Vote busters:

What those in power and op­po­si­tion are likely to do to im­prove their rates and mo­bi­lize the elec­torate

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Maksym Vikhrov

What those in power and op­po­si­tion are likely to do to im­prove their rates and mo­bi­lize the elec­torate

Can­di­dates in the 2019 par­lia­men­tary and pres­i­den­tial elec­tions will en­ter that year with poor sup­port rates. Ac­cord­ing to poll­sters, the most pop­u­lar par­ties in Ukraine stay be­low 20% and all fairly vis­i­ble po­lit­i­cal ac­tors are mis­trusted. This looks like a har­bin­ger of a cut-throat po­lit­i­cal bat­tle for ev­ery voter from the pool of those who have not de­cided on their choice yet. They are many of these.

Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by the Kyiv In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute of So­ci­ol­ogy (KIIS), nearly 40% of Ukrainian vot­ers were un­de­cided about the up­com­ing elec­tions as of De­cem­ber 2017. This share of the elec­torate may well bring an en­tirely new for­ma­tion to power in Ukraine. The ques­tion is whether the 2019 can­di­dates man­age to get their act to­gether and at­tract the sup­port of this seg­ment by the time the cam­paigns start. Given the cur­rent elec­tion moods, they will have to be enor­mously creative, and still have no guar­an­tee of a pos­i­tive out­come.

Those cur­rently in power are prob­a­bly in the most dif­fi­cult po­si­tion. Ukraine’s vot­ers blame on them all de­vel­op­ments in Ukraine, as well as their own failed ex­pec­ta­tions ac­cu­mu­lated dur­ing the Maidan and fur­ther fu­eled by the pop­ulism in 2014 elec­tions. The ex­tent to which those in power are ac­tu­ally at fault is open to dis­cus­sion. How­ever, it is pub­lic opin­ion that mat­ters in elec­tions. And that one is quite unan­i­mous in Ukraine. Ac­cord­ing to the Ilko Kucheriv Demo­cratic Ini­tia­tives Fund (DIF), 74% of Ukraini­ans be­lieve that de­vel­op­ments in Ukraine are go­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion. Trust for the Pres­i­dent is at -62%, -65% for the Gov­ern­ment and -56% for the Prime Min­is­ter. Less than 8% of Ukraini­ans are ready to vote for the par­ties in the nom­i­nal gov­ern­ing coali­tion – Petro Poroshenko Bloc and Nar­o­d­nyi Front (Peo­ple’s Front).

Those in power still have a strate­gic ad­van­tage – they have the real tools to in­flu­ence life in the coun­try and de­liver pos­i­tive re­sults, of which there is only a hand­ful. The few ful­filled prom­ises in­clude the As­so­ci­a­tion Agree­ment and visa free travel with the EU. Those in power can also count the de­com­mu­niza­tion cam­paign as a suc­cess. How­ever, these his­toric ac­com­plish­ments will hardly have a de­ci­sive ef­fect on the elec­torate: ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by DIF, Ukraini­ans are ac­tu­ally most con­cerned about the war in the Don­bas (75%), grow­ing prices (50%), wide­spread cor­rup­tion (47%) and poor so­cial stan­dards (42%).

Will those in power man­age to meet the key de­mands of so­ci­ety be­fore the elec­tions? An eco­nomic mir­a­cle is not com­ing in the next year or two. The only thing the gov­ern­ment can do over this time is to once again in­crease so­cial ben­e­fits which will fuel in­fla­tion. And it will most likely bet on this so­cial el­e­ment. Hav­ing raised wages in 2017, the Gov­ern­ment has again an­nounced an in­crease of min­i­mum wages to UAH 4,100. Presi-

dent Poroshenko and Vice Premier Pavlo Rozenko have made such state­ments. The Min­istry of So­cial Pol­icy has promised a 20% in­crease in pen­sions in 2019. This will likely win the sym­pa­thy of vul­ner­a­ble so­cial groups. The ques­tion is who they will thank for this bonus. The me­dia have long been talk­ing about ten­sions be­tween the Pres­i­dent and the Premier. One of the al­leged rea­sons is Hro­is­man’s po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions and closer links to the Peo­ple’s Front. If the con­flict does erupt, Volodymyr Hrios­man may be forced to re­sign in or­der to shed the neg­a­tive legacy cre­ated by the pre­vi­ous eco­nomic hard­ships.

On other points, those in power will hardly man­age to score. The top five pri­or­i­ties for the pub­lic in­clude anti-cor­rup­tion, pen­sion, health­care and law en­force­ment re­forms, and lus­tra­tion of of­fi­cials. The re­forms that had been widely an­nounced in 2014 are stalling. Ac­cord­ing the DIF, a mere 5% of Ukraini­ans be­lieve that they have been suc­cess­ful. 41% be­lieve that noth­ing has been done to con­duct re­forms, while 35% put the progress at less than 10%. The Pres­i­dent, the Gov­ern­ment and the par­lia­men­tary coali­tion are named among the top five ob­sta­cles along­side oli­garchs and law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties.

It will be im­pos­si­ble to turn this pub­lic opin­ion up­side down even if those in power fire a num­ber of peo­ple, ar­rest of­fi­cials in­volved in cor­rup­tion and send them to court. Too many cases of im­punity have ac­cu­mu­lated over the past years, and a pre-elec­tion per­for­mance will hardly over­ride them. The same goes for the rest of re­forms — even if ac­tu­ally sped up in the run-up to the elec­tions, they will not have a dra­matic ef­fect on the gov­ern­ment’s neg­a­tive im­age. The sit­u­a­tion in the Don­bas will also re­main a sore spot as the war is un­likely to stop in 2019. The build-up of the Ukrainian army is the only ar­gu­ment that can partly over­ride neg­a­tiv­ity in this aspect.

As a re­sult, those cur­rently in power are walk­ing into the pres­i­den­tial and par­lia­men­tary elec­tions with some­thing in their hands but no tools that could change the elec­toral dis­po­si­tion to their ben­e­fit dra­mat­i­cally. There­fore, in ad­di­tion to play­ing the so­cial card, the Pres­i­dent and coali­tion part­ners — pro­vided that they don’t be­come to­tal op­po­nents by the time the elec­tions ar­rive — will at­tempt to over­ride neg­a­tive in­for­ma­tion trig­gers by demon­stra­tions of ac­com­plish­ments and suc­cess. They will also try to mo­bi­lize the pas­sive part of the elec­torate against their op­po­nents. Ob­vi­ously, Yu­lia Ty­moshenko will be the main tar­get of crit­i­cism. Pres­i­dent Poroshenko has al­ready slipped a men­tion of her one-time “friend­ship” with Vladimir Putin in his New Year ad­dress. This will not have much ef­fect given how sim­i­lar the ri­vals are in their ide­ol­ogy — or, more specif­i­cally, in the lack thereof. His­tory tells us that Ukraini­ans best mo­bi­lize when op­po­site po­lit­i­cal par­a­digms clash, as in the rise against Vik­tor Yanukovych and the Party of Re­gions.

The cur­rent op­po­si­tion in Ukraine is di­vided into three wings. The wing of the nom­i­nal na­tional democrats in­cludes Yu­lia Ty­moshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Father­land), Samopomich (Self-Re­liance) led by Lviv Mayor An­driy Sadovyi, and a num­ber of par­ties that are not in par­lia­ment.

The pro-Rus­sian re­van­chists are rep­re­sented by the Op­po­si­tion Bloc led by Yuriy Boyko and Za Zhyt­tia (For Life) with Vadym Rabi­novych. The na­tion­al­is­tic Svobo-

da (Free­dom) led by Oleh Ti­ah­ny­bok will have to share the elec­torate with the na­tional-pop­ulist Oleh Li­ashko’s Rad­i­cal Party.

Given the cur­rent level of pub­lic frus­tra­tion with those in power, the op­po­si­tion should feel con­fi­dent. How­ever, its rates are fairly low with lit­tle space for growth. The op­po­si­tion’s main prob­lem lies in the fact that its per­ma­nent lead­ers are mostly from the co­hort of the play­ers of the past. None of them is ac­tu­ally ca­pa­ble of in­trigu­ing the vot­ers as each has a trace of fail­ures, con­tro­ver­sial ac­tions and scan­dals be­hind. All of them are more or less in­cor­po­rated into the power sys­tem, there­fore they are also to blame for the state of af­fairs in Ukraine.

The op­po­si­tion — or the nom­i­nally pa­tri­otic part of it — will thus try its best to find new faces as decor for their par­ties. New faces will pop up in the en­tourage of can­di­dates for pres­i­dency who will thus try to cover up their own toxic rep­u­ta­tions. Who ex­actly these new faces will be is still to be seen.

In 2014, party big­wigs were run­ning for par­lia­ment be­hind a shield of mil­i­tary and vol­un­teer com­man­ders. To­day, vot­ers get far less car­ried away with peo­ple in fa­tigues. So the party play­ers may now bet on so­cially ac­tive celebri­ties and anti-cor­rup­tion ac­tivists.

As to the con­tent of their pol­i­tics, the only hope of the na­tional democrats lies in get­ting more ac­tive in the me­dia and crit­i­ciz­ing those in power in the hope that the vot­ers will choose “worse but dif­fer­ent” in the end.


Na­tion­al­ists will have a much harder time as they al­ready risk re­turn­ing to the sta­tus of an op­po­si­tion that is be­yond the mar­gins of the sys­tem (or par­lia­ment). Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of this cir­cle have no chance to win pres­i­dency. Yet, they will def­i­nitely try to in­crease their pres­ence in the Verkhovna Rada. The first can­di­date is Svo­boda with 3% of sup­port to­day. Its un­ex­pected suc­cess in the 2010 par­lia­men­tary elec­tion sig­nals that it is still too early to write it off as an out­sider.

When the rates are within the stan­dard er­ror mar­gins, split­ting up the elec­torate is un­ac­cept­able. There­fore, Svo­boda, the Na­tional Corps and the Right Sec­tor de­clared their unity by sign­ing the Na­tional Man­i­festo in March 2017. Whether this agree­ment lasts through 2019 is un­clear. So far, this strat­egy looks per­fectly ra­tio­nal. Still, Oleh Li­ashko’s party can ruin Svo­boda’s chance as it ex­ploits a sim­i­lar rhetoric and can steal a crit­i­cal share of votes.

Given the ex­pe­ri­ence of all pre­vi­ous elec­tions, the share of ide­o­log­i­cally en­gaged elec­torate in Ukraine is very low. More­over, the na­tion­al­is­tic dis­course has turned into po­lit­i­cal main­stream in the past years. De­com­mu­niza­tion, re­vival of his­toric mem­ory and an­tiRus­sian re­sis­tance — all the things that had once been a trick of the rad­i­cal right — are now con­ducted on the na­tion­wide scale un­der con­trol of those in power. Na­tion­al­ists will thus have to look for a dif­fer­ent for­mat of in­ter­act­ing with the vot­ers and make sure that they stand out among their ri­vals. The lib­er­a­tion of Don­bas is likely to be their key theme in 2019; on that, they will present them­selves as feisty pa­tri­ots, crit­ics of the Minsk Agree­ments and of the “deals” made by those cur­rently in power.

The core elec­torate of the rad­i­cal right is con­cen­trated in western re­gions. There­fore, this may work as the pop­u­la­tion of these ar­eas that are more dis­tant from the ac­tual front­line is more re­luc­tant to seek com­pro­mises. In ad­di­tion to that, the rad­i­cals may take the niche of the street op­po­si­tion and at­tract pub­lic at­ten­tion with showy ral­lies which they tend to like and are good at. Over­all, how­ever, their po­lit­i­cal fu­ture is un­clear.

By con­trast to the nom­i­nally pa­tri­otic po­lit­i­cal forces that will com­pete for the vot­ers in Cen­tral and Western Ukraine mostly, their ide­o­log­i­cal op­po­nents will flirt with South-East­ern Ukraine. On one hand, this field has shrunk af­ter the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and the oc­cu­pa­tion of part of the Don­bas. This rules out the prospect of a full re­vanche and re­stricts their space for growth. On the other hand, na­tional democrats and na­tion­al­ists tra­di­tion­ally ig­nore the “hope­less” re­gions, so they will not deal with the core elec­torate of the politi­cians with re­van­chist am­bi­tions. The idyl­lic dis­po­si­tion of the re­van­chist camp is spoiled by the in­ter­nal ri­valry be­tween the Op­po­si­tion Bloc and Vadym Rabi­novych, the leader of Za Zhyt­tia [For Life] party and the win­ner in this com­pe­ti­tion so far. Ac­cord­ing to DIF, Op­po­si­tion Bloc’s Yuriy Boyko gains 7.7% and 12.7% in South­ern and East­ern Ukraine re­spec­tively, and 3.6% in the Don­bas. Vadym Rabi­novych has 12% and 16.8% of sup­port, and 17.9% in the Don­bas. In terms of party sup­port, Rabi­novych is the win­ner, too. Za Zhyt­tia en­joys 10.9% in South­ern Ukraine, 22% in East­ern Ukraine and 18.1% in the Don­bas, while the Op­po­si­tion Bloc has 7%, 13.4% and 9.6% re­spec­tively. Rabi­novych’s suc­cess comes en­tirely from his fever­ish me­dia pres­ence, while the ex-Party of Re­gions play­ers rely on lo­cal “au­thor­i­ta­tive” peo­ple in pol­i­tics and busi­ness, and the po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal ac­cu­mu­lated over the years.

Since South-East­ern Ukraine has the high­est per­cent­age of vot­ers re­luc­tant to par­tic­i­pate in any elec­tions or still un­de­cided about their pref­er­ence, the pro-Rus­sian forces may try to con­sol­i­date and mo­bi­lize their elec­torate by of­fer­ing a more rad­i­cal rhetoric. They are likely to bring back the “threats” of NATO and Ukrainian na­tion­al­ism, the sta­tus of Rus­sian etc. as the mo­bi­liz­ing themes in their cam­paign. Also, the pro-Rus­sian forces will prob­a­bly act as the mouth­pieces of the peo­ple who are weary of the war threat and sup­port the fastest pos­si­ble so­lu­tion in the Don­bas through a “di­a­logue” and “nor­mal­iza­tion of re­la­tions” with Rus­sia.

Thus, there will be quite a few com­peti­tors for the un­de­cided elec­torate. The cur­rent sit­u­a­tion leaves no force in Ukraine’s pol­i­tics con­fi­dent of vic­tory. Both those in power and in op­po­si­tion have few chances of end­ing up with an elec­toral jack­pot.

This is not be­cause of a deficit of re­sources or cre­ativ­ity. This pre-elec­tion sit­u­a­tion comes from fail­ures by some play­ers, and is a symp­tom of the big­gest dis­ease in Ukraine’s pol­i­tics: the lack of ro­ta­tion in its elite. Ac­cord­ing to a DIF poll, al­most 67% of Ukraini­ans are look­ing for­ward to see­ing new faces in pol­i­tics. Ukraine’s po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment is in­ca­pable of de­liv­er­ing this. There­fore, win­ning the trust and at­ten­tion of the pub­lic is turn­ing into an ever more daunt­ing task. Un­less the re­newal of elite be­gins in the next few years, the con­se­quences of this may prove sur­pris­ingly painful.

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