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CONSOLIDATING CENTRES FOR POWER

What Ukraine could borrow from Kenya’s Constitutional reforms

Zelensky got to power on the “Servant of the People” party, which also happens to be the name of the TV comedy show in Ukraine and Russia in which he played a role as president

In Summary

• Power struggles between the President and the Prime Minister created an unstable constitutional order.

• The huge task for President-elect Zelensky, therefore, is to consolidate the partisan centres of power.

Ukrainian president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the first exit poll at his campaign headquarters in Kiev on April 21
Ukrainian president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the first exit poll at his campaign headquarters in Kiev on April 21
Image: GETTY IMAGES

During the Second Nairobi International Political Forum in November 2017, the Center for International and Security Affairs examined the Central and Eastern European-Africa relations in a dialogue graced by then Ukrainian ambassador to Kenya, Yevhenii Tsymbaliuk, among other diplomats.

The conversation came against the backdrop of increased need for African states to expand their foreign relations portfolio to non-traditional allies in the wake of Brexit and US President Donald Trump’s America First policy, which created uncertainty about future relations between Africa and its two long-standing traditional development partners.

The forum, an annual event that discusses various international political dynamics and developments, sought to identify shared opportunities and challenges that could spur greater interaction among Central and Eastern European States and African governments, and identify channels for people-to-people interactions.

While it might have been a tad bit difficult to engender the specific areas that needed greater interaction, especially between Ukraine and Kenya, it is not until the just-concluded presidential elections in Ukraine, that the link between the two states has become clearer.

Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe has elected TV comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, defeating President Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire tycoon in the chocolate business with a landslide victory of 73 per cent. Poroshenko’ garnered 24 per cent in the second round of the election.

Zelensky got to power on the “Servant of the People” party, which also happens to be the name of the TV comedy show in Ukraine and Russia in which he played a role as president.

It may look surreal that a country in the midst of armed conflict with Russia, a well-known belligerent in international power politics, would vote a candidate with no political or military experience whatsoever as President and the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces.

As most of the world muses over this “comical” development, comedy writer Jack Bernhardt in an opinion piece in The Guardian seems to think this is not a unique Ukrainian phenomenon.

He observes that Boris Johnson, former UK Foreign Secretary, “made his name off comic appearances on “Have I Got News For You”, rising to the mayor of London with nothing more than a stupid hair cut and a propensity to say “whiff-whaff”. Then there was the election of Donald Trump, who is touted to not only be the joke himself but the comedian telling it.

Members of a local electoral commission count votes at a polling station following the second round of a presidential election in Lviv, Ukraine April 21, 2019.
Members of a local electoral commission count votes at a polling station following the second round of a presidential election in Lviv, Ukraine April 21, 2019.
Image: REUTERS/Mykola Tys

Kenya’s 2017 General Election was also not short of “interesting” choices by the electorate, and we were treated to a menu of musicians, comedians, and even suspected criminals into positions of power.

It is a wave of populism that is increasingly becoming the biggest threat to democracy, by creating an “us-versus-them” political system, in a bid to overhaul establishment models of governance, heavily controlled by socioeconomic elites to the perceived determent of the masses.

DIFFERENT CONSTITUTIONAL SYSTEMS

The outcome of the Ukrainian election is a reflection of the disenfranchisement of angry populations, frustrated by years of poor governance.

Since its independence in 1991, when the Soviet Union finally disintegrated, Ukraine adopted a semi-presidential constitutional system in 1996, in which the President is directly elected by the people, and shares power with a prime minister, who can be dismissed by Parliament.

Power struggles between the president and the prime minister created an unstable constitutional order, with a presidency that has often fallen prey to autocratic tendencies and foreign intervention by Russia.

Leonid Kuchma, the second President of independent Ukraine and the first to serve under the 1996 constitution, had no less than seven prime ministers in his 1994-2005 regime.

Two revolutions, the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Euromaidan Protests of 2013-14, saw the constitution amended back and forth from a presidential-parliamentary system to a premier-presidential system, where only the legislature can dismiss the prime minister, in an effort to curb presidential powers.

None of these efforts, however, have borne fruit in combating entrenched corruption [Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index ranks the country 130th place out of 180 countries], low levels of institutionalisation of political parties, which are also highly personalised and have weak programmatic development agendas, a script that mirrors the situation in Kenya.

Evidently, these constitutional amendments have not done much to alleviate the constitutional and political instability, something Kenya could learn ahead of the 2022 polls.

Kenya and Ukraine are grappling with defining the true nature who they are, where they belong as a people and which governance system best creates a stable environment for the two states to prosper.

Kenya, however, managed to institutionalise power-sharing models in the 2010 Constitution, by creating devolved units to decentralise power, enabling an environment where power struggles no longer greatly impede implementation of public policies, and establishment of independent institutions to oversight the Executive.

This is what Ukraine lacks: A functional constitutional dispensation that enables consolidation of Ukrainian territory and its people, the lack of which has created political and constitutional instability, worsened by the perennial meddling by Russia in Ukraine’s domestic politics.

TASK AHEAD

The huge task for Zelensky, therefore, is to consolidate the partisan centres of power, starting with clinching enough parliamentary seats in the upcoming parliamentary election in October.

In the current premier-presidential system, the president only gains legitimacy to implement government policies through Parliament, and will hopefully lead the country towards long-term constitutional reforms for a stable Ukraine.

If this is not achieved, then “laughter will no longer be just a medicine, but a poison, allowing untrustworthy people to rise to the top” as described by Jack Bernhardt.


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