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April 18, 2019

Don’t believe the hype. Presidential elections aren’t what matters in Ukraine

By Melinda Haring

There’s election fever in Kyiv, and with less than a week before Ukrainians go to the polls to likely elect an inexperienced comedian as their next president, the outcome is all but certain. Volodymyr Zelenskiy should easily defeat incumbent President Petro Poroshenko on April 21.     

The far more interesting question is who will win the October parliamentary elections and who will lead the next government.

Ukraine has a bizarre presidential-parliamentary system, which means the parliamentary elections are more important than the presidential race. The president picks only two ministers and three other posts, while the prime minister selects everyone else. This means that the next president oversees foreign policy, while the prime minister leads economic and domestic policy.

The next prime minister, not the president, will be in the driver’s seat when it comes to economic policy. And Ukraine’s finances aren’t in good shape. The country of 44 million has become the poorest in Europe while receiving $14 billion in remittances in 2018.  

It’s too early to speculate about the new government beyond a few general statements. The next parliament will be made up of at least five political parties, and the governing coalition will be fragile and probably less reform minded than the current parliament. Given these realities, Ukraine’s reformers need to unite now and spend the next six months building one political party with real grassroots support, instead of fighting each other and endlessly negotiating.

There’s at least ten groups, parties, and leaders vying for the Euromaidan vote, which makes up to fifteen percent of the total vote. If none of these groups unify, none will be in the next parliament. (Ukraine has a five percent threshold.)

These groups know that they must merge and start organizing. They knew it last year. Instead, they drank a lot of coffee and prayed for rock star Slava Vakarchuk to rescue them. He led them on for an entire year, urging Ukrainians to take responsibility, while eschewing it himself. His Hamlet act tilled the political soil for the rise of Volodymr Zelenskiy, who looks set to become Ukraine’s sixth president. If Zelenskiy wins, blame Slava.

The picture for Ukraine’s 2019 fall elections looks very different than it did in 2014. Ukraine’s experienced reform political parties—Samopomich and Civic Position—are on life support. Samopomich, the Lviv-based political party that took more seats than expected in the 2014 elections, has run itself into the ground. Five of its members of parliament defected last week. There’s no enthusiasm for Civic Position, the party run by three-time failed presidential candidate Anatoliy Gritsenko.

Among the Euromaidan reformers, three new movements bear watching.

First, People Matter (Люди важливі), a center-right civic movement that plans to register as a political party next month, is gaining momentum. On April 13, about one thousand people packed into an auditorium for People Matter’s third forum in Kyiv. Earlier this spring, People Matter held well-organized events in Lviv, Odesa, Dnipro, and Kharkiv. The organization has just hired a field organizer and seems to be building regional offices. Based on a marriage between the Kyiv Team in the Kyiv City Council led by entrepreneur Sergiy Gusovsky, representatives from the Institute for the Future think tank, and some experienced government officials, including Maxim Nefyodov, People Matters aspires to be Ukraine’s first liberal political party that doesn’t take any funds from oligarchs. However, none of its top talent has national name recognition and it doesn’t get much play on any of the major television stations, so People Matter will have to merge, implement a much more aggressive communications strategy, and build an actual presence in big cities if it wants to be in the next parliament.        

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Second, a group of experienced ministers and parliamentarians is quietly organizing behind a platform called Однодумці. The group wants Ukraine to join the EU and NATO, but it stayed out of the presidential election. Its main members include Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Rada Foreign Affairs Chair Hanna Hopko, former education minister Sergiy Kvit, and others. There are rumors that the party may soon merge with another small party with appeal in Ukraine’s south and east. This group needs to burnish its reform credentials in order to compete. Without an anti-corruption message, it won’t be able to compete with incumbent President Petro Poroshenko or Zelenskiy’s party, both of which favor a Western foreign policy orientation.

A third formation—Act Together—that could take off is led by parliamentarian Mustafa Nayyem, MP Svitlana Zalishchuk, MP Nataliya Katser-Buchkovska, the deputy head of the patrol police, and others. The group has held meetings across the country, although the meetings were primarily attended by young people and sparsely attended. Its messages and themes are similar to those of People Matter.          

Perhaps these three movements will all become parties or merge in some fashion. Now is the time to join forces and organize. And when Slava Vakarchuk calls, they would be wise to ignore him this time. 

Melinda Haring is the editor of the UkraineAlert blog and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. She tweets @melindaharing.

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Image: Sergiy Gusovsky, co-leader of the People Matter movement, speaks at a forum in Kyiv on April 13. Courtesy Photo.