Ukrainian politics has changed its façade constantly over the past two decades (i.e. leaders, parties, and governments) while leaving the corrupt oligarchic system at the core of government and business virtually untouched. Most Ukrainians have sought improvements, European standards, and accountable politicians. Many took to the streets for the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Maidan in 2013-2014, demonstrating great courage and the willingness to sacrifice their own lives. Yet disappointment followed as the results failed to meet the public’s expectations. This led to further discouragement and a feeling of having been exploited. It would take years and a generational shift to do away with this psychological state of disillusionment.
Politically, these sentiments manifested themselves in steep fluctuations in the level of support for particular politicians and their parties. As long as voters viewed them as “ideal”, or at least “effective”, “strong” or “energetic”, but knew little of them in action, their ratings would skyrocket. Meanwhile, the “boring stuff” was often overlooked, including the actual platforms, means of responding to existing challenges, teams and sources of funding (as well as the party’s or the politician’s commitments to sponsors). Once a given political camp came to power and this information surfaced, infatuation quickly gave way to disenchantment.
Nasha Ukrayina (Our Ukraine), the party of former president Viktor Yushchenko, garnered 23.6% in the 2002 parliamentary election. Viktor Yushchenko himself had 39.9% in the first round of the 2004 presidential race. Both rates plummeted in the 2006 general elections when a mere 14% voted for Nasha Ukrayina. The party struggled to maintain this level of support in the 2007 snap general election, even after it united with Yuriy Lutsenko’s Narodna Samooborona (People’s Self-Defence) which garnered just a few percentage points in electoral support. By the time of the 2010 presidential election, Nasha Ukrayina had tumbled to 5.5%. In the 2012 general election, it was down to just 1.1%.
The Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko (BYuT) saw its rating grow from 7.3% in 2002 to 22.3% in 2006 and 30.7% in 2007. However, after almost 2.5 years in government (December 2007-March 2010), her personal rating shrank to 25.1% in the first round of the 2010 presidential election (even though she used administrative leverage in at least half of the country) and 25.5% for Batkivshchyna, the successor of BYuT, in the 2012 parliamentary election (even after her party was joined by the leaders of other popular parties such as Arseniy Yatseniuk, Anatoliy Hrytsenko and Viacheslav Kyrylenko). In the 2014 presidential race, Tymoshenko won only 12.8% of the vote (even with the Donbas and Crimea, her all-time opponents, missing from the vote).
Serhiy Tihipko, who rapidly climbed to 13.1% in the 2010 presidential election as a “new face”, saw his rate plummet to 4-5% after he joined the government of Mykola Azarov, Premier under Yanukovych. In 2014, he won 5.2%. Even though the Donbas and Crimea that would most likely have brought him more votes did not take part in the election, Tihipko could have easily taken the votes of one-time Party of Regions and Yanukovych supporters in central, Southern and Eastern Ukraine – something he did not have back in 2010.
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Vitaliy Klitschko had just 2-3% a year before the 2012 general election. After the election, his party ended up with 14% even though many younger potential voters did not come to the polling stations. Before the Maidan, his rate grew to 20-25%. After Klitschko failed to present himself as an independent and energetic leader capable of steering the country during the revolution, his support began to plummet. By the time he withdrew from the race and endorsed Petro Poroshenko, his rate was down to 8-10%.
Svoboda also experienced increased popularity followed by a sharp decline over the past 5-7 years. Its leader, Oleh Tiahnybok, had 1.4% in the 2010 presidential election, while the party ended up with 10.4% in the 2012 general election. The 2014 presidential race showed that support for Svoboda had plummeted after it failed to meet the voters’ expectations during the Maidan or as part of the interim government. As a result, Oleh Tiahnybok got a mere 1.2% in the latest election (again, the anti-Svoboda Donbas and Crimea did not vote).
Today, we are witnessing the rise of new stars. Few voters are interested in their actual plans, platforms and mechanisms of implementation, their teams or sponsors. As the voters grew disappointed with the one-time opposition trio (and the newly-released Yulia Tymoshenko), the support for her radical former party fellow Oleh Liashko swelled. His party won 1.1% in the 2012 parliamentary election, while its leader ended up with 8.3% and the third place in the presidential race. Anatoliy Hrytsenko is another politician who has seen his rate skyrocket from 1.2% in 2010 to 5.5% in 2014.
The most telling example, however, is Petro Poroshenko. According to polls from fall 2013, a mere 3-4% supported his potential presidential bid. His greatest ambition thus was the Kyiv Mayor’s office. Less than six months later, he had become the most popular candidate, eventually winning the presidency with an unprecedented 54.7% in the first round. The key factor in this victory was the “fresh face” effect and its heightened expectations rather than any actual qualities or plans. Hoping Poroshenko will be willing and able to implement their aspirations, many Ukrainians are not looking at what he actually intends to do. This ignorance lays the ground for another wave of deep disappointment.
The Illusion of Influence
The logic of the Ukrainian political process suggests that this trend is bound to persist for as long as voters prefer to seek yet another messiah/whipping boy to whom they can ascribe perfect qualities, ignoring their real motivations and dependence on teams and sponsors, only to later topple them from Olympus and curse them for their broken promises. This provides little incentive for political parties and leaders to protect the interests of their voters, who are again forced to choose from the same old list of candidates. The “new” political parties continue to attract “professionals” moulded in the current system who are not going to break it, but slightly adjust it to their own interests. Moreover, they are backed by the same old sponsors, including oligarchs and big business. They realize that their political creatures will hardly last in politics, so they try their best to quickly earn back their investments while they are still in power, meanwhile preparing future alternative projects.
According to surveys, those unhappy with the current party system most often (34.1%-42.4% of those polled) point at the following failures: existing parties to not stick to their platforms and goals announced in election campaigns; they protect the interests of their leaders and financial clans, not those of the voters; their funding is obscure, mostly coming from oligarchs; and they have no internal democracy or adequate connection to the electorate (see What’s wrong?).
Every successive failed chance for change, given the voters’ increased effort and sacrifice, drives disappointment with not only individual politicians but the political establishment and system overall. As a result, voters tend to support increasingly radical, hot-headed and ruinous tactics that are used by the oligarchs kicked out of power, and the Kremlin.
Grassroots parties wanted
Given these trends, it is important for Ukrainians to drop their messiah illusions and faith in the possibility of a “good tsar”. Instead, citizens should organize into grassroots political parties and finance themselves through membership fees and mass voluntary donations from SMEs. These new parties should have no major sponsors that provide the majority of funding and expect members to lobby their interests.
According to polls held before the parliamentary election in August 2012, 6.1% of Ukrainians claimed they were ready to pay dues to a party provided that it protected their interests. The average monthly fee they would pay was UAH 135, which amounts to over UAH 1.600 annually. Expanded to the 20 million working Ukrainians (plus pensioners, some of whom would eagerly finance parties), this makes at least UAH 1.2mn potential party members. The total amount of membership dues would thus reach UAH 1.9-2bn a year, or UAH 9.5-10mn per five year electoral cycle. This would suffice to finance 2-3 mass grassroots parties independent of major sponsors and accountable to their members. Another 10% of those polled said they were not sure about the motivation that would drive them to pay contributions. If such grassroots parties succeeded, part of that 10% would likely become party members as well. A similar poll before the latest presidential election showed that 10.7% of Ukrainians would financially support a presidential candidate if he made his election expenses transparent. Another 8.5% were uncertain.
Ukraine needs parties with real teams that will affect decision-making within the parties on the local (funded by membership dues), regional (funded with contributions from grassroots units of the party) and upper levels (party leaders would be funded with contributions from regional units). This would make party leaders at various levels financially dependent on party members and the results of their voting in party meetings. Such party teams should be motivated to get involved in the political struggle, realize their ability to affect decision-making at all levels within the party, and the ability to affect state policy through the party.
Today, party membership is mostly a formality, while party activists are either functionaries supported by the party with money from big sponsors (essentially, employees who depend on their employer) or unnecessary extras who do not feel related to their party.
By gaining power locally through grassroots organizing, then growing to regional and national levels, parties will give their fee-paying members an opportunity to distinguish between cheap populism and real platforms that can actually change the country. Alternative parties should not try to get everyone to like them – this is impossible. Rather, they should be consistent in their vision of steps that are necessary to implement the changes their voters want. A social foundation based on people who have no illusions or unrealistic expectations will create a firm enough safety net for the party to implement vital transformations nationwide. Professionals trained through various stages of progress within the party will provide the necessary human resources to replace the current bureaucratic system.