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23 March, 2018  ▪  Denys Kazanskyi

The spin-doctor headache

Undecided voters are a tasty morsel for parties that are not in the Verkhovna Rada, yet none of these parties has much of a chance of winning them over in significant numbers

The low ratings of political parties in Ukraine suggest one thing: Ukrainians are tired of the current lot of politicians. The old-timers have long bored them while the fresh lot who were elected after the Euromaidan have not justified voters’ trust in them. The top ratings, as before, continue to go to the veterans, people who have led political events in the country for 15-20 years at this point. But they passed the top of their game long ago.

Batkivshchyna’s Yulia Tymoshenko is unlikely, for instance, to get 30% of the vote in the next election. Nor has the Opposition Bloc’s Yuriy Boyko managed to gain the popularity of Viktor Yanukovych at his peak. And it doesn’t look like the current president, Petro Poroshenko, will win outright in the first round. The heroes of the past have lost the trust of Ukrainian voters and the result is that many of them have not decided for whom they will vote. The latest polls show that, among those voters who plan to go to the polls, 20-30% are undecided. Another 30% say they won’t even bother going to the polls, as they don’t see anyone worth voting for. It’s clear that the much-promised “New way of life” never took place and ordinary Ukrainians are in the grips of apathy.

Understanding just how difficult the situation is, political spin doctors are scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to pick up this “no man’s” electorate. How to win over the votes of those who are disillusioned with politicians and have no intentions of casting a ballot? The window of opportunity has never been so wide open. Given the low level of support for the old guard, it should be relatively easy to bring new faces to the game, as 5-6% is already an indication of possible victory today.

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Distrust in professional politicians has led to a new trend: political campaigns led by stars from show business. And with their help, the spin doctors hope to increase interest in the elections and get through to those who don’t see any worthy candidates. These days, rumors have it that there are two such “celebrity” projects: “Servant of the People” led by Volodymyr Zelenskiy, well-known comedian and TV host, and the party of Okean Elzy frontman Sviatoslav Vakarchuk—which so far has not been registered and has no name. Although neither of them has officially announced that he is entering politics, both are already making an appearance in opinion polls. Strange as it might seem, both these phantom candidates already have substantial support among potential voters, which sociologists say demonstrates the extent to which ordinary Ukrainians are experiencing fatigue with “politics as usual.”

Of course, it may be extremely infantile to hope that musicians and comedians will improve life and run the country better than experienced politicians, but Ukraine appears to have a substantial electorate that is engaged in magical thinking. Knowing that Ukrainians like to believe in a messiah, spin doctors are already predicting that Zelenskiy and Vakarchuk will succeed. Millions of Ukrainians are willing to vote on the principle “maybe it’s worse, but it’s different.” The other side of this coin is “against everyone.”

Backroom talk is that both stars have oligarchs backing them financially. Ihor Kolomoyskiy is supposedly sponsoring Zelenskiy, who works on his channel, while Viktor Pinchuk is said to be preparing to finance Vakarchuk. In any case, the musician says privately that he has not decided whether to run yet. “I don’t plan to enter politics unless I can put together a team of like-minded people,” he says. So far, he doesn’t have such a team.

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But it’s not just the spin doctors who are looking at “no man’s” voters. Younger politicians are also seeing this huge reserve as open game, as they search for various ways to bring together and establish new political parties. Needless to say, there is no shortage of new parties and movements since the Euromaidan victory—and across the entire political spectrum.

The number of new forces in the national democratic camp continues to grow: the Movement of New Forces associated with Mikheil Saakashvili, Democratic Alliance co-chaired by a number of activists and new MPs, People Power co-led by Oleksandr Solontai, Wav, a party created by people from Saakshvili’s team, Yehor Firsov’s Alternative, the Liberation movement led by Yehor Sobolev, and the yet-again revived Narodniy Rukh. Most of them remain obscure to voters, however, and their ratings are scraping the bottom in the 1.0-1.5% range. Even the best-known and most popular among them, Mikheil Saakashvili’s Movement of New Forces, cannot seem to muster more than 2-3%, despite having a scandalous and charismatic leader who can claim 100% name recognition across Ukraine. The remaining parties and movements are fighting an uphill battle as their leaders are largely recognized only by those who are carefully monitoring domestic politics.

The now-infamous Nadia Savchenko is also preparing a party for elections, although her ratings collapsed more than a year ago. The entire pro-Russian flank also appears to be active, although some 5-6 parties are now vying for the electorate that once belonged to Party of the Regions. The newest spin-off, the Party of Socialist Christians, was just announced in mid-February by former Kharkiv mayor and Kharkiv Oblast governor Mykhailo Dobkin. Like other leaders of freshly-minted parties, Dobkin is hoping that his party will become the center of gravity for disenchanted Party of Regions voters who also don’t want to vote for the Opposition Bloc.

That the OppoBloc is splintering has been evident for some time. For one thing, there are serious differences between Akhmetov’s people, who are cooperating with the Poroshenko Administration, and people belonging to Liovochkin and Firtash, who have a more hostile position. Right now, it looks like OB members will scatter to various other parties by the time the Rada elections come up and will attempt to storm the legislature in smaller groups, rather than as a united front, the way it was until now.

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The weakness of this kind of approach is obvious: the electorate is likely to be so dissipated that, in the end, everyone will lose. The answer seems to be that, even as new parties are formed, negotiations will take place about how to unite them. Even so, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that this might lead to specific success for anyone, either. Rumors of backroom deals come to the press on a regular basis, but so far there is no evident result. Too many mutual grievances have accumulated among the various participants for this process to go smoothly.

What might make joint efforts go more smoothly would be a common candidate for the presidency. This seems like an easier goal to reach agreement on than trying to come up with a joint list for the VR election. So far, however, there hasn’t been any consensus. Even the anti-corruption camp is preparing to nominate several candidates at this point, something that is completely understandable in the absence of a clear leader who will have the advantage from the very start, even in these circles. Since they all enjoy similarly low ratings, no one is prepared to step aside at this time. One compromise candidate being considered is National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) director Artem Sytnyk. It’s not clear, though, whether he will agree to run for office. Moreover, not everyone is persuaded of his prospects in the upcoming race. Clearly lacking in charisma, Sytnyk is more likely a choice based on desperation.

The main problem recognized by all political players is the lack of new ideas and purposes that might interest voters and bring fresh impetus to the country’s politics. The only element that seems to distinguish new political parties from the old ones is the names of their leaders. Everyone continues to rely on the same hackneyed slogans, many have little by way of a clear election platform, and too many continue to repeat tired populist messages that Ukrainian voters have heard all too often.

So far, it’s very hard for the ordinary voter to understand who’s who in this “attack of the clones,” and many are avoiding politics altogether as so much annoying white noise. The old tricks no longer work to capture voter imaginations. Only someone who is able to offer a non-standard approach and new concepts is likely to win the jackpot this time around.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj  

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