Who won Kyiv`s elections?
Millions of dollars in campaign money has been wasted on the same village buffoonery that we have all come to expect from Ukraine`s so-called political elite. There were no policy issues at stake - such as how to relieve the city`s suffocating traffic problem or improve its paltry public services...
The official results came in late last week: Incumbent Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky will hold on to his job and lead the largest faction in the city council (43 out of 120 seats); the bloc of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko came in second with 32 council seats; followed by former heavyweight boxing champ Vitaly Klitchko (15); and the rest being divided up among four other contestants.
But in reality everyone lost. Millions of dollars in campaign money has been wasted on the same village buffoonery that we have all come to expect from Ukraine`s so-called political elite. There were no policy issues at stake - such as how to relieve the city`s suffocating traffic problem or improve its paltry public services - just a no-holds-barred mud wrestling match, with control over lucrative land plots as the main prize. It might even be worth a laugh, looking back on how the candidates smeared each other in the media, campaign leaflets and stickers plastered on the wall of Metro trains. But the last laugh is on the voters, who will watch helplessly as more municipal assets are allocated to the `businessmen` who financed the winning campaigns.
A look at the party lists is even more revealing. As is the case in national elections, each political clan slips in as many cronies, friends, family members, sympathetic journalists, etc. as possible, following the inclusion of the front-running oligarchs who call the shots. The faces of the parties and blocs - i.e. the politicians best known to voters due to their countless appearances on television talk shows or pompous statements made during press conferences and street rallies - apparently already see themselves as brands. They appear on party lists with no intention of taking the post they are running for. Thus, for example, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was slotted as a candidate for a city council seat. Members of the opposition Regions party and officials from Chernovetsky`s administration also canceled their candidacies after the elections, trusting their political protégés to now do their bidding under the banner of the party.
After seeing much of the same in the country`s recent string of elections and re-elections, voters were not surprised. Since Ukraine`s so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, there have been three presidential votes, a parliamentary election, a repeat parliamentary election and two goes at the Mayor`s office. And the scenario has been basically the same in each contest: President Viktor Yushchenko trying to restrain the ambitions of his former Orange ally Yulia Tymoshenko while often siding with politicians whom he labeled as criminals back in 2004.
It was Tymoshenko who insisted on repeat mayoral elections, though. Since returning to head the government during last fall`s repeat parliamentary poll, the fiery female politician thought she could pull the same thing off in Kyiv.
Many an analyst saw the Kyiv election as a dress rehearsal for next year`s presidential race, in which Tymoshenko is expected to challenge Yushchenko. Upon taking office late last year, Ms. Tymoshenko was heads and shoulders above the president in opinion polls. But that was before double-digit inflation figures started piling up, and the president blocked every attempt by Tymoshenko to bring them down. The mayoral contest was to be the coupe de grace. In the classical Ukrainian sense it was: both politicians are now in the mud.
As a matter of fact, judging from the voter turnout (just 53 percent), Ukrainians have just about had their fill of all their politicians. The results from voting on May 26 say something like: We still like Tymoshenko`s tough populism (at least for now and in Kyiv), but the equally populist Chernovetsky isn`t so much worse than the other candidates as to merit cutting short his term.
Tymoshenko`s whole reason for calling the early mayoral elections was to stop Chernovetsky from allegedly handing out billions of dollars in city land plots to his cronies. After yet another round of mudslinging, voters have their doubts about all their politicians. There`s only so much bickering one can stand before the reason for the quarrel becomes irrelevant.
The mayoral elections were so hastily organized, with error ridden voter lists and incompetent electoral commissions - especially compared to the money and effort spent on dirty PR - that it was hard not to see them as just a cheap theatre venue to stage an even cheaper popularity contest.
The Committee of Ukrainian Voters (CVU), an independent NGO, said the elections were free and fair but not lacking in cheap tricks such as vote buying.
"We don`t see any serious legal basis for canceling the results of the elections," CVU chairman Igor Popov told a press conference.
Indeed, as the last few years have shown, re-elections do little to improve the political environment in Kyiv. The same characters end up on voter lists to represent their clans rather than to propose any sort of intelligible policy.
Klitchko, a man whose worldwide success in the boxing ring, seemed to have put him above Kyiv`s mud wrestling, was one of the harshest critics of the mayoral voting, citing false opinion polls, unequal access to the media and dirty PR. In a newspaper interview, he said his team needed a separate group just to round up all the bogus literature being distributed about him. "Thirty five tons of newspapers and fliers that reached a height of four meters and all of it about me. Impressive!"
However, Klitchko`s backers represented the same kind of big money seen among his opponents.
The bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko has been less vociferous in its condemnation of the elections, for fear of drawing any more negative attention to itself than it already has by calling the elections in the first place.
If Tymoshenko had supported Klitchko`s candidacy for mayor, as he had requested, they could have defeated Chernovetsky. The decision to run alone was certainly not based on policy differences. Instead it was a matter of ego, the kind that has sowed division ever since the Orange politicians came to power two and half years ago.
"They gnawed at each other`s heels," pro-presidential lawmakers Ivan Plyushch told journalists. He forgot to mention, however, that this is exactly what Yushchenko wanted.
After all, it was the president who made sure that the parliament didn`t pass legislation that would have allowed two tours in the mayoral race, thus severely decreasing Chernovetsky`s chances of being re-elected.
And the mayor has not been gracious in victory. He has since continued his public attacks against Tymoshenko and other political opponents, most recently calling for the premier to resign.
"It`s high time that the government be dismissed," he said. In other words - yet another early election that nobody will win.