Deliberately undecided

23 March 2018, 14:46

In December 2017, the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Fund (DIF) ran its traditional annual survey of the mood among Ukrainians. A big part of this survey consisted of questions about voter preferences. According to the results, an imaginary different politician picked up nearly 16% of the vote, putting this ghost politician well ahead of the nearest rivals—Yulia Tymoshenko with 12% and Petro Poroshenko with 10%.

It’s no real news that many Ukrainian voters are waiting for new faces and new leaders. Nearly two thirds of them are insisting that this needs to happen. At the same time 82% say that so far, no such individuals are visible on the horizon. What’s more, pollsters were suggesting such options as show business personalities Sviatoslav Vakarchuk and Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who haven’t even confirmed that they intend to go into politics, and familiar faces like Vadym Rabinovych, Yevhen Murayev, Anatoliy Hrytsenko, Mikheil Saakashvili, and Nadia Savchenko, who are already actively campaigning. Regardless of their name, none of these have more than a margin-of-error chance of striking Ukrainians as a “new” face.

Given that all potential nominees have a negative balance of trust, it’s very difficult to come up with the arguments that persuade a voter to get behind any one of them. Some will end up choosing among those available. Others are in waiting mode and in no rush. These last range from 20-45%, depending on the poll. The number of undecided voters is equal to or even higher than the cumulative number of votes that the top candidates today could garner if the election were held tomorrow. So, it looks like this group of voters will determine the outcome in the future presidential and Verkhovna Rada races.

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“The question is how to determine the choice of these voters: which direction are they likely to lean towards?” says DIF Director Iryna Bekeshkina. “Will they bother to vote at all? If, as the polls seem to show, the winner will have slightly over 10% of support among all Ukrainians, this is no sign of leadership.” With a year to go to Election Day, however, she admits that it’s too soon to draw any firm conclusions from these results.

All the elections in the last few years have seen a substantial proportion of voters making their minds up at the very last minute, so this is not a new phenomenon. Hence the gap between polls taken just before Election Day and the results of the actual vote. For instance, a few weeks prior to the run-off in the 2010 presidential election, nearly 20% of voters planned to vote “Against everybody.” Another 10% had not decided whether to vote for Viktor Yanukovych or Yulia Tymoshenko. In fact, only about 4% of Ukrainians voted “Against everybody.” The rest either didn’t show up to vote or ended up choosing between the two candidates after all.

After that election, Ukrainian pundits and politicians began to use the term “golden share” much more often, meaning the relatively small group of voters whose support will determine the victory of one candidate or another.

“In 2010, the thought was that this golden share belonged to those who felt negative about both candidates and had to decide whether to go ahead and vote for the lesser of two evils, or not to vote at all,” says Mykhailo Mishchenko, deputy director of the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv think-tank. “Yanukovych won by a very small margin and a relatively large number of voters voted ‘Against everybody’ or didn’t vote at all. If some of them had decided to favor Tymoshenko, then she would have won.”

Unfortunately, there are no detailed studies that might provide a fuller picture of this group of voters. Mishchenko says that the golden share actually was held by those who supported other candidates from the Orange camp, including Viktor Yushchenko. At the time of the 2010 election, the former president refused to endorse either candidate in the second round. Another factor was that the intelligentsia had taken on a similar position taken and this was actively being promoted in the press.

It’s just as hard to come up with any serious conclusions about the overall picture of those who haven’t made a choice yet in 2018. According to various polls, the undecideds form a substantial share in every macro region, although the latest poll from DIF shows that there is more of this contingent in eastern Ukraine, especially in Donbas, and in the southern part of the country. According to Oleksiy Haran, professor at Kyiv Mohyla Academy and DIF’s director of research, this category of voter also cuts across the entire social spectrum. Most likely this is all due to the fact that it’s not clear who exactly will be running in the election.

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“Proportionally, it differs somewhat,” says Haran. “For instance, younger people are less interested in political issues, while older people appear to live inside their TV sets. Yet undecideds cross all age groups and even all groups based on level of education. Right now, we don’t know who will be the actual candidates. There’s only a list of names, but it’s clearly not the final one.”

Others with whom The Ukrainian Week spoke were of a similar opinion. Mishchenko explains that the behavior of voters in this kind of situation is reasonable, as even experts have no idea exactly who will be in the running. “It makes more sense to start analyzing the undecideds closer to the election, and not now, when the situation is unclear and these voters could be waiting to see what happens with the candidates before making any decisions,” says Mishchenko. “Take, for example, Vakarchuk. Will he run or not? A lot can change in the next year, including the list of candidates. What’s the point, then, of choosing when we don’t know what might happen with that candidate?”

Much will depend on what happens during the consolidation process. Since the 2014 election, Ukrainian voters can be divided more-or-less into four groups: those who favor the party in power, the so-called democratic opposition, the nationalists, and the former Party of the Regions camp. Moreover, all of these groups are fragmented. The once-monolithic PR electorate has been divided up between the OppoBloc and Rabinovych’s Za Zhyttia [For Life] party.

The situation in the democratic opposition is no less straightforward: in addition to the current marginal favorite, Yulia Tymoshenko [Batkivshchyna], we have Anatoliy Hrytsenko [Civic Position], Andriy Sadoviy [Samopomich], Mikheil Saakashvili and his Movement of New Forces, and a slew of other political parties and personalities, including the parliamentary europtimists. The picture could get even more confusing if Sviatoslav Vakarchuk decides to run: the latest surveys by four pollsters commissioned by the Committee of Ukrainian Voters (CUV) show that he would immediately join the top three. The nationalist camp is just as messy, where, in addition to old-timers from Svoboda, voters have the National Corps, Praviy Sektor, and Dmytro Yarosh’s movement.

“The undecideds are always the reserve in any election,” says Haran. “But that doesn’t really make them some kind of ‘golden share.’ We can only say that this is a standard situation and these voters will later choose among the main candidates, and those who eventually emerge. As usual.”

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How they will go is anybody’s guess right now. A good share of them simply won’t go to the polls. According to Bekeshkina, the undecideds are more of a reserve for the current administration. “Part of them won’t vote at all, but the rest will likely vote for the lesser of two evils,” she says. “Typically, the lesser evil is whoever is currently in office. Those who are definitely against the current president will have picked another candidate much earlier.”

In short, it’s too early to say that the “golden share” will have much of a role, repeating the 2010 election. For one thing, this notion makes no sense at all in the VR elections. “There are many parties who gain enough votes to be seated in the legislature,” says Mishchenko. “Whatever posts are to be had are determined in the Rada itself and voted on by the deputies. So only individual deputies and parties can take advantage of the golden share. You might even say that this golden share will go to those who vote for these MPs or parties.”

It’s also too early to say much about the kinds of campaign strategies will be used by those competing for office. One very visible strategy that seems to have worked well in 2010 was to encourage the “Against everybody” vote to get potential Tymoshenko supporters not to vote in the second round of the election, complete with an actual candidate called “Vasyl Againsteverybody.” Vasyl Humeniuk, a former mayor of Yaremche, actually changed his family name to Againsteverybody for the election. Billboards promoting Againsteverybody, sprang up all across the country with the slogan was “Life without Ya and Yu”—the letter “Ya” meaning Yanukovych and “Yu” conveniently covering both Yulia Tymoshenko and Yushchenko. According to Haran, the same kind of trick could be used again this time, doo. However, the very fragmentation of the electorate makes it difficult to predict whom such an approach might favor.

Yet another risk in the upcoming election, says Haran, is that active voters could end up the biggest losers. They are disenchanted with the current government, which has failed to come through on many of its promises. Then, there are the populists, whom a large chunk of Ukrainian voters is also not prepared to take seriously. The end result could be that the active part of the population that has emerged in the more than four years since the Euromaidan could be left both without its own candidate and without a clear answer to a key question: who’s worth supporting?

In a situation like this, the very people who have been putting in the most effort into change the face of Ukraine could find themselves without not just the golden share, but any share whatsoever, in deciding the future government of their country.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj  

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