Ukraine’s majority needs to accurately assess the potential of the current opposition. This will help spare the country from further disappointment and preserve hope for an alternative project
The election proved that a majority has crystallized in Ukraine—and it voted against the Yanukovych regime. The election also demonstrated the lack of a new mainstream party on the country’s political horizon.
Despite the opposition’s sparse media, financial, organizational and leadership resources prior the election and the amount of administrative resources utilized by the ruling party, the number of parliamentary seats gained by the three opposition parties (Batkivshchyna, UDAR and Svoboda) exceeded projections. However, this can hardly be attributed to the successful election campaigns of the opposition parties or the persuasive power of their ideologies. At this point, the majority of Ukraine’s voters have proven their utter rejection of the Yanykovych regime. Many voted for an opposition party only because of its oppositional stance, and not because they strongly supported it. Similar motivations pushed people to vote for single candidates from Batkivshchyna, UDAR and Svoboda. Quite a few people supported them without knowing anything specific about the candidates they elected, voting for them simply because they presented an alternative to the current leadership. Thus, voters granted more trust to the political forces that call themselves the opposition, even though they still have a lot of questions for each of them. However, the great risk is that they will once again disappoint the majority of voters seeking an alternative project. If that happens, the opposition will find itself on the political sidelines very quickly, and the government will help to speed the process by attacking its many weak points.
BATKIVSHCHYNA: EXPLOITING PROTEST SENTIMENTS – FOR HOW LONG?
The election campaign, especially in the days following the vote, was further testament to the poor organization of the United Opposition. By focusing its efforts on Western Ukraine, Batkivshchyna essentially left the rest of the country to the Party of Regions (PR), especially its first-past-the-post candidates. The United Opposition conducted a sluggish campaign in Central, Southern and Eastern Ukraine, often nominating weak FPTP candidates while leaving fairly popular people behind. As a result, no Batkivshchyna candidates won in Poltava or Volyn Oblasts, while Kmelnytsk, Kirovohrad, Chernihiv, Cherkasy, Kyiv, Zhytomyr, and Vinnytsia Oblasts elected just one Batkivshchyna candidate each despite giving from 30 to 45% to the United Opposition in the party-list vote. Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Kherson, Mykolayiv, and Kharkiv Oblasts each gave over 35% to the opposition. This means that the opposition could have struggled for victory in at least 15 districts, as witnessed in Pervomaisk, where voters fiercely defended the triumphant opposition candidate following blatant falsification of the vote in favour of a pro-government one. However, Batkivshchyna ended up winning just one seat in these oblasts. Both Batkivshchyna and UDAR gave up on the East without a fight, represented by a minimal number of candidates, commission members and observers. Therefore, it is virtually impossible to find out how the votes were actually counted there. After all, the United Opposition’s inertia in the South and East gave the government a chance to once again divide Ukraine into two parts.
Clearly, the opposition’s campaign teams did a poor job of preparing for the election. The vote count only confirmed this, as in many cases no Batkivshchyna activists were available to protect the outcome of their candidate. Sometimes, the impression was that Batkivshchyna was specifically reluctant to help its candidates where pro-government candidates were leading, if only narrowly. United Opposition candidates were often surprisingly passive themselves, letting their victory slip away at the finish line.
After all, Batkivshchyna ended up winning 62 seats under the party-list vote and 40 more seats through its FPTP candidates. However, it had offered nothing that could help to turn it into a mainstream party during the campaign. It relied instead upon old slogans like “Incarcerate the Bandits” and “Freedom for Yulia”, offering no solutions to major problems such as freeing the economy from the grip of oligarchs, eliminating corruption, and consolidating the nation.
Batkivshchyna’s leadership raised the most questions. It is unclear who makes the key decisions and who should be held responsible for obvious failures, including the failed election campaign and vote count in Eastern and Central Ukraine.
The party is obviously suffering a leadership crisis. Every day, United Opposition leaders seem to be less concerned with Yulia Tymoshenko. Even her hunger strike against falsifications in the election failed to garner any reaction from them. Turchynov, Kozhemiakin and Yatseniuk hardly commented on it during the first days following her announcement of the hunger strike. There is a strong impression that nobody is going to release Tymoshenko. Instead, her imprisonment will be exploited as long as it is effective in attracting the electorate. She has lost nearly all influence within her party. Meanwhile, Yatseniuk, accompanied by Turchynov and Kozhemiakin, two other leaders of the United Opposition, is growing less effective as a politician. During the election campaign—and especially after the vote—he looked more like a mid-level manager than a party leader.
Poor coordination has plagued Batkivshchyna’s leadership. This problem was visibly manifested in their reaction to election rigging. Arseniy Yatseniuk declared at a rally in front of the Central Election Commission on November 5th that his party had consented to a re-vote in five disputed districts because it was “the best solution in the situation” in his opinion. His ally Anatoliy Hrytsenko wrote on his Facebook page, “I want to punch someone in the face for this ‘victorious’ recognition of a re-vote in five districts”. Earlier, Hrytsenko proposed the absurd initiative of holding a Batkivshchyna party convention, “nullifying” party lists and refusing to attend the parliament. Utterly unprofessional and lacking the support of his allies, this statement confused voters and forced other opposition members to clarify that no such initiative had been accepted and it was impossible to carry out at the moment anyway.
Apparently, the key challenge for the bloc is now to develop a format of cooperation between Batkivshchyna, Yatseniuk’s Front of Change, Hrytsenko’s Civic Position, and other parties that ran under the United Opposition’s flag. The United Opposition parliamentary faction risks becoming a replica of Viktor Yushchenko’s and Yuriy Lutsenko’s Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defence faction without any trace of a joint position or discipline. Remaining unanimous is one of the key objectives on its agenda, especially given the government’s attempts to fuel conflicts among its leaders and defeat each party individually.
After all, the United Opposition and its leaders risk ending up on the parliamentary sidelines unless they stop exploiting the electorate with high-minded protest sentiments and offer the voters a clear and constructive alternative project.
UDAR: MANIPULATORS VS KLITSCHKO
The abbreviation UDAR – meaning “punch” or “hit” in Ukrainian and standing for “Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms”, was one of the very few creative aspects of Vitali Klitschko’s entire 2012 campaign. The party was devoid of the triumphant features exhibited by its leader in the boxing ring. “Vatali is used to relying on himself and was not really prepared for a dirty collective struggle,” an UDAR team member said off-record. This is a strange comment considering that Klitschko has been a Ukrainian political leader for several years now.
The crucial question for Klitschko is why he chose to promote himself rather than cooperate closely with the United Opposition. In December 2011, UDAR and ex-Defence Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko’s Civic Position held lengthy negotiations about running jointly, but failed to reach an agreement. In March 2012, Klitschko rejected an offer to run under the joint opposition party list with Batkivshchyna and the Front of Change.
Klitschko’s allies stated that this rejection was motivated by polls projecting more votes for the United Opposition and UDAR running separately rather than jointly. For some reason, though, UDAR strongly insisted on its own scenario for the selection of joint FPTP candidates, urging Batkivshchyna and Svoboda to accept it instead of a plan that was beneficial for the whole opposition. The scenario offered by UDAR was based on polls that projected victory for most of its FPTP candidates, not those from Batkivshchyna or Svoboda. The vote proved that UDAR had been bluffing or had chosen unprofessional pollsters. The official count brought victory to only six UDAR candidates in FPTP districts. Worst of all, the rivalry between the United Opposition and UDAR candidates in one district resulted in the victory of pro-government candidates in at least 22 districts. In most of these districts, Batkivshchyna candidates followed with a narrow gap of under 1%, while Klitschko’s candidates were running well behind. In fact, UDAR stole from 3% to 15% of the votes that could potentially have gone to the opposition if Batkivshchyna and UDAR had nominated joint candidates.
Sociological miscalculations and unrealistic expectations were not the only factors that led to UDAR’s failure. Klitschko and his team wanted to come in second in the election and gain more seats than Batkivshchyna in order to dominate the decision regarding the nomination of a single opposition candidate for the 2015 presidential election. UDAR did not take into account the fact that the United Opposition managed to reach out to voters with their campaign agenda despite non-constructive slogans such as “We will stop them!” and their focus on the “struggle between good and evil”. Klitschko did not fit into this scheme very well – not once did he criticize President Yanukovych personally throughout his entire campaign.
This reserved (or flexible?) attitude fuelled rumours of Klitschko’s collaboration with the Firtash group represented by the President’s Chief of Staff Serhiy Liovochkin in the government. Meanwhile, at his party convention, he failed to say how exactly he was going to keep his allies from collaborating with pro-presidential forces in the parliament. Potential crossovers are another weak point of UDAR. It has more of these than Batkivshchyna, which nominated mostly reliable people, save for a few exceptions, or Svoboda, which lured many voters with the fact that pro-government forces could not buy its MPs.
Klitschko cannot become the leader of a mainstream party because his team includes a number of manipulators who would prevent him from becoming an effective politician. Everyone is offering him concepts and ideas that are often mutually exclusive, hence UDAR’s unclear position. It appears to promote European choice while not seeing the increasing role of the Russian language in Ukraine and close friendship with Moscow as barriers to that. These people seem to be preventing Klitschko from realizing how crucial many things are for UDAR as a party that aims to lead the opposition: it should admit that Ukraine has no free market; offer an alternative to the tycoon-controlled economy; and determine the central elements upon which national identity will be shaped.
Otherwise, it does not qualify as an opposition party. That is partly the reason why Klitschko and his party did worse in the election than they had expected. They failed to communicate a clear agenda to potential voters. Instead, UDAR’s campaign featured people who wanted to use Klitschko to their benefit or work for different political forces.
Now Klitschko must learn the right lessons from his earlier defeats and rid himself of the persistent manipulators who may well lead his party into a pro-government majority. That would be the end of his political career. If UDAR wants to increase its political weight, it must change its team and its platform to stand apart from those of minor parties.
SVOBODA: FROM RALLIES TO THE PARLIAMENT
Unlike Batkivshchyna and UDAR, Svoboda’s candidates in the new parliament are unlikely to join the pro-government wing. Even if it has potential crossovers, tough party discipline will prevent them from switching sides. Svoboda has an ideology and a clear position, well-organized local teams, devoted activists, and the potential to attract more voters. Its key problem is the lack of qualified people in specific industries who could offer an alternative project. With most of its early experience based on protests and activism, Svoboda knows better how to destroy, not build.
Its victory risks playing a lame trick on Svoboda. Once in the parliament, it may decide that it is doing everything right and discontinue its political development. Until now a “street” party, it may fail to transform into a proper parliamentary one, and end up doing virtually nothing but blocking microphones, fighting with Party of Regions MPs or quarrelling with the Communist Party. That would quickly push it to the sidelines, and the government would make every effort to help it get there. It may also face harassment aimed at damaging its reputation as “the only party that does not sell its votes” which was a major source of its 10% in the election.
Svoboda’s success in the election is likely to push the government to implement a scenario discussed earlier, yet hardly realistic until recently. It might use loyal media to manipulate public opinion and lead Oleh Tiahnybok, Svoboda’s leader, portrayed as the best rival of Viktor Yanukovych, into the second tour of the presidential election, while also fuelling fears of rising Ukrainian neo-Nazism. This would repeat the campaigns of 1996 in Russia with Yeltsin versus Ziuganov, or 1999 in Ukraine with Kuchma versus Symonenko, where most voters stood up against the Communist threat. This does not mean that Svoboda or Tiahnybok will willingly play into this scenario. The government will merely use its rival’s strengths against it, exploiting Svoboda’s growing reputation as the most radical and consistent opponent of the anti-Ukrainian regime.
Svoboda can try to use this scenario to its benefit. However, this will require many efforts and transformations. Firstly, it needs to shed its image as a xenophobic and anti-Semitic party orchestrated by pro-Russian forces. Otherwise, it will never have the support of the moderate electorate, while the EU might count on Yanukovych or another PR candidate in the second round, thus giving the regime the green light to arranging the outcome it needs at any price. Secondly, Svoboda must attract and involve more opinion leaders and professionals in public governance, economics and education – especially from Central and South-eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, it should push aside part of the “old guard” that still turns to rhetoric and policy typical for marginal ultra-radical forces, not that of a party with political leadership ambitions. Last but not least, Svoboda needs to upgrade its agenda to make it more realistic in the current global and local arenas, stating a clear vision of the changes necessary to implement it in the best interest of Ukrainian voters. Until now, Svoboda – like Batkivshchyna and UDAR – has not raised or analysed certain crucial issues for society such as the damage done by oligarchs to the economy, monopolization and manipulation of the print media market that is squeezing out Ukrainian-language publications, and the russification of the book publishing industry. Its alternative project should offer constructive solutions to the problems facing society at the moment. Otherwise, the reboot that the majority of voters are looking forward to will not take place once again.
In order to become a viable alternative to the current regime, Svoboda will have to transform into a constructive rightist party that can protect the interests of the Ukrainian majority from the ultra-right populist party that it is now. Unless that happens, it will quickly lose its support and end up with the same core electorate of barely 4% that it garnered in 2011.
On May 16, Ukrainian filmmaker currently jailed in Russia as a political prisoner went on a hunger strike. In a public letter he wrote that he would only stop the strike if all 64 Ukrainian prisoners jailed in Russia for politically-motivated grounds are released
The opposition in Ukraine is mostly reactive and it chooses actions that will be most useful for criticizing the current Administration or gaining the attention of a specific part of the electorate. What Ukraine needs most right now is a consolidating program and a party that could present its own alternative for the country