The campaign that could change voting patterns

The campaign that could change voting patterns

On 30 September, Ukraine’s voters go to the polls for the fifth time in four years. Three important factors in the current campaign are likely to affect the vote: [1] apathy, [2] the use of American campaign consultants and [3] a new battle for Eastern voters.

On 30 September, Ukraine’s voters go to the polls for the fifth time in four years. This time, they will vote again for their parliament (Rada) after the convocation elected last year was dismissed by President Viktor Yushchenko.

Three important factors in the current campaign are identifiable and will likely affect the vote: [1] apathy, [2] the use of American campaign consultants and [3] a new battle for Eastern voters.

In particular, while two of the country’s major blocs generally are focusing on historical regional strongholds, one is embarking on a potentially risky strategy designed to break through the East-West voting divisions that have plagued Ukraine since its independence 16 years ago.

WILL VOTERS GO TO THE POLLS?

The campaign to date has been characterized by general disinterest. While pollsters are suggesting that upward of 65% of voters nationally still say they plan to cast their ballot, there is genuine concern among Ukraine’s biggest parties that this apathy could lead to a serious decrease in turnout.

This is especially true for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and the leading opposition Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko (BYUT), both of which view turnout as key to their success on election day.

Yanukovych, in particular, appears worried about surveys that suggest supporters in his traditional Eastern and Southern strongholds will vote at lower rates than the supporters of other parties in the Central and Western regions.

Speaking on a regional television station in Zaporizhya, the Prime Minister suggested that he has seen statistics that predict less than 60% of voters in the East and South will cast a ballot.

“If this indeed will be the turnout,” he said, “then … it won`t be necessary to blame anyone. … If the Ukrainian people want to have an orange government in power, it means, this is what we`ll get, if this will be the turnout. If it [Ukraine] does not want this - it is necessary for everybody to get out and vote. September 30th – go to the elections. This is the main question for the country and the Ukrainian people." (1)

However, judging by the lack of campaign energy in Kyiv, it is clear why Yanukovych is not the only politician who is worried. “If I have time,” said one man on Kyiv’s main Kreshchatik Boulevard, “I will vote for Yulia [Tymoshenko].” Then, with a shrug, he added, ““It doesn’t really matter. They’re all the same. Well, maybe she’s a little bit better, but it doesn’t make a difference.”

This opinion was echoed by numerous Kyivites around the city in informal conversations with this author.

Seamstresses working in one of Kyiv’s tailoring shops, men standing in line at the central McDonald’s, women relaxing in a park, and waiters working at a restaurant on the outskirts of the city all said they would vote “if I have time,” or “if I am near a polling station,” or simply “if I feel like it.” These are, of course, unscientific samples, but illustrative nonetheless. (2)

Both Yanukovych and Tymoshenko have tried to respond to this attitude with aggressive television and radio advertisements calling on Ukrainians to vote. Tymoshenko has introduced a new advertisement with a very direct message: “All politicians are not the same. Yulia is different.”

Since polls suggest that the race between the Party of Regions and Tymoshenko’s bloc is tightening, both leaders understand that the loss of even a few percentage points of support as the result of apathy could determine whether or not they will be able to form a governing coalition with their partners.

GOODBYE RUSSIAN SPIN DOCTORS, HELLO AMERICANS

Recently, in the Washington Times, an opinion editorial appeared by Michael Caputo, whose byline on the piece noted that he is a “Miami writer” who “lived in Russia from 1994 to 1999 as an election adviser to Boris Yeltsin`s administration and was a media director of former President George H.W. Bush`s 1992 re-election [campaign].” (3)

In actuality, Michael Caputo is a public relations specialist who has worked in the past with representatives of Davis, Manafort & Freeman, an American consulting company now working for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

It is unclear why the Washington Times chose to allow Caputo to appear as an independent analyst; a quick Google search uncovers his profession and connections.

Caputo’s likely connection to the Party of Regions is further suggested by the tone of the piece, and by the use of – to put it nicely – alternative interpretations of events over the past two years.

Listing the piece’s questionable interpretations would take too much time and space, but it is perhaps instructive that these interpretations relate only to the work of Yulia Tymoshenko, and that they somehow always support Caputo’s call for voters to reject Tymoshenko’s campaign.

The Caputo piece serves primarily to spotlight the emergence of American political spin doctors in Ukraine. Davis, Manafort & Freeman first worked for Yanukovych during the 2006 parliamentary campaign, when they established a base in Kyiv to assist the campaign.

Davis, Manafort and their allies have gradually replaced Russian spin doctors, who have become less important over the past year. “Strategies which could work well on Russian territory often did not work out in Ukraine,” wrote Irina Khmara in Nezavisimaya gazeta. (4)

Davis and Manafort, however, created a new Western-friendly public image for Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, which helped propel the party to a first place showing in 2006, and earned praise from Western corporations.

However, this image has been undermined by recent government decisions instituting manual price controls in the gas and wheat sector, as well as major delays in passing WTO-related legislation. There are signs, therefore, that the strategy may not have the success in 2007 that it had previously.

American PR consultants are reportedly working also with President Viktor Yushchenko. According to Business Ukraine magazine, Washington lobbyist Sten Anderson now advises the president on media communications and has done so since the beginning of the year. Anderson’s influence is evident in Yushchenko`s new confident appearances before the media.

There is no evidence, however, that Anderson is influencing the day-to-day campaign of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense Bloc (OU-PSD). (5)

Lobbyist Ron Slimp of Washington, DC-based TD International also has been representing Yulia Tymoshenko and BYUT in the United States, since the beginning of the year.

Slimp appears to be the only US representative of a Ukrainian politician officially registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which “requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.” (6)

Tymoshenko has encouraged other DC lobbyists working for Ukrainians to comply with FARA, as required by the US State Department. Slimp is based in the US and appears to focus solely on Tymoshenko’s outreach to US media and political representatives.

A NATIONAL PARTY?

Unlike in 2006, when significant focus was placed on Kyiv, today’s campaign is taking place largely outside the capital. Yushchenko and OU-PSD so far have spent considerable time campaigning in Western regions that were the president’s strongholds in 2004.

Our Ukraine lost a fair amount of support in a number of Western regions to Yulia Tymoshenko in 2006 and now hopes to bring these regions back into the Our Ukraine stable.

At a 10,000 strong rally (named a “popular assembly”) in Lviv Oblast, Yushchenko praised all “democratic forces,” saying Our Ukraine and BYUT were working “shoulder to shoulder” against “betrayal.” But he asked voters to “support my team, Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense.

As president and as a citizen, I am convinced I have the right to request you to do this, as they are the third force, patriotic and professional, which can effectively help me implement your plans.” (7)

Although Yanukovych immediately lashed out at Yushchenko for injecting himself into the parliamentary campaign, calling the action “unconstitutional,” it appears that technically Ukraine’s president is prohibited from being a member of a political party, but not from campaigning for it.

Unlike OU-PSD, the Party of Regions and BYUT are both, to different extents, attempting to attract voters in regions where previously they have found little support. This focus on territory that crosses established East-West and North-South voting patterns is new and could signal a shift in voter allegiances.

The Party of Regions is concentrating largely on its Eastern base, but also has shown a significant increase in campaign activity in the capital and surrounding towns, which have been “orange” strongholds.

Party leaders suggest that voters in this area are unhappy with President Yushchenko and the orange forces, and are working to convince these voters to support Yanukovych.

Party of Regions billboards predominate in Kyiv (BYUT complains that many of its billboards have been summarily removed), with the party’s campaign booths clearly outpacing those of BYUT and OU-PSD. At a large BYUT rally in Bila Tserkva (Kyiv Oblast), the Party of Regions held a small, but significant demonstration nearby.

In the Central region, which appears to be both the most apathetic and the most politically savvy, it is unclear the extent to which this campaign by the Party of Regions can work. It demonstrates, however, the desire of the Party of Regions to position itself as more of a “mainstream,” center party.

In an interview on 12 September, Tymoshenko confirmed that her bloc had decided to use the majority of its resources to try to break through in the East and the South of the country, which historically have been Yanukovych strongholds.

“After a year and a half of the current Yanukovych government, there are significant numbers of voters in eastern and southern Ukraine who are disappointed,” she said, “which is why we are focusing two thirds of our entire campaign time in the region.”

The BYUT leader suggested that, for the first time, ideological differences of language and foreign policy in the East have been overtaken by concerns about the standard of living. This, she said, has provided an opportunity to compete for Eastern votes. (8)

So far, although Tymoshenko’s Eastern and Southern rallies have gained far more participants than in 2006, surveys still indicate that old voting patterns will prevail.

Valeriy Khmelko, president of the respected Kyiv International Institute of Sociology told the Kyiv Post that in the eight westernmost regions of the country, (22 percent of all voters), Orange support is eight times higher than that for the Party of Regions.

Meanwhile, voters in the three easternmost regions (also 22 percent of voters) are eight times more likely to vote for Yanukovych’s party. (9)

Apparently because of this remaining polarization in the extreme Eastern and Western regions, Tymoshenko has chosen to concentrate not on the far Eastern Luhansk and Donetsk (Yanukovych’s home oblast) regions, but on those Eastern regions considered to border the “center.”

She has held over 50 events in that “border” area, including Dnipropetrovsk, Kirovohrad, Kherson, and Zaporizhya, and has also focused on Kharkiv, which borders Russia, but boasts some of the country’s most active student groups. At an early September rally in Kharkiv, BYUT claimed 55,000 in attendance.

Although local officials suggested the number was 20,000, the turnout was significantly higher than at any previous Eastern rally. (10) Two separate polling firms found that in Kharkiv, BYUT’s rating had increased by at least 5 percent in the last several months. (11)

All of this activity has led observers to suggest that 2007 may be the year when Ukraine’s parties begin to break down the regional voter division that has plagued the country since its independence – or perhaps the year when the country sees its first national party.

To do so, political leaders will have to overcome apathy and growing cynicism. If this occurs, Ukraine will have taken one more step toward consolidating its democracy.

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SOURCE NOTES:

(1) Zaporizhya TV, 13 Sep 07 via ForeignNotes.blogspot.com.

(2) Interviews, Kyiv, 5 Sep-16 Sep 07.

(3) “Ukraine Elections,” Washington Times, 12 Sep 07.

(4) “A million dollars for Manafort. Americans replace Russian spin doctors in Ukraine,” Nezavisimaya gazeta, 22 Aug 07, p. 6; BBC Monitoring, 30 Aug 07 via Action Ukraine Monitoring Service for the Action Ukraine Report (AUR); An e-mailed request for comment from Caputo received no response over

several days.

(5) “Bringing in the American Spin Doctors,” Business Ukraine, 10 Sept 07.

(6) “Foreign Agents Reporting Act,” United States Department of Justice via

http://www.usdoj.gov/criminal/fara/.

(7) UNIAN News Agency, 17 Sept 07, 12:32 CET via www.unian.net/eng.

(8) Interview with Tymoshenko, 12 Sep 07, Bila Tserkva, Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine. See also “Yulia Marches East: The Eastern Front,” Business Ukraine, 17 Sep 07.

(9) “Polarization High, Voter Turnout Critical,” Kyiv Post, 12 Sep 07.

(10) For more specifics about Tymoshenko’s Eastern rallies, see “Yulia Marches East: The Eastern Front,” Business Ukraine, 17 Sep 07.

(11) Ibid.

By Tammy Lynch

The ISCIP ANALYST, An Analytical Review, Volume XIV, Number 1, Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology & Policy at Boston University Boston, MA, Thursday, September 20, 2007

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