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9 March, 2020  ▪  Denys Kazanskyi

Somewhere in the middle

What is it that voters in free Donbas like about Zelenskiy?

The phenomenal success of Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his party Sluha Narodu party was probably the main event in Ukraine in 2019. The country’s political system underwent a true revolution. Political dinosaurs who seemed to have become ensconced in government forever – indeed to virtually personify it – suffered a devastating loss. Some even found themselves dumped from the Verkhovna Rada altogether. While such processes weren’t especially unique for central and western Ukraine, for southern and eastern oblasts, the collapse of the monopoly of local feudal clans and their overlords was nothing short of historical.

Of course, the 2014 election was hardly successful for the former Party of the Regions, but it took place under unusual circumstances. The election basically was going on while war loomed in the background, the PR electorate was terrified and demoralized, and a large share of Donbas voters never even came out to cast a ballot. But by 2019, the situation had stabilized, the scaremongering by Russian propaganda media about political persecution that frightened and restrained people in 2014 had passed, and the mood seemed to shift towards a comeback. Indeed, the Opposition Bloc and the Opposition Platform – Za Zhyttia, two spin-offs of the Party of the Regions, were expected pick up the traditionally loyal and substantial support of voters in the region... and failed.

Sluha Narodubasically massacred the former regionals. OPZZ managed to grab what was left of the core PR electorate, but it won seats only in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. Back in 2014, PR’s results had been better, when it came in first in five oblasts. But now, even in the Donbas, little was left of its political monopoly. Where in 2012, PR gained 65% of the vote in Donetsk and 57% in Luhansk, OPZZ came up with 43% and 49% in 2019. Faced with a strong competitor, the regionals were unable to do any better against Zelenskiy’s party in the old PR heartland.

Meanwhile, Sluha Narodu achieved the seemingly impossible: they got nearly 30% of the vote in the Donbas – without substantial spending, with no administrative leverage, and basically without much preparation. SN did not have a single mayor in the region, not one factory owner, but it took nearly a third of the vote.

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Faced with this kind of election result, it was no surprise that journalists and analysts immediately began to “read the entrails” to understand the Zelenskiy team’s recipe for success. Some thought it was due to the new campaign technologies being used, others thought it was the endless reruns of 95 Kvartal on Channel 1+1, while yet others thought it was clearly because Ukrainians were tired of the same old faces. In fact, what played into Zelenskiy’s hard was a combination of all three factors. Moreover, unlike other politicians, he almost completely avoided negative rhetoric. On the contrary, he kept talking about unity – and gained more votes as a result.

It’s hard to call Sluha Narodu an ideologically-grounded party. It’s even hard to really see it as a political party. It was a typical political project, slapped together in a hurry prior to an election, with a lot of random individuals who knew very little even about each other. And yet, looking at the Zelenskiy party’s statements and actions, the most appropriate political label would be “centrist” – not just in the classical sense but also in the local Ukrainian context. After many years of those in power alternating between contrasting political attitudes and ideological camps, the majority was won by a party that the loyalists of the various camps call “neither fish, nor fowl” – something amorphous, spineless, prepared to adapt to whatever needed adapting to.

This kind of political party obviously does not suit people with strong ideological views, whether they are Ukrainian patriots or pro-Russian imperialists. But how many of those are there in Ukraine today? Clearly a minority. The majority of Ukrainians are folks without strongly developed political preferences – which is not intended to offend but is a statement of fact. Nor is Ukraine unique in this. It’s a young, poor country, and things are rarely different in countries like this.

For the silent majority, the amorphousness of Sluha Narodu was a positive feature, not a negative one. The vague statements and undefined political positions of the Zelenskiy team avoided precision and thus became all things to all Ukrainians.

As long as there were two radically opposed political camps in Ukraine, they were easily able to play off on each other. Most voters were used to voting not so much in favor of someone as against someone else. “I don’t like Tymoshenko, but better her than Yanukovych,” was a typical position... and its opposite was equally true. This established the deceptive image of Ukraine as an excessively politicized society with a major, insurmountable split among its regions. But in 2019, voters were finally offered a middle-of-the-road choice: a seemingly “nice guy” for whom they could cast their ballots to spite all the others: the Poroshenkos, the Boykos, and the Tymoshenkos. Moreover, this new guy was acceptable in both Halychyna and in the Donbas.

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The appearance of a moderate option showed very clearly that the Donbas is not so totally pro-Russian as has often been assumed. Support for the obviously pro-Moscow OPZZ in the region remains strong, but even here voters were obviously fed up with the old political elite and were glad to see new faces in the government. This was especially evident in the FPTP ridings where OPZZ candidates generally failed to gain seats.

In the past, whenever national democratic parties tried to challenge the Party of the Regions in the Donbas, they would immediately be faced with an aggressive propaganda campaign aimed at persuading locals that they were really fascists who hated the Donbas and wished the region ill. This time, the parties of Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko became the political lightning rods. And so all the negative PR generated with such determination by the regionals on local television channels was aimed at other politicians, missing Zelenskiy’s party altogether. The result was that Sluha Narodu, which not only did not make any pro-Russian statements but openly called Russia the aggressor and affirmed Ukraine’s European development course, got a miraculously high proportion of the Donbas vote.

Residents of eastern Ukraine turned out to be pretty much the same as residents of other regions of Ukraine: they aren’t terribly interested in religious matters, they’re tired of squabbling about “whose is Crimea,” they prefer not to think about the reasons for the war, and they mostly want to see stability and peace. And so Sluha Narodu, which tried to avoid complicated and painful issues, did not raise their hackles.

Of course, the media savvy of Zelenskiy himself helped a lot. His constant presence on television made him very familiar to local voters and he is generally popular among viewers for the many entertaining products he and his company produce for a very broad audience. His image as a showman who pokes fun at politicians made him “one of us,” and someone who could play the role of a folk hero both in the Donbas and in Volyn. If the Zelenskiy team had run a more focused and large-scale campaign in the Donbas, they would probably have had an even bigger chunk of the vote there.

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The question now is whether Sluha Narodu will be able to retain or even grow a high level of support for the upcoming local elections in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. For now, it looks like this is entirely within reach. In early 2020, Zelenskiy’s ratings have slipped slightly but remain high. The one thing that plays in favor of him and his party is the lack of strong competitors. The old politicians who have been in power for the last 15-20 years don’t seem able to offer voters anything new and their ratings show it. So all SN needs to do to succeed is to simply not make any foolish mistakes and more-or-less maintain their current level until the elections. So far, this is working well.

As to public rhetoric, Donetsk and Luhansk voters seem satisfied enough with it. President Zelenskiy recently proposed, “Let’s name local streets after people whose names don’t generate controversy.” This should please Donbas residents just fine.



Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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