Why Don't Ukrainians Vote Wisely?
by Oleksandr Shevchenko
A Ukrainian MP Volodymyr Parasyuk during the hassle in Ukrainian Parliament on December 4, 2014
Photo from VO Svoboda
A strange conversation occurred on one of the streets of Ukrainian city of Dnipro in late November 2004. It was a windy sunny day. The last leaves, along with the first timid snowflakes, were falling down covering the cold ground. It was the first week of Orange demonstrations in Kyiv, but the idea of a protest already spread to the whole country. A young woman, who supported the revolution, was walking home having not checked the last news yet. "He won! Thanks God, he won!", with tears of joy in her voice, a strange older woman started talking to her. An unsolicited interlocutor was poorly dressed: her clothing was old and pretty worn out. "Who won?", an anxious question followed. "You ask who? Yanukovych, of course!", older woman's excitement started being hysterical. "How can you be happy? He's a criminal!", for her young vis-à-vis it was a moment of desperation. "So what? At least he's ours!" was the answer.
The presidential campaign of 2004 is remembered for manipulative political electoral technologies built on separations on language, ethnicity and other grounds. That is why, for a significant part of voters, being "ours" valued more than being law-abiding. Back in 2004, the Supreme Court nullified the results of the presidential elections because of mass electoral frauds in favor of Viktor Yanukovych. In the outcome of re-elections, Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of Orange Revolution, won. In 2004, Ukrainian society proved it would not give up its right for fair elections.

What about those who once tried to take this right away? Would they lose credibility? The elections of 2010 proved the opposite. The fatigue from democratically elected but politically impotent president Yushchenko resulted in what no one could imagine in 2004. This time Ukrainian people did elect Viktor Yanukovych for real.

Today electoral culture in Ukraine is still low. This is the key reason why modern political arena is dominated by old elites formed after the fall of the USSR. Even though the demand for reforms has never been higher, voters keep on supporting candidates the least interested in changing the country. Who would ever ruin the system which has always fed them?

Eternal Vicious Circle of Ukrainian Elections

According to the recent polls conducted by sociological group "Rating", if the presidential elections were to be held tomorrow, at least half of the voters would support candidates representing the old elites. These candidates are not counter-systemic leaders but rather are used to functioning within the existing system.

After Euromaidan Revolution in 2013-2014, the politicians of a new wave did not risk creating a new party with new values. "I would not blame young politicians for their presence in the lists of made from scratch parties with no ideology base. However, this choice deprives them of opportunity to pave their own path of trial and error, form their own political experience and convert it in political success", says political scientist Yevhen Mahda. He believes that desire to fit into the political system is traditionally stronger than willingness to destroy it, regardless of the slogans voiced in public.

One more piece of statistics from "Rating": if the parliamentary elections were to be held tomorrow, only parties affiliated with old political elites would pass the threshold. Among them, only one party has a clear ideology out of traditional right-left spectrum. Though it can only expect 5,1 % of votes. All other factions will be filled out of personified parties — the parties with immovable leadership.

A PhD in Political Sciences Maria Karmazina claims that the dominance of such "one-person parties" is the evidence of a powerful authoritarian segment in Ukrainian political system. According to her calculations, there have been 16 "named after" parties in Ukraine at the beginning of 2018. In her article in "ZN.UA", Karmazina writes: "renaming [parties]... also means the strengthening of the process of personification of politics (which in its own way speaks of the poor quality of the latter in the Ukrainian state), the growth of populism and the degradation of interest in the ideologies of both Ukrainian society and the politicians themselves".

The political system is designed in a way that makes any traditional political debates impossible. In an environment like these, even politically wise voters have nothing left to do apart from supporting the elite whose interests coincide with their own. If one was to answer the question in the headline of this article, they would naturally have to define which came first: unwise voters or irresponsible candidates? This phenomenon has created an eternal vicious circle of Ukrainian elections. But what can break the chain?

No Motivation to Figure out Politics

"Once, when I was in the 7th or 8th grade, my father and I went along a strip of miners' settlements on the border of Donetsk and Lugansk oblast's [the territories currently occupied by Russia]. What I saw there shocked me. Destroyed, decayed, rusted shops and mines, dilapidated houses. In general, the atmosphere of desolation and hopelessness, blatant poverty. Hard work at bootleg mines, guarded by machine gunners. It was a huge contrast to Donetsk. Then — I clearly remember that — for the first time I had an idea that there was a huge segment of poor, ignorant, unhappy people who had nothing to lose, hated the existing system in the broad sense, people marginalized and desperate in their resentment for life", Ukrainian blogger Hari Seldon recalls.

The key factor of such a low electoral culture in Ukraine might be the lack of a significant stimulus to figure out the politics. A voter that has something to lose is more likely to show a genuine interest in changing the system which endangers their property and businesses. In short, a voter who runs a business is a responsible voter. After the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, Ukrainian population failed to produce a critical mass of responsible voters of this kind. In other words, there was no base for the emergence of the middle class.

However, it was not the case for some other states of the Socialist Bloc, which emerged after the end of the Cold War. The states of the Bloc outside the USSR and Baltic countries has all gone through a process of a rapid capitalist development after the fall of Eastern Bloc. Now Poland is considered to be the state with the fastest growing economy among them. But in the early 90s, the newly emerged sovereign state of Ukraine had far bigger industry potential and much richer resources than its western neighbor. Then why did Polish people manage to go through a post-communist transition successfully and Ukrainians not?

The answer lies in a dark history of early years of the Soviet Union that led to eradication of tradition of the individual entrepreneurship itself. In 1932, the state started physically eliminating those Ukrainians who knew how to make money, particularly, private farmers who lived in the rural areas. Those events went down in history as Holodomor (a man-made famine) — a genocide, that killed from five to ten millions Ukrainians. Instead, they settled the newly ghost villages with families who were ready to work in "kolkhoz" (collective farming) and would not tolerate anything private.

People, brought up by the kolkhoz system, were the ones who got independence in 1991 and did not know how to deal with it. On the contrary, the politicians who gained power in Poland at that time, went for rather unpopular economic reforms. The private initiative was strongly encouraged, which, in turn, resulted in more than 2,5 times bigger GDP in 2000 comparing to the data of 1990, according to World Bank data. This growth was the most rapid among all post-communist countries.

In political domain, the transition from socialism to capitalism in Poland was possible because of the change of the elites, while in Ukraine, elites that came to power were rather post-communist than anti-communist. The creator of "Polish Economic Miracle" Leszek Balcerowicz in his article "Understanding Post-Communist Transitions", calls that time a period of "extraordinary politics": "Liberation from foreign domination and domestic political liberalization produce a special state of mass psychology and corresponding political opportunities: the new political structures are fluid and the older political elite is discredited".

Centrally planned economy is always a failure. Before 1989, we had ration stamps for necessities like food. And the shortages were common. A transition from such a system had to be painful but the fact that the reforms were conducted rapidly made them less painful than gradual reforms lasting several years. "The so-called transitional recession in Poland was exceptionally short", says Polish economist Marcin Zieliński. Unlike Ukrainians, after fall of communism, the population of Poland was pretty united in their support of elites offering a capitalistic development because they had what to protect.

Votes for Food

Despite the incredible heat, a long line of mostly elderly people was waiting for the bags of grocery products to be handed out. They were nervous, because they were afraid that it would not be enough food for everyone. If asked "What is handed out there?", they answered reluctantly: "Nothing more". To get a bag one has to show an ID first. A man, who allegedly asked to save a spot in order to go back home for a document, was not let back in line. A small fight happened.

This is how a BBC Ukrainian reporter saw that sunny day. The scenes described above happened in the summer of 2015 when parliamentary by-elections were held in Chernihiv electoral district. One of the candidates, then leader of "UKROP" party Gennadiy Korban, used the so-called "buckwheat" technology to merely buy the necessary votes. The majority electoral system, introduced in 2011 by regime of Yanukovych, made it incredibly easy to make it to the parliament. Usually it is used by local businessmen who then vote in parliament accordingly to the line of their protectorate. Where are the voters' interests in this equation? Apparently, somewhere in the line for grocery products.

Several Ukrainian NGOs believe that introducing the proportional open-list system would solve the problem of "buying" seats in the parliament. The multi-mandate districts at oblast level (regional division unit in Ukraine) are meant to reduce the effect of administrative resources and bribery while, at the same time, it will save the regional reference. The Electoral Code with corresponding changes has already been registered at the parliament for consideration. However, at the moment, it obviously drags on.

But how likely are MPs to vote for the changes before the next parliamentary elections in 2019? "Public funds" project manager at NGO "Centre UA" Andriy Andrushkiv is rather optimistic: "The odds are quite high. For all parliamentary factions, except of Petro Poroshenko Bloc [president's faction], the majority system gives much worse odds. It is because majority districts candidates would run as PPB representatives and therefore would rely on the support of administrative resources and security forces in the districts. For the notional opposition [...], it would be very hard to fight with the PPB's proteges".

Even though the new system, if adopted, would make the parliament more representative, the electoral culture of population would not improve per se. At least the polls suggest that voters' preferences are still split between the old elites. What will significantly change are the rules of the game. The new Code is meant to make the fight for votes more competitive and fair, which would probably create the fruitful environment for counter-systemic leaders to emerge and gain the power.

No Confrontation of Views

One of the remarkable features of all post-Soviet political systems is the absence of a traditional left-right political spectrum. A rapid and unexpected shift from socialism to "wild capitalism" in 1991 did not lead to thriving of small and medium business but to concentration of former state-owned property in hands of several people who are now known as oligarchs.

Yevhen Mahda explains that shortage of small and medium business in historic perspective, as well as in Ukrainian life in the early 90s, resulted in the absence of social demand for transformation. "Politicians who came to power in 1991 were able to convince the population that preserving relative stability is better than transformation. They used turbulence in Russia and the Caucasus in their own interests, offering a freeze of activity instead of rational reforms, the price of which would be much lower than today", says the scholar.

Today, within the existing system, even new leaders don't have traditional ideology base which they could offer to voters. And it is logical given that none of them is counter-systemic. Ukrainian prominent journalism Sonya Koshkina accuses these so-called "fresh faces" of lack of confrontation of views: "... Ukrainian society [...] did not give a way to the new national leader [...], which could fully qualify for the main position in the country. The new leaders should compete by offering the meanings, not the forms — "the bet of the oligarchs", "the bet of the West", "the bet of clowns".

What inspires optimism is an actual decrease in level of confidence in old elites among the population. According to anti-corruption activist Vitaliy Shabunin, the amount of people, who don't trust any of the political parties, has grown by 15 %. The polls suggest that the third of the voters still did not make up their minds who they would vote for in the presidential elections and more than the third — in parliamentary. Who knows, maybe with introduction of the new Code, the counter-systemic elites will gain the power, conduct necessary economic reforms and break the eternal vicious circle of Ukrainian politics?
About the author: Oleksandr is a Ukrainian journalist and TV producer. He worked for Ukrainian non-profit news media organization "Hromadske" as a Sunday Show producer and as a journalist at "Hromadske International" project. Oleksandr also worked as a freelancer for a non-profit media critique organization "Media Detector". He mainly covers international relations and Ukrainian internal politics.

Oleksandr Shevchenko
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