As Ukraine’s presidential campaign is warming up, the motto “Either Poroshenko or Putin” is heard quite often. Some people support this call, being afraid of Yulia Tymoshenko, Volodymyr Zelenskyy or other populists who, in particular, do not have a clear policy on relations with Russia. Others criticize such a narrowing of the choice, pointing at so-called new democratic (post-Maidan) powers which could build an alternative to both populist candidates and the somewhat-criticized Poroshenko. The new model of horizontal democratic politics of these alternative parties is both their strength and weakness. It is unclear whether these parties will manage to unite and choose a single candidate for the upcoming presidential elections, as well as participate jointly in parliamentary elections next autumn.
The past 27 years: a party for a politician
Theorists usually describe a political party as a stable continuous political organization that is based on certain ideology and common values. This means that a normal political party should not depend on its leader, let alone be named after the leader. Ideology, values, and members of the party constitute the solid base which may persist for decades or even centuries. Political leaders, conversely, should be elected during party congresses or primaries — it is certainly not abnormal for a party to have new leaders for each electoral cycle.
Unfortunately, the 350 parties registered in Ukraine are organizations without the sufficient level of stability and depth. Most of the parties are small and are barely visible in the political landscape, while influential parties that passed the 5% threshold at the last elections are personalized parties designed to uphold their leaders.
Paradoxically, only the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc did not fully follow this model. It was created from fragments of former President Viktor Yanukovych’s party merged together with around a dozen minor parties. Nonetheless, the Opposition Bloc received financial support from sham enterprises and is likely to be controlled by oligarchs Viktor Medvedchuk, Dmytro Firtash, and Rinat Ahmetov.
As parties were merely tools of major politicians, there was a little difference between parliamentary and presidential elections: both were de facto battles between five or six main leaders.
Alternative politics by new democratic parties
It took a lot of time for civil society to generate any strong political party not serving an oligarch or party leader. Even now, five years after the Revolution of Dignity, the formation of such parties is just at its outset. Only two of them, Democratic Alliance and The Power of People, are currently actively operating on the national scale and trying to influence presidential elections.
Democratic Alliance (or Demalliance) was created by an NGO with the same name in 2010. The Power of People emerged a little later, with the first local cells being created in 2013. The party was registered officially soon after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.
These two young parties, unlike older ones, do not have single “eternal” leaders who created the party. Leaders are openly elected and changed. Also, these parties tend to have several co-chairmen, as with Demalliance. The Power of People’s political council has considerably more weight than its leader. The unique feature of these parties is that their leaders are not simultaneously candidates for the presidency, as was common in the past.
Additionally, a very important difference is the parties’ new model of financial support, with financing only via membership fees and limited charitable support from individuals. There are no sham enterprises or fictitious individuals as were frequently mentioned in the reports of main parties. These reports are reviewed thoroughly according to the law on the financial support of political parties from the state budget adopted in 2015.
Low support, possible union with “old democrats,” discussion about a single candidate
This new, promising political model as represented by Demalliance and the Power of People might not only set a new standard of politics but also generate new spotless candidates for the presidency. However, the two democratic parties have a rather weak level of electoral support and are still unknown to many Ukrainians, as are their leaders. During the previous elections in 2014, the Demalliance joined forces with the more popular Civil Position of Anatoliy Hrytsenko, but was still unable to overcome the 5% threshold (the support was only 3.1% for the two parties together). The Power of People participated separately and collected only 0.11% of the votes. The number of party members and the popularity of these two parties has not increased much during the last 5 years.
In the course of the current presidential campaign, some talks were held about unifying all democratic parties and candidates around Anatoliy Hrytsenko.
On 11 January during the congress of the Civic Position party, deputy Mustafa Nayem called for a broader coalition of pro-reform politicians, urging Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi, the Demalliance party and Euro-Optimists group of deputies to support Hrytsenko. However, no real decision in favor of such a broad and promising coalition was taken.
The only real deal was made as early as 9 October 2018, between Demalliance and “Samopomich” (Self-Reliance) – the party of Lviv Major Andriy Sadovyi. Demalliance supports Andriy Sadovyi as a candidate for the presidency and the two parties have agreed to participate together in the parliamentary elections in 2019. Of notable importance is that according to the text of the deal, the political union is open for all other democratic parties to join.
In spite of the deal between Demalliance and Samopomich to support Andriy Sadovyi in presidential elections, it is not easy to unify all democratic parties around him. Anatoliy Hrytsenko has two to three times the level of support than Andriy Sadovyi according to the polls. Along with Hrytsenko’s experience as defense minister, the result of polls is a strong argument that Hrytsenko should be the single candidate from the democratic forces. It is unlikely that Hrytsenko, enjoying greater popularity, will withdraw his candidacy to support Sadovyi, who is not expected to withdraw either.
Additionally, though Andriy Sadovyi’s Samopomich and Anatoliy Hrytsenko’s Civic position are pro-western parties with the highest support, they are still personalized parties created around their leaders. Unlike Demalliance or the Power of People, they are quite often perceived as new wine in old bottles among civil activists and those who wish for “new faces.”
Along with Demalliance and The Power of People as young, post-Maidan democratic parties, and Samopomich and Civil Position as older, quite popular and personalized pro-western parties, there are also a number of other smaller parties which could support the coalition if agreed by the main players. In particular, the Civil Movement of Ukraine is the party which shares the values of the middle class and well-educated elites. It began its activity after the demonstration of entrepreneurs against a new tax law (so-called Tax Maidan) in 2010. The party participated in parliamentary elections in 2014 but remains relatively unknown.
Also, a new regional post-Maidan party independent from oligarchs has come into existence. Called the Ukrainian Galician party, it currently operates only in Western Ukraine, yet enjoys rather strong local support. Were there to be a single democratic candidate, the party would provide its support. Unfortunately, the parties have yet to agree on a personality to take on this role.
Dmytro Hnap — the candidate who raised campaign money from ordinary people
As there is no agreement between democratic parties, the Power of People has elected its own candidate in the party primary elections – a phenomenon all but unknown in Ukraine. According to the party’s web page, the primaries continued from 15 September 2018 till 20 January 2019, with all democratic procedures followed precisely. Both party members and non-party candidates were invited to participate. To ensure equal rules, none of the party leaders participated in the primaries. They were won by Dmytro Hnap, an investigative journalist from Slidstvo.info, a hard-hitting program looking into state corruption.
Yet it is not the voting at primaries itself that is so noteworthy, but the manner of collecting money for Dmytro Hnap’s campaign. 2.5 mn UAH (US$100,000) are required in order to be officially registered as a candidate. It is the first time in Ukrainian history where neither oligarchs nor a strong party budget funded a candidate. More than 1,000 people donated money to collect the required amount, and this was the reason to portray Dmytro Hnap as a candidate of the people, fully free of the oligarchs.
“In two weeks, more than three million hryvnias were collected. Honestly speaking, few believed this would happen, but we succeeded. Actually, we will continue to fund our campaign by citizens’ donations. We are completely different … They are all the same, they tell you beautiful words, but they do almost nothing,” Dmytro Hnap told the press after his official registration as a candidate for the presidency.
According to a Facebook post by Dmytro Hnap, payments of up to 1,000 UAH made up 90% of all donations. Another 7% are payments of 1-5,000 UAH. Thus 97% constitute relatively small donations from many people (up to $200). Also, there were six largest payments of about 200,000 UAH from medium-sized entrepreneurs whose rights Dmytro promised to uphold.
“In short, it works. Citizens are ready to fund politicians. The main thing — do not betray them. Fight for them. And talk to them. Then no oligarchs with their dirty dough are needed,” Dmytro Hnap commented.
Hnap’s success was soured up after a scandal involving the 15,000 EUR his NGO, received as a prize and promised to donate to cover Ukrainian army needs in 2015 came to light immediately after the submission of the deposit to the electoral commission. As the money came into Hnap’s account but a part was never donated, he was accused of intransparency and financial machinations. Discussions in the party council which took part on 7-8 February resulted in a request for Hnap to withdraw his candidacy. However, Hnap plans to still run for president, insisting that the conflict is a mere misunderstanding.
Also, many skeptics write that the Power of People’s decision to nominate Dmytro Hnap as a candidate for the presidency is frivolous. It would be better to unify around a single democratic candidate or at least collect money only for the person who indeed has a chance of winning the elections. Some people (like former Deputy Oles Doniy) donated money to support Dmytro Hnap just because they value the very precedent of such an initiative. However, they would rather vote for another candidate.
The Power of People has also approved an appeal to all democratic forces to unite. Yet, because no single candidate was agreed, the party decided to support Dmytro Hnap. Now it has withdrawn its support in the call upon him to recall his candidacy and insists that the democratic forces should agree on a single candidate.[Update: on 1 March 2019, Sadovyi and Hnap withdrew from the race in favor of Hrytsenko.]
New democratic parties and people who are ready to donate money for the campaign of their politician are the best examples of change in the political landscape. However, building a strong political union with a sufficient number of professionals takes a lot of time and is unlikely to be fully completed in time for the upcoming presidential elections.