Better late than never:
What should Petro Poroshenko do to have any chance of a second term?
Does Petro Poroshenko have a chance for a second term?
The further their term moved past the midpoint of the Constitutionally allotted presidential term, the more every one of Ukraine’s presidents worried about how to preserve and, even more, to extend, their position beyond the next election. Most of them clearly did not exert enough of the right kind of effort in time to lay the groundwork for this immediately after being elected to the post. Instead, their attention was gobbled up by the effort to concentrate power and by the time the next election loomed, their political prospects became completely dependent on technical moves and the application of administrative leverage.
Today’s Head of State is no exception—despite the fact that he came to power with a strong mandate just as the country reached a turning point after the Euromaidan and gained further support with a majority in the Verkhovna Rada in his first year in office. In short, he had every opportunity to carry out the radical transformations the country needed, if not for ordinary Ukrainians, than at least in his own long-term interests.
Every government needs the right kind of support from the society it governs. One way to garner it is to reshape its social structure. This means measures that would establish a substantial substratum of voters who have gained positions that they do not want to lose and therefore link their future to the preservation of those in power and to maintaining the policies of the current leadership.
In most countries, this has typically happened at times of historical turning points and revolutionary transformations, when changes became long-term or even irreversible. The new leadership depended on the new social groups that linked their own prospects and well-being with them.
The question is whether the current president will use this opportunity or not. Of course, there are certain circles that are interested in preserving the current administration, but it’s hard to say that they have the numbers and social influence to ensure the prospects for the current powers-that-be to remain in office.
In fact, Petro Poroshenko has not managed to establish real social support for his administration in his three years in office. In June 2014, right after he was elected, The Ukrainian Week noted, in an article entitled “The heavy mace,” that when a relatively obscure individual in whom a wide circle of voters has invested idiosyncratic and generally unrealistic expectations begins to be more specific, the broad electoral base that brought him to power in the first round of voting was likely to dissipate quickly. Yet, attempts to preserve the oligarchic system under which Poroshenko himself has been used to working over the last 10 years will have a negative impact both on the country’s prospects for development and on the prospects of the president himself to stay in power.
Poroshenko really needed to have put some targeted effort into establishing a new social support system for a post-revolutionary government, but instead he seems to have bet on finding support in the traditional pro-government social strata: the bureaucracy, enforcement agencies, and that element of business that has to support whatever administration happens to be in power. Of course, this option is a lot simpler, but it’s also quite predictably unreliable. Yes, these three groups are historically pro-government by their very nature and it’s much easier to just keep relying on them. Caveat emptor. First of all, they are never oriented on any specific individual or party, but on the government as a continuum. Secondly, their support
is obviously too narrow to ensure a win in the next round of elections.
On the other hand, relying on traditional approaches to gaining power for a second term, such as administrative leverage or picking up some cheap popularity by buying off voters with social benefits, is also a fairly hopeless option today. The social groups that are oriented towards this kind of benefit expect quite a bit more and will follow much more bombastic populists. Here the current president has no chance a priori of competing in populism with the opposition, which can promise what it wants without worrying about where the money will come from. On the contrary, all the latest politically-motivated increases in social benefits are only likely to increase appetites for more and foster populists.
In his own election platform, Poroshenko demonstratively distanced himself from social populism, noting: “All the party platforms that you have read until now promised manna from heaven, but it never fell.” He went on to assure people that he would “spend money as soon as it appeared, in order to build a new economy.”
It turns out he needed to have gone farther. From the beginning of his term, he need to focus on establishing the conditions in Ukraine that would as quickly as possible encourage the majority of Ukrainians to be active participants and take responsibility for their own lives—and that would have also established the conditions for dynamic economic growth. Opinion polls at the time showed that most voters expected this and were prepared to suffer the difficulties of the “transition period.” Indeed, 71% of those who voted for Poroshenko were prepared, to one extent or another, to “put up with hard times today if this leads to a better standard of living tomorrow.”
That time should have been used to launch a full range of instruments that would ensure the dynamic growth of the middle class, which tends to have a market mentality and often even some family business assets. The employment market and the country’s economy, together with the presence of exceptional surplus cash “under mattresses” among a significant proportion of Ukrainians provided excellent conditions to launch entrepreneurial initiatives from the bottom up. All it needed was the right environment and guarantees of some kind.
The deep chasm in which Ukraine has found itself offers all the necessary conditions for government policy to maximally foster commercial activity, to support domestic manufacturers on foreign markets and to protect competition on the domestic one, and to see the national “pie” expand dynamically, rather than the wretched slices that people are still trying to carve up today.
This means that a competitive, level playing field needs to be maintained and the monopolist parasites nibbling away at the already weakened economy need to be stopped, since their main source of wealth is lobbying rather than running productive businesses.
Equally important is to ensure that the tax burden is fairly distributed, that everyone pays their fair share and not just those who don’t have the means to lobby all kinds of breaks at the political level, direct and indirect. At the same time, this burden should be reduced to a reasonable level. What’s more, the corruption tax needs to be eliminated as it seriously increases the official tax burden.
For all this to happen, Petro Poroshenko needed to take on the role of the catalyzer and coordinator of state policy immediately after being elected, aiming his efforts at reviving the economy across as broad a spectrum of the population as possible, and to support and protect it against outside interference. He also needed to undertake a thorough transformation of law enforcement and oversight agencies into instrument for guaranteeing lawfulness and security rather than being a tool for pressuring and terrorizing business. This would have provided a basis for the proper development of competitive SMEs.
Next, what was needed was real, rather than merely cosmetic, radical reform to revive the judiciary to establish the inviolability of private ownership, to protect business initiatives from raiders, and to ensure that all market players fulfilled their rightful obligations.
In the last three years or so, no real steps have been taken in this direction. Yet this remains the only path, not just to the successful development of Ukraine itself, but to maintain the political prospects of the current president. Realistically, does Poroshenko have enough time in the next two years to take then necessary steps before he has to run for office again?
On one hand, there is less than one third of the president’s term left. On the other, there still looks to be time to propose to Ukrainian voters a program of changes like this and to at least show decisiveness in implementing them. More than likely, this would make it possible for a majority of active Ukrainians to focus on a reform platform—a number that is potentially growing every year. According to a poll from the NAS Institute of Sociology carried out in July 2017, it looks like the share of Ukrainians who are
THE ECONOMICALLY ACTIVE SHARE OF UKRAINIAN SOCIETY IS THE ONLY REMAINING SOCIAL SUPPORT THAT THE CURRENT PRESIDENT IS LIKELY TO BE ABLE TO DRAW ON DURING THE NEXT ELECTION CAMPAIGN— IF HE PLAYS HIS CARDS RIGHT
ready to suffer some worsening in their living standard for the sake of serious reforms had grown to 39%, up from 33% in 2016, while the share of those who aren’t prepared to suffer for the sake of real change has shrunk significantly, falling from 60% in 2016 to 50% in 2017.
However, President Poroshenko needs to completely ignore the old bureaucratic and law enforcement guard, with its penchant for corrupt income and piracy towards the real business class. Instead, he needs to undertake a real cleaning out of these Augean stables and make such agencies work in the interest of normal, competitive business.
And even if these steps do not result in the full desired effect because of the shortness of time before the 2019 elections, a decisive and consistent administration could prove sufficiently effective to gain the support of the economically active share of Ukrainian society. After all, this is the only remaining social support that the current president is likely to be able to draw on during the next election campaign—if he plays his cards right.
Once again, though, it has to be shown through deeds and not words, that he is prepared to do that which he should have been doing, going on four years now—even if under pressure from a looming election. If the active, patriotic voters among Ukrainians can be persuaded that the current administration has finally chosen the right course of action and it moving in that direction, this will be far more appealing than the triumph of populists, whose return to power would be fraught with poorly forecast, but clearly very negative, consequences.