The prospects of the opposition in the forthcoming elections will hinge on its ability to coordinate its actions in the interests of society and overcome government provocations
The Ukrainian Week has already written that a battle between opposition representatives in first-past-the-post (FPTP) districts is a real danger that could trigger an all-out fight to the death between Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), Vitaliy Klitschko’s UDAR (Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform) and Oleh Tyahnybok’s Svoboda (Freedom) Party at the national level. Arseniy Yatseniuk, the number one candidate on the United Opposition list, essentially acknowledged the threat when he said: “If we, Front Zmin [Front of Change], ran separately, there would be a war between us and Batkivshchyna. And everyone would add fuel to the flame in this situation.” Clearly, the government is banking precisely on this scenario, the only change being that it wants UDAR, rather than the Front of Change, to become Batkivshchyna’s sparring partner.
In September, the poorly disguised tension between the United Opposition and UDAR reached new heights, leading to a series of critical statements against Klitschko’s party. The allegation was that his party was inconsistent in making good on its promise to withdraw its candidates with a less than realistic chance in FPTP districts. This resulted in Yatseniuk’s statement, in which he essentially rejected any further talks with UDAR on joint FPTP candidacies under the pretext that all “third forces” are working for the government. All of this took place amid verbal sparring between local organizations and FPTP candidates representing Batkivshchyna and Svoboda on the one hand and UDAR on the other, in the most promising western and central regions. In different places, untruthful information was leaked; posters and logos were torn off; agitators used physical force. True or not, mass media outlets picked up this information, giving observers and potential voters the impression of intense in-fighting within the opposition camp.
The government decided to bring the conflict to a head and engaged in direct provocation, reminding the electorate, still weary from the constant rows of the Orange period, that “the democrats have not changed” and are utterly unable to unite and act jointly for the purpose of attaining a constructive result. Batkivshchyna’s press service said that fake copies of the party’s newspaper were handed out near metro stations in downtown Kyiv on 26 September. The bogus issue contained provocative materials, particularly Yulia Tymoshenko’s accusations against Klitschko. On 1 October, the FPTP candidates from Batkivshchyna and UDAR accused the government of provocation directed against the opposition in the Poltava Oblast: a print run of fake newspaper copies containing critical articles against UDAR’s member Taras Kutoviy was confiscated in Pyriatyn. The United Opposition’s candidate, Mykola Karnaukh was identified at the person who allegedly commissioned the publication. Karnaukh responded by saying that it was an “attempt to divide the opposition and sow distrust”. Kutoviy is of the same opinion and believes that the local authorities are behind this shameful act.
A series of “strange” opinion poll results were then published by companies that have never been truly active in this area. These showed – no doubt, to the delight of the authorities – a significant lead for the Party of Regions over Batkivshchyna (almost twofold) and overstated support for UDAR. Research&Branding Group, which has always been loyal to the government and published results that favoured the Party of Regions more than those obtained by other large polling companies), did not dare put its name on the line to such runaway forecasts, but its CEO, Yevhen Kopatko, demonstrated his willingness to substantiate the relevant “overall” trend: “Certain dynamics are emerging between the two leading political forces. The gap between the Party of Regions and Batkivshchyna is growing as UDAR takes votes from the United Opposition in western Ukraine and thus may eventually claim more votes than Batkivshchyna.”
This information was accompanied by a series of clearly paid-for online articles that claimed that disappointment amid old opposition members will propel Klitschko’s party to the runner-up position, while Batkivshchyna will be gradually marginalized. Spokespersons for the Party of Regions and oblast governors began to heap praise on UDAR and Klitschko himself, lauding his “constructive and realistic” approach and suggesting that at the very least, he may well be a situational ally in the future parliament. In professional lingo, this is called “a choking embrace”.
Attempts to pit UDAR against Batkivshchyna show that the government is afraid of their victory. The illusion of in-fighting is important for the Party of Regions, which hopes that it will demoralize potential opposition supporters, discouraging them from participation, thus balancing out the passive attitude taken by its own disenchanted “core electorate”.
In fact, the two main opposition forces will have no alternative but to cooperate despite their own wishes, if only because their clearly articulated uncompromising electioneering rhetoric makes it impossible to justify any future public cooperation with the Party of Regions. Incidentally, the likelihood of Klitschko following in the footsteps of Serhiy Tihipko is doubtful, in view of the above. It is well-known that Tihipko never publicly acknowledged having any taboos about picking an ally between Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovych, leaving this question open. In contrast, Klitschko has said clearly time and again that the Yanukovych regime is his main opponent and vowed to remove Yanukovych from power. He has defined, in a similarly clear fashion, the political forces he can team up with in the next parliament – the United Opposition. After making such vows, it is impossible to drastically change political allies without completely losing electoral support, a clear example of which was Oleksandr Moroz. After all, the so-called wide coalition under President Viktor Yushchenko never materialized precisely because it was clearly articulated during prior election campaigns that this kind of union was out of question, thus it would have meant the loss of popular support.
THE STAKES HAVE NEVER BEEN HIGHER
It is completely natural for political forces and especially leaders to seek the largest possible representation of their political force in parliament during elections. However, in the current situation, this goal must be in line with a higher purpose, which is dethroning the incumbent anti-democratic and anti-Ukrainian regime. This will require having the maximum possible number of committed MPs after the election. Therefore, from the viewpoint of Ukraine's prospects, the vote count for individual opposition forces is less significant than the total number of candidates Batkivshchyna, UDAR and Svoboda will be able to get into parliament, prevent their defections and their ability to rally in order to counteract further usurpation by the government.
The abovementioned statements in which the United Opposition and UDAR implicate the current authorities are of great significance. Yatseniuk’s first ppointed statement essentially sent a message that the black public relations campaign against UDAR made in Batkivchyna’s name had no bearing on the party’s position. The question is how many citizens heard the message. Key opposition forces must exert considerable efforts to reassure citizens that they can work as a team in the future parliament and will not wage a war against each other, such as the one between Yushchenko and Mrs. Tymoshenko in 2005-2010.
The ability of the opposition to convert the existing majority support into an electoral victory will hinge on how coordinated its actions will be. Crucially, opposition forces must be able to withdraw weak candidates in FPTP districts in favour of more popular ones. Some steps have been taken in this direction, but it is important not to stop there, but to extend this policy from the regional and district level, to the national level. Even after withdrawing its candidates, one opposition force or another must help to ensure the protection of the victorious outcome through its observers and election commission members.
It is also incumbent upon the opposition parties to jointly monitor vote counting under the proportional system across the country. A parallel count and the financing of an independent exit poll will be crucial. This exit poll has to be conducted in more localities, including remote areas, because its results may prove to be the only counterargument against falsified figures that will be reported by election commissions, most of which are controlled by the Party of Regions.
The three opposition forces that stand a real chance of getting into the Verkhovna Rada (Batkivshchyna, UDAR and Svoboda) must even now act with a view to close cooperation in the future parliament. It is clear that an attempt to create one major counterforce to the current government by merging the Front of Changes, Batkivshchyna and other parties in the United Opposition format have fallen through. According to various polls, the United Opposition has no more than 55-65% of overall support for key opposition forces (Batkivshchyna, UDAR and Svoboda). So there is no point in playing hide and seek. The Ukrainian Week has previously stated that one of the reasons why Yatseniuk was able to strike a deal with Tyahnybok and Anatoliy Hrytsenko but not with Klitschko, could have been because the former two clearly have insufficient support to enable them to become a common presidential candidate from the opposition in the future. On the other hand, although Klitschko avoids giving direct responses to questions on his presidential ambitions, and even now, he is no less popular than Yatseniuk.
Therefore, regardless of the outcome of the parliamentary elections, opposition forces will face the issue of agreeing on a common candidate for the regular or early presidential election, as was the case after the 2002 parliamentary campaign. Only a positive result will lay the foundation for a victory like the one scored by the opposition in 2004.
As previously mentioned by The Ukrainian Week, voters who are skeptical, often for good reason, of the opposition forces today, need to realize that the 2012 elections are, more than ever before, a vote “against” rather than “for”. Above all, it is about voting against a scenario under which there may be no opportunity to even cast ballots. The opposition has clear advantages over the Yanukovych regime in that it favours political pluralism, democratic principles in forming the government and preserving national sovereignty, not to mention a course towards European integration. All of this is not enough to successfully resolve the problems inherited from the Soviet era and those accumulated by Ukraine in the past two decades, but it is sufficient to be aware of the difference between it and the current government. Opposition forces are completely capable of executing top-priority tasks: dismantling the vertical power structure built by the current government; restoring democratic mechanisms for the formation, functioning, regular unobstructed rotation and political responsibility of the government before the citizens; keeping Ukraine from sliding down to the Russian model which would block its development prospects; stopping the discrimination of Ukrainians in their own country.
If these prerequisites are in place, it will be possible to speak about replacing the current opposition in the future with more effective political forces, capable of carrying out deep transformations. If, however, the current regime cements its position, such opportunities will be much more complicated or set aside for many years. This year’s election is a case whereby society can win by merely preventing the government from obtaining a constitutional majority in parliament. The large-scale mobilization of Ukrainian citizens for the 28 October election will boost the chances and reduce the cost of removing the Yanukovych government from power in the future.