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Europe

Opinion: Ukraine strengthens its shift toward Europe

Pro-European parties have a clear majority in the new Ukrainian parliament, but populists and members of the old guard are also on hand. Nonetheless, a new political moment has emerged, says DW's Bernd Johann.

Ukrainians have voted, and it was arguably the most important election since the country gained independence. For the first time, parliament will house a wide-ranging pro-Western majority that could reform the country and bring it closer to Europe. Also for the first time, a number of young social activists will enter the Verkhovna Rada, where they want to change the country by enhancing freedom and democracy. They waged their campaigns on secure party lists in order to make their entry into parliament.

Last winter, they were also the ones who took to the streets along with hundreds of thousands of fellow protesters to depose the corrupt and authoritarian Yanukovych regime. Now these activists are taking on political responsibility in parliament. They will have to show whether they can beat back the influence of the old political elites and of the oligarchs - rich business leaders who primarily pursue their own interests by way of politics.

DW's Bernd Johann

DW's Bernd Johann says Ukraine's new parliament will have to prove it can beat back the influence of old political elites

Pro-European majority in parliament

Maidan activists are the winners of this election, just like the parties that supported the political breakthrough at the time - above all, President Petro Poroshenko's voting bloc and the People's Front party created by interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Poroshenko's only recently established party list became an immediate frontrunner - even if it didn't fare quite as well as polling had suggested. Yatsenyuk's People's Front followed close behind it. Together, the two parties will have a majority in the new parliament and can modernize the country, taking cues from Europe.

Additional parties could also be possible coalition partners. Advancing the necessary and, in part, painful economic and social reforms will require a broad coalition. The Samopomich (Self-help) party, which will enter the country's parliament for the first time and is particularly strong in western Ukraine, and Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland party could help lend additional support in reaching toward Europe.

Old elites unlikely to vanish

The process won't be easy, though, in part because of rivalries among the pro-European powers. Furthermore, the status quo elites will continue to help shape parliament's course in spite of the many new faces. The old guard includes former confidantes of Yanukovych, who have formed an oppositional alliance. The Ukrainian electoral system with its mix of closed lists and the direct election of candidates once again made it possible for people with money and influence to buy parliamentary mandates.

Populist and right-wing forces may also be able to impede parliament's constructive work, but they got a much smaller share of the votes than expected. The extremist Right Sector didn't make it over the hurdle for parliamentary representation, leaving only the nationalist Svoboda and the populist Radical Party with seats in the Verkhovna Rada. But both parties are dwindling, as Ukrainians show little support for politicians on the far right.

Legitimacy in Kyiv

This election represents a success for Ukrainian democracy because it has legitimized the power shift that took place. Russia, which denied the legitimacy of the transitional government and dismissed the Maidan leaders as fascists, can no longer resort to these senseless arguments. Ukrainians have once again - just as they did during the presidential election in May - voted powerfully in favor of democratic and moderate forces.

Even the fact that many people could not vote due to the war in eastern Ukraine does not change the legitimacy of these polls. The seats apportioned to the districts in question will remain open for the time being. It's not Kyiv but Moscow - with its annexation of the Crimean peninsula and support of separatists and mercenaries in the East - that has robbed the people living there of the chance to take part in a free and fair election.

This election will send Ukraine further along the path toward Europe, and that's a prospect that the people in Ukraine want. The clear result of the voting represents a significant opportunity. Now the politicians in Kyiv will have to deliver on their promises. The European Union should support Ukraine along the way - including by way of offering a chance at joining the EU.

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