Like many of their counterparts in other democracies, Ukrainians tend to vote with their hearts, their feelings, their moods, their eyes, and their ears – in short, anything but their heads. Even if a voter has read the platforms of all the candidates before heading for the polls, it’s very unlikely that when the person decides where to put the check mark on their ballot, it’s unlikely to be based on this information but on political expediency, personal preference, habit, or conformity with whatever public opinion dominates at that particular moment.
Old habits die hard
Ukrainians in general have a hard time giving up their own habits, even when they are harmful. Maybe because they vote the way they do, they keep falling into new traps. They don’t seem to learn from the mistakes of the past, logical arguments based on facts have no effect, and preferences for one politician or another are formed quite irrationally. Those who once voted for communists were generally impoverished, felt slighted by fate, and spent decades voting for politicians who only pretended to espouse the ideology, but were in fact very well-to-do, classical bourgeois types – the very embodiment of everything they were supposed to be fighting against. Obviously, between the fans of the CPU there were also old party functionaries or their descendants, but the majority of this electorate was ordinary folks for whom habit was the main driver, together with the principle of supporting “our guy.” All this brotherhood could not but see just how distant their leaders really were from the core ideals, but it meant nothing to them.
Pro-Moscow voters were very similar. For this group supporting Party of the Regions, which manipulated them with an entire symphony of promises, from “maintaining stability” to “protecting veterans, that really boiled down to one. In their eyes, these were, first and foremost, the bearers of “Russki Mir,” the Russian world, a guarantee that relations with the capital of their world – Moscow – would remain inviolate, the Moscow to which their muddled views gravitated. It didn’t seem to bother them that these “regionals” failed to deliver on any social commitments, while “stability “came down to cultivating post-soviet syndrome.
Meanwhile, the so-called elite was mainly busy robbing the country blind and cultivating its corrupt networks, their kids were getting degrees in the West in bourgeois colleges, and their ill-gotten money was moved offshore where they bought themselves fancy estates. But all these “side effects” were taken as the least evil compared to the loss of inviolable ties to the empire. And even open war between the “brotherly” nations had no effect in adjusting attitudes. Ukraine’s fifth column may have thinned out somewhat as accidental co-travelers fell away, it still sets its clocks according to Moscow’s chimes.
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The aging and nostalgic
The current electorate voting for Opposition Platform – Za Zhyttia (OPZZ) is those same one-time supporters of the Communist Party and Party of the Regions, who look at the world exclusively through the prism of Russia. Nor are they interested in any changes whatsoever: 79% are people over 50, based on the 2019 national exit poll, and only 3% are young. Most live in the east and south of Ukraine, with a particularly dangerous concentration remaining in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.
Incidentally, those who prefer to vote for Batkivshchyna also tend to be older. 73% of Yulia Tymoshenko’s supporters and supporters of her party are Ukrainians over the age of 50. They tend to live in provincial towns in the central oblasts, have low incomes, don’t really understand political platforms, and don’t have specific expectations of their leader. This correlates strangely with the quality of the current Batkivshchyna faction in the Rada, which is filled with moneybags and people who belong to various oligarchs, but it can easily be explained. For them, the most important element is the memory of their choice, and so they vote for her again and again. They gratefully remember “Yulia’s UAH 1,000,” which she arranged as compensation for the billions Ukrainians lost when the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia took over the state savings bank with all their money. They also remember how she was jailed. When all is said and done, Tymoshenko simply appeals to them, they believe in her, and they get a charge from her emotional speechmaking, which reach their hearts. Whatever platforms Tymoshenko proposes, even if they are inconsistent, her fans will vote for her as long as they are alive, no matter who is in Batkivshchyna: the young and talented or the old and corrupted. They don’t even care if oligarchs hold hands with Yulia or scandals swirl around her. She’s their eternal symbol.
The savvy and forward-looking
The relationship between voters and ex-President Petro Poroshenko’s team today is very different. These tend to be more pragmatic individuals who are aware of the value of their leader as the most trustworthy of all the Ukrainian presidents, not only as for having stopped enemy aggression and effectively withstood Vladimir Putin, but also for having done more for Ukraine than any other in restoring a functional army and attaining the tomosof independence of the Ukrainian church. There is little fanaticism among these voters: having a sober understanding of all the problems and failures of Poroshenko that are nevertheless compensated for by the generally right course he took, guaranteeing the country a certain level of stability combined with a slow but steady movement forward. Put more simply, Poroshenko & Co. basically got the votes of thoughtful patriots who valued the notion of statehood and knew how important it was not to let it start to wobble. Their main requirements of this party were not to allow any comebacks, to continue what had been started as much as possible, and to gather together all the reasonably pro-Ukrainian politicians.
Interestingly, among European Solidarity the different age groups constitute almost the same share. Most of them have a post-secondary education and live in major cities predominantly in central and western Ukraine. The party’s faction is also fairly balanced along different indicators. The new legendary faces have blended rather well with the old, but properly cleaned up team of the ex-president’s advisors. There are almost no questionable individuals left.
A budding new relationship
Relations between the newly-arrived politicians from Holosand their electorate are very different. The largest proportion of Ukrainians who voted for this party, 41%, are under 40. Compared to the three classic political projects discussed here and even compared to the unitary nature of SN, this is the youngest voter group, the one that can unhesitatingly be called the independence generation. They want positive change, progress and clear rules for the country to develop further. Unlike the voters who supported the new president’s brand, their demands are much more clearly formulated and are definitely not based on experience gained from watching a television serial. Many of them have a higher education, are active in their communities and ambitious.
It may be that some of them engage in youthful maximalism and lack sufficient experience, but in contrast to Ze fans, they are clued in: they know where they are going and how. Of course, part of Holos’s electorate also includes voters who were disappointed in the old politicians but voted for Poroshenko in the presidential race because they refused to support Zelenskiy. Most of them were initially drawn to Holos because of the new faces that, unlike Sluha Narodu, have pretty solid backgrounds – the kind of individual that decided to take on Big Politics in order to try to establish new standards there. Today, this is difficult and things seem, on the contrary. But this is not the last election and Holos could become the foundation for a strong party along new lines. Ukrainian society has significant demand for this, so Sviatoslav Vakarchuk’s advisors have their work cut out for them, in order not just to hang on to the base of support that gave Holos its jump-start, but to expand it.
Obviously, the young party won’t be able to fulfill all its promises and its voters understand that. The important thing is to play well, maintain their good reputation, and take complete advantage of the opportunity to grow and to build some muscle. That’s going to be the key. The party was able to get into the Rada thanks to support from western Ukraine and Kyiv. Because of the suddenness of the snap election, Holos lacked the time to work with voters in the rest of the country. Now, things are a lot more straightforward. Having made it into the Rada, even if in the peanut gallery, it has gained some decent opportunities that simply have to be taken advantage of effectively.
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Interestingly, Sluha Narodu had a similarly high share of those under 40, 36%, voting for it. However, it’s a deceptive indicator as things are more complicated with SN. The correlation between the electorate and its choice is almost linear and that presents problems. The generation of office plankton and television that is always dissatisfied with everything, whose life meaning boils down to carrying out boring tasks and drinking beer every Friday night, and whose worldview revolves around primitive comic skits appears to have elected its mirror image: kitchen hands who think they can run a country and adventurists of all stripes who are prepared to counterfeit anything at all. And yes, quite a number of decent, smart people also fell into the trap, but it’s unlikely they will be able to influence anything. This entire honest company has no future and will fall apart quite quickly – but not before it manages to create a real mess.
This is yet another thing for Ukraine to live through, at least so that Ukrainians get sick of irresponsibility and learn to think a little. For a few decades now, the heads of Ukrainians have been filled with terrible chaos. Having abandoned bolshevik ideology, Ukrainians have not found something to fill the ensuing vacuum. The soviet cancer is tightly interwoven with new consumer trends have shaped a generation of “what, me worry?” indifference concerned only with personal survival. Neither attempts to return to traditional values nor specific ideologies nor religious experiments have led to significant results. The country has not developed parties with strong ideologies that might shape a higher quality political culture and, more importantly, offer a national idea that could consolidate Ukrainian society.
Should we then look at what’s going on today as simply a change in the political elite? Possibly. Some are already saying so. But this entire show looks a lot more like a highly professional manipulation. It’s more likely that we are only seeing the prelude and more exciting things are ahead. The windows of opportunity are only opening up now and, sooner or later – provided that the country remains on its feet that long – real political renewal will be irreversible. Hopefully, Ukraine’s politicians and its people will also be ready for this.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj