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19 July, 2016  ▪  Bohdan Butkevych

Multiplication by division

The prospects of two young liberal parties

Within days of each other, people whom everyone had expected to see in the good ship Mikheil Saakashvili announced the launch of two new liberal parties. On June 28, Saakashvili’s associate David Sakvarelidze finally officially announced that he was beginning to form a party. On July 18 it became officially known as Khvylia (Wave). On July 9, Mustafa Nayem, Serhiy Leshchenko and Co. held an official convention for their revived party Nova Krayina (New Country), based on the Democratic Alliance.

Despite declarations on both sides that these two entities will be on friendly terms, it is obvious that, in fact, things will be the exact opposite. Even the virtually simultaneous start testifies to their rivalry and desire to stake out a place as the pioneer among the “alternatives.” The fact that these two teams will be pounding the same electoral turf, which almost 100% the same as their Facebook followers, suggests a pessimistic outlook.

Here is the sad reality: Ukrainians, as usual, but especially in the progressive democratic camp, don’t know how to get along. And so they end up time and again losing to the more consolidated anti-Ukrainian or simply pro-government forces.

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Without being a total skeptic, the synchronized start of two parties that are so similar in rhetoric and personalities, as well as in their theoretical voter bases, can only cause alarm. Of course, we can make use of slogans like “More parties that are nice and varied” or “The more of us, the less of them,” but when it comes right down to it, Ukrainians now have the launch, not of one long-anticipated progressive civic party that was supposed to unite around itself a broad circle of those who want change and have pro-European attitudes, but two. And any ritualistic laments from both sides about the fact that they will not fight between themselves seem quite silly.

Politics is, after all, a battleground, always among all, and everywhere. All the more so, that neither team bothered to explain why they decided to go their separate ways since, theoretically, they had no disagreements. Just a few months ago, all the members of these two teams were hugging each other at a series of anti-corruption forums organized by Saakashvili.

So here we stumble on the eternal problem of Ukrainian politicians: an inability to unite and suppress their personal ambitions. All this time, the press and pundits have tirelessly been smacking their lips over squabbles within the hypothetical Saakashvili team over who would lead—Mikho himself, MPs Leshchenko and Nayem, DemAlliance leader Vasyl Hatsko, Viktor Chumak, and others. Rumor has it that they all wanted to be the face of the new project. Meanwhile, not one step has been taken towards party-building even as time keeps moving on, along with voter confidence.

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Getting away from hypotheses, the realistic electoral cap that a united liberal-democratic party might hope to gain, based on opinion polls, is around 10%... ideally. And that’s only if such a party avoids raising such controversial flags like gay rights, legalizing recreational drugs, guns, and so on. For political party that wants to call itself liberal, this is not entirely correct. But ok, let’s toss doctrinaire positions aside and stick to numbers.

It turns out that these 10% have just been split in two, and even the personal ratings of Saakashvili, which have fallen in recent months from a high of 20% to 5-7%, will not help his party. In short, even if there were just one party, the most that it could hope to bring to the Verkhovna Rada would be around 20 deputies. With this force split in two from the very start, both parties are already wavering on the hairpin threshold of 4%.

Some might say, that’s stupid, because Saakashvili himself has more than 850,000 followers in Facebook, and that was more than enough for Batkivshchyna to make it into the Rada during the last election. Meanwhile, Leshchenko and Nayem have something over 200,000 followers between the two of them, and their readership is no less than what the ex-President of Georgia can claim. And that’s without even taking any people away from other parties. Moreover, Vitaliy Kasko and Chumak are popular in social networks, and equally popular among hipsters is the former Deputy Minister of Economic Trade and Development and one of the authors of the revolutionary electronic state procurement system ProZorro, Maksym Nefyodov. In short, there’s plenty of social capital there.

Still, there is practical reality to consider: people in Facebook get to their polling stations less often than grannies paid off through the kinds of “electoral pyramid schemes” that were once thought up by Chernovetskiy and continue to be successfully exploited by those who want to stay in power—especially in the regions and the backwoods. And less than the witnesses of the Tymoshenko or Liashko sects. The main point is that nobody has ever said that all those who follow someone are prepared to vote for the people they simply read in social networks.

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The biggest question will be that neither team has real party organizers who are not concerned with getting themselves on television but with real, grassroots party-building among an electorate that is poor, apathetic and spoiled by constant vote-buying over the last 20 years. It’s not an easy task. Dreaming about your popularity and star quality isn’t going to work here. Sweat equity will— something that all the members of both teams will have serious problems with.

And that’s without even touching on the eternal issue of financing. Rumors persist that both Saakashvili and Leshchenko are being funded by oligarch Kostiantyn Hryhoryshyn (aka Konstantin Grigorishin). A serious competition between the two projects could end up burying all the participants of these liberal start-ups.

In short, it looks like the one and only chance these freshly baked liberals have to succeed is by uniting into a single entity. Otherwise, their rivalry will simply lead to the premature death of an idea whose time has really come.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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