In a few more weeks, the new political make-up of the country will become quite clear. The patriotic or national-democratic/pro-European forces have been shifted into the opposition and are unlikely to have more than 73 seats in the new Verkhovna Rada. Moreover, it’s unlikely that even these modest resources will be consolidated in any way, because all of them went into the election in separate columns, shredding their common patch of Ukraine’s voters. The fewer opportunities they have to influence state policy, the stronger the temptation will be to pose as a tragic minority that is desperately standing up to the current powers-that-be.
But the truth is the truth: this kind of mood was widespread in the patriotic camp even during the presidential election, and it has only grown stronger since the VR election ended. Politicians from this camp are comfortable with this: by using mobilizing rhetoric, they will be able to maintain the core of their electorate for the next five years. The truth is that nearly all of Ukraine’s political parties like better being in the opposition: it’s far easier to make grand gestures when your hands aren’t busy trying to control the helm of government. Sitting things out in the opposition is the most obvious path, but this time it could prove to be a dead end. Where in 2010-2013, it was enough to carry out a minimal program – be decisively opposed to the regime – now it will require solid work to overcome their own past mistakes. In other words, to evolve.
Most of all, they have to give up the idea that this year’s election was exclusively the result of collective folly or the large-scale betrayal of ideals. If they go around thinking about the notorious 73% exclusively as vatnyks– cottonheads – and anti-Ukrainian, playing the tragic martyr will be a lot easier, of course—but it will be very hard to engage in politics. The truth must be faced: the lion’s share of those who voted for the “Little Russian” Volodymyr Zelenskiy in 2019 voted for the “statesman” Petro Poroshenko in 2014. The results posted by Zelenskiy and Sluha Naroduin regions that have been considered “orange” since the first Maidan should also lead to some reflection. It’s hard to imagine that all these people suddenly became vatnyksand Little Russians overnight although they had supported exclusively pro-Ukrainian forces until this point. In fact, the 73% also include a substantial share of swing voters with whom serious politicians will have to engage. Moreover, these are protest voters, but their protest is not necessarily aimed against “army, language and faith” or Ukraine in general.
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For a long time, independent Ukraine’s political circles were built around the confrontation between nominally pro-Ukrainian, pro-Russian and pro-European forces. At that time such a situation seemed quite normal, as the question of Ukraine’s independence hung in midair. And so politicians honed their rhetoric and adopted certain ways of thinking, depending on their immediate objectives. With the passage of time, the agenda changed as well. A simple example from more recent times: promises of association with the EU and visa-free travel appealed to voters until the AA was signed and easier travel were instituted. The minute these happened, both goals lost their capacity to mobilize voters. The same happens at the macro level. Independence rhetoric along the lines of 1989 was dated by the time of the Orange Revolution and now it’s simply archaic – not because people stopped believing in the value of independence, but because independence is now taken for granted. Yet political circles seem not to have felt these changes and many ran campaigns that appeared to be confronting pro-Russian forces: Zelenskiy was Yanukovych 2.0 and out on the streets it was either 2004 or 2010. This worked at one time, but things have changed.
Of course, withstanding Russia’s aggression is inevitably №1 on the national agenda. Reminding voters that there’s a war going on is the official duty of the country’s leadership and the civic duty of all politicians. The fact that voters did not cast their ballots in favor of state-oriented forces was a major shock for the patriotic community, which explains this away mainly by saying that Ukrainians have forgotten that there is a war or else have simply grown weary of it. But this is not a very accurate interpretation. In 2014, when the war had just begun and was entering its hottest phase, Ukrainians unanimously voted for Poroshenko the “statesman.” However, the situation has altered considerably since then: after 2015, it turned into a half-dormant confrontation, which meant that the country could also focus on other issues, including reforms.
Dealing with a confrontation with Russia, Ukraine’s resources have understandably been very limited, yet the fact that the Poroshenko administration failed to carry through on many objectives cannot just be explained away as due to the military conflict. This includes bringing the separatists, Yanukovych’s allies and the killers on the Maidan to justice. After all, the threat of a judiciary comeback is also partly because the government failed to carry through judiciary reform. Obviously, protesting against all this by voting for Zelenskiy may have been irrational, but the fact remains that the war ipso factodid not guarantee the patriotic forces success.
A third task has to be carried out by those who claim political leadership in the patriotic camp: it’s time to rethink the way they communicate with voters. The pro-Russian camp always addressed the “broad mass of people,” without concerning itself with what it should be proposing to other population groups. The pro-Ukrainian camp tends to mostly address itself to the educated classes. That’s how it has been historically, as this was the dissident and pro-independence class in soviet times. For pro-Russian forces that cherished all things soviet, consciously or otherwise, the intellectual class was socially and culturally “other,” in contrast to one-time red directors and former komsomols.
The patriotic camp and the intellectual class gravitated towards each other and so during the first and second Maidan, the vast majority Ukrainian intellectuals stood on the side of pro-Ukrainian forces. But this contribution should not be underestimated, as it helped mobilize the pro-Ukrainian share of civil society among which it had clout, and this proved the driving force behind both Maidans. If we look at the social profile of the Euromaidan, nearly 53% were students and specialists, while the share of ordinary workers and rural residents was less than 8%, according to a Democratic Initiatives Fund poll in December 2013.
Still, during the elections, the ability to mobilize civil society activists no longer provides the same advantage. Whereas after the first Maidan the real threat of Party of the Regions made it possible to engage voters on a mass scale, in 2019, neither ex-Regionals nor Zelenskiy offered the same kind of reason to mobilize. Indeed, it turned out that the patriotic political camp had no other arguments to persuade the mass of voters. Decommunization, visa-free Europe, language protection initiatives, derussification in the information space, the tomos were all factors that found their best targets in those groups of the electorate that proved to be in the minority at the ballot box. Attempts to address the “broad national masses” in the language of populism – higher wages and pensions, monetizing subsidies and so on – also failed to bring the expected results. This turned out to be partly because Ukrainians had other feelings besides hunger, and not the least because of a definite improvement in the economy.
And so the one who worked with these feelings, captured them and made much of them got the best result. Much as we may be tempted to put down populism, democratic politics cannot get away from it. Obviously, the leaders of the patriotic camp need to learn to work, not only with the intellect but with the body politic: learn its cultural codes, learn to understand its moods, and so on. This does not mean blindly copying the current president, Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, but effective politicians need to know how to reach the people directly and not depend on the intermediacy of the intellectual class or material incentives.
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In the end, there’s the fourth task: the patriotic camp must grow parties that are of a different quality. Those forces that are around now were mostly based on widely-known principles, typically projects formed around an unchanging leader for the latest round of elections. Most of them are not only lacking in an ideology but even in a basic organizational structure: they are rapidly mobilized to run an election campaign, after which they go into hibernation or simply fall apart. The most important point is that these parties interact very little and very reluctantly with civil society. Yet they should actually be formed in direct cooperation between politicians and civil society, whence their main personnel should be recruited, not from among party sponsors, their service personnel and local bigwigs. At the same time party work needs to be going on all the time, not just in a one-time burst of activity because of elections. It looks like Ukraine has an example in Sluha Narodu – a party established literally on someone’s lap within a few months. However, this case is an anomaly, not a trend.
Even in patriotic circles, never mind among ordinary voters, there is colossal fatigue with parties that they are forced to vote for time and again. Whereas 15 years ago, infamous individuals would be “compensated for” by including a few reputable individuals in party lists and FPTP districts as decor, this kind of calculus is less and less workable. Why? Because the patriotic camp itself has developed higher expectations of the quality of politics. What the ex-Regionals are permitted by their voter is no longer acceptable for national democrats. Obviously, the time was ripe for the leaders of this camp to satisfy demand for higher quality politics back during the Maidan, especially among its core electorate. Their inability or unwillingness to respond to this demand has almost relegated them to the political margins, so they have little choice now but to evolve. And being in the opposition is a great opportunity to work on their mistakes.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj