Ukrainians Face Another Election Headache

People are more important than political interests. This party will never betray you. Fair wages and pensions. People, not politicians. Let’s unite for Ukraine! Order and justice.

These are just a few of the messages blaring at Kyiv residents from billboards. Ukraine’s capital is awash with campaign tents manned by students and retirees wearing smocks bearing party slogans, busily passing out election literature.

Five tents with competing messages stand side by side outside the concert hall Palats Ukraina. Boryslav Bereza, once a leader of Right Sector and now the head of a new party called the Party of Decisive Citizens, is vying for the mayor’s job next to Hennadiy Korban, a powerful businessman and close associate of the former governor of Dnipropetrovsk, Ihor Kolomoyskyi. Korban glares from posters, his piercing gaze accompanied by a scowl and the unequivocal message “It’s time to change mayors.”

Hennadiy Korban’s campaign poster reads “It’s time to change mayors.”

Korban heads a new party called UKROP, a derogatory term for Ukrainians coined by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Ukrop means dill in Russian and Korban’s party name stands for the Ukrainian Society of Patriots.

The red heart symbol of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) Party promises order and justice. Next to the Batkivshchyna heart another white and red tent, the Solidarity bloc of Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, calls for unity. And in a move suggestive of the elephant and donkey symbols that represent America’s Republicans and Democrats, another newcomer, the Movement for Reform features a blue and yellow rhinoceros. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s acolytes have not all fled to Russia or the French Riviera; those remaining have regrouped into the Opposition Bloc. They promise to “end the war in eastern Ukraine, bring order to the country, safeguard people from the economic crisis, and renew the economy.”

If this scene sounds frenetic and leaves you confused, just wait. The number of people and parties eager to get into government is astounding. According to the Central Election Commission, 142 political parties are competing in the October 25 local elections. Overall there are 209,914 candidates vying for positions in 869 city, state, regional, and village councils. Kyiv has a special federal status, but it has plenty of councils, a central city council and one for each of the city’s ten regions, for a total of 658 councilmen and women in a city of 3.5 million. New York City with an estimated population of 8.5 million has fifty-one people on its city council.

Yevhen Vasili, a displaced person from the Donbas region opened a cafe in Kyiv. He’s running for the Kyiv city council on the Samopomich party ticket. Samopomich is headed by Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue

The parties themselves are a colorful assortment reminiscent of a bride’s traditional accoutrements on her wedding day: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

Something old could be the Hromada party established in 1993. Its founding father is the disgraced Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, convicted in 2006 and sentenced to nine years in prison in the United States for money laundering, wire fraud, and extortion.

Something new could be the Party of Plain Folks headed by an axe-wielding, salty-tongued Poroshenko supporter named Serhiy Kaplin.

Something borrowed might be the Movement for Reforms, a new party with a rhinoceros logo and the word “Rukh,” harkening back to the 1990s when Rukh was a powerful opposition movement.

Something blue is the prominent color of the discredited Party of Regions adopted by the hastily formed Opposition Bloc.

Nothing new under the sun

“Will you vote for Bereza?” I asked a young man passing out leaflets for Bereza’s Party of Decisive Citizens. “I support Bereza, yes, I will vote for him” he said.

“Why?” I pressed.

“Bereza says he would nationalize all Russian-owned businesses in Ukraine. I think that’s great,” he said.

The young people manning Korban’s tent were more thoughtful. Volodymyr and Oksana, both 22-year-old students, were told to read the party literature and be prepared for questions. They came away unimpressed, calling Korban’s ideas populist.

“I don’t see much difference between all these parties,” Oksana said. “They promise us the world but once they get into office all they care about are their own pockets. I’m handing out these leaflets because I get paid.”

As we sped across the Dnipro River later, my 30-year-old taxi driver said he would vote for incumbent Mayor Vitali Klitschko, who has been in office since June 2014. Klitschko faces twenty-eight challengers.

“I don’t know anything about any of these people. I don’t know who these parties are. Who are these people, where did they come from? Why should I vote for them? I know Vitali Klitschko, I’m going to vote for him.”

Television ads do little to dispel the confusion. Commercials are run in blocks of five to seven minutes and feature all the parties. The ads aren’t specific or message-driven and simply encourage people to vote. None of the mayoral candidates in the capital or in other large cities have faced off in political debates.

But Ukrainians will vote in these elections, because they are a first step to empowering regional governments and communities. They will likely vote like my taxi driver, casting their ballots for people they know. And everyone in Ukraine knows the local politician, no matter how corrupt or venal. Better the evil you know than the one you don’t.

Irena Chalupa is a Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. For the 2015-2016 year, she is a Fulbright Scholar researching Soviet-era Ukrainian political prisoners.

Related Experts:

Image: The political parties competing in Ukraine’s October 25 local elections are a colorful assortment reminiscent of a bride’s traditional accoutrements on her wedding day: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. Something new could be the Party of Plain Folks headed by an axe-wielding, salty-tongued Poroshenko supporter named Serhiy Kaplin. Credit: Irena Chalupa