But they didn’t dare to turn down martial law completely, fearing reproaches for lack of patriotism and, besides, it was wiser to let Poroshenko save face while retreating than to corner him.
After all, the outcome of the martial law plan still looks like a defeat. It is not only about the failure to postpone the election, it is the manifestation of support Poroshenko has from the parliament. And it turned out far less optimistic than one could expect just a day before. Looks like the support of some allies, including the second strongest faction, the People’s Front, is conditional, and the closer to the election, the more dependent it will be on the president’s approval ratings. This conditionality was suspected before, but suspicions are one thing and a public demonstration of this conditionality, which becomes a factor pushing the ratings down, is something totally different.