Interviewed by Denys Kazanskiy
One of the big surprises of the October 25 local elections was the success of the small parties that intentionally ran their campaigns through self-financing. Power of the People and Democratic Alliance managed to gain seats in almost all of Ukraine’s oblasts without big advertising budgets and without buying votes for buckwheat, as the saying goes. How to win an election without serious cash is something Oleksandr Solontai, head of the political council of Power of the People talked to The Ukrainian Week about.
Now that the election is over, what were the results for Power of the People?
Power of the People ran candidates in 22 oblasts. We have results from 20 of them, where we succeeded in winning seats on local councils and mayoral posts. Altogether, we ran in 90 different local councils and have our members on 57 of them, both city and county councils. Our candidates also won mayoral posts in 5 cities and towns, including Trostianets and Chortkiv. So Power of the People now has nearly 200 of its members in local governments.
There were no Power of the People commercials on TV, your party is brand-new, and almost nobody knew who you were. Yet you have really decent results, in some cases you did better than those who spent a lot promoting themselves. How did you manage to do this?
Prior to the election, all our candidates went through special training. We oriented them on the nature of local elections and the possibility that television would win out. We told people: You need to become real deputies even before you win the election. How does a real deputy differ from the fakes that there are in the thousands in Ukraine? Real deputies know their electorate and their voters know them face-to-fact. So we asked all our candidates to get out there and get to know their voters.
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Where did you get the best results?
As it happens, we had decent results across the country. The biggest city where we gained seats on councils was Kryvyi Rih. In the eight local councils there, Power of the People was seated in all eight: seven district councils and the city council. But our biggest success was in smaller towns. For instance, in Volyn, we didn’t manage to get seats on the city council, but we did get on the Kovel city council. In next-door Rivne Oblast, we got on the Kuznetsovsk council and that’s the second biggest city there. In Kyiv Oblast, we gained seats in Boryspil, Obukhiv, Ukrainka, and Vasylkiv. In Bohuslav we actually got 30%. The best of all was 50%, which we got in Trostianets, where our candidate, Yuriy Bova, also won the mayor’s seat.
Who are the people who were elected mayor? What kinds of resources did they have to achieve this?
These were all people who liked our party because of our attitude towards local government and decided to run as our candidates. For instance, the new mayor of Chortkiv in Ternopil Oblast was previously the village head of Bila, Volodymyr Shmatko, whose only 29. His village is part of Greater Chortkiv, so people knew him and were able to judge the results of his previous efforts. Yuriy Bova, who became mayor of Trostianets, was also once the mayor there. We looked at him pretty carefully before deciding how we would work with him. During the Yanukovych era, he had to put up with enormous pressure from the Governor and the oblast state administration. They even tried to have him removed, but they didn’t succeed.
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Did Power of the People get onto any oblast councils?
No. That required oblast-level coverage. Power of the People would have had to get to every single town and every county in at least one of the oblasts. We just don’t have that kind of strength just yet in any of the oblasts. Typically, we have 4-5 communities per oblast and that’s not enough. Once Power of the People has at least 10-15 communities in each oblast, we’ll be able to get on some oblast councils by doing serious grassroots campaigning with voters, like we do now. That’s not going to require television either, incidentally. I figure that we should be able to get that kind of coverage in about three years. At that point, we’ll have the resources for a national campaign as well.
How many members does Power of the People have today?
How do you think your people will handle the temptations of corruption? After all, plenty of folks are going to try to buy them off now and to cut deals the same way they did before.
Well, obviously we don’t have ideal individuals. Yes, they might agree to some kind of compromises with existing political parties. But they will still be qualitatively different from those who came before them. Our candidates value their seats because they understand how they got them. Because they walked on foot across their territories and spent their own hard-earned money to win these seats. Because they have principles and an ideology.
Our biggest challenge won’t be the local councils. Power of the People will get to the point when it eventually sits in the Verkhovna Rada. The level of temptation is infinitely higher there. So the biggest challenges are still ahead. Already now, we are talking about how we intend to survive in such a corrosive environment.
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Since you weren’t promising them cash cows, how on earth were you able to persuade people in the first place that they should join Power of the People?
If we had offered people the usual, that they come under our umbrella and we’d be the main show while they got to pay contributions and support the team above them, nothing would have come of it. So from the very start, we were using a different model. Everyone who joins the party becomes a co-owner of it. The party has no issues that it considers taboo, no sacred cows, no politicians with immunity. We did our own internal lustration and there is no former deputy, minister or governor in our ranks today.
Of course, there's enormous distrust out there even now. And when people hear us say something like this, they respond in disbelief: That can't be true! It's just a fairy tale. Ukrainians are incapable of being like that. Our answer is that Ukrainians were able to get together to drive Yanukovych out of the country, and they were able to get together to support their army and form a volunteer movement. So why should they work for oligarchs? Why can't they organize and set up grassroots political projects?
Did you run for this election?
Unfortunately, no. It was not an easy decision for me because I’m used to running for office. When I was 21 and just a college student, I was elected deputy to the Uzhhorod city council. At 25, I was on the oblast council in Zakarpattia, so being involved in local government is my specialty. That’s where I found myself and was experienced self-realization. I like to work as a community activist. But the party proposed that I become head of the political council just before the local elections were called.
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Those of us who plan to join the Verkhovna Rada campaign in the future decided not to get involved in local elections for deputies and mayors and to take advantage of voters. You can’t go around making promises and then in a year and a half switch to running for national elections. What are you going to say, “Sorry, I used you and now I’m going for something higher”? Who’s supposed to take responsibility for the matters that you started working on in the community?
How does your party choose its leadership?
All the top positions in the party are currently elected for only one year and you can be re-elected for only one more year. I’m the current chair of the political council and will effectively finish my career within the party while it’s still just being established, not when it’s flourishing. This is necessary because that’s how the party decided to do it. You need to sometimes be able to sacrifice your own career for the sake of a common goal.
What’s the point in building a party career, then, if you can’t hold a senior position in Power of the People for more than two years?
Because the party delegates its members to government positions, to executive committees, to ministries and to VR committees. The party itself is just the start. If it can bring up a few dozen or a few hundred leaders, then that’s fantastic. A party should be a talent pool.
From the very start, we set up the structure in such a way that usurpers and Great Leaders cannot emerge. All the decisions are made transparently and collectively using secret ballots. We all understand that none of us are eternal. At any time, anything can happen to anyone, so the party cannot be based on one single personality.
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What’s Power of the People’s ideology?
Economically, we support liberalism. But if you look at our entire platform, I would call it liberal conservatism. Some pundits have criticized us for this kind of formulation, saying that we are supposedly combining things that are impossible to combine. We understand that. But how else are we going to respond to the challenges of Ukrainian society and the Ukrainian state? We have a war in Ukraine, so how can we function without a certain level of conservatism? Without, for instance, spending on the military? During our internal discussions, we focus a lot ideology, because the party members themselves are supposed to decide what is it that we stand for.
Our position is not the position of some leader who gets to decide things unilaterally. Our position is the position of the members themselves. One of the more difficult issues we debated was freedom to bear arms and our attitude towards that. There were huge arguments over it and opinions were divided nearly in half.
Since you appeared on the political scene, you’ve most often been compared to the Democratic Alliance and you do seem to have similar approaches. So the question many people ask is why you don’t join forces. How can Ukrainians counter the big oligarchic parties if even Solontai and Hatsko can’t come to an agreement?
When I entered politics, I looked at various parties but none of them appealed to me. The trouble is that, everywhere you look, there are dog-eared leaders, both formal and political ones, around whom everything revolves. In other words, these parties are largely fan clubs for big personalities.
Our point is that the country needs a talent pool and the parties should be training these people. This means having structural mechanisms that work properly, but we didn’t see this happening in any of the parties. When we talked with DemAliance and Volia, we said that building a party top-down from a leader is the wrong approach.
The model that Power of the People chose works—the local elections have made that quite clear. The models that other parties use are simply imitations of an outdated model that voters are sick of and that has proved its ineffectiveness over and over again.