PERSONALITIES CLOUD ISSUES
By Olga Buriak,
Director, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
Discussions in Kyiv were much what you would expect right before an election. What will the new government look like? Who will end up in a coalition? Who will unite with whom? One possible theory making the rounds was that President Viktor Yushchenko and Ukraine's richest man, Rynat Akhmetov, have already struck a deal. Their parties -- the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense party and the ruling Party of Regions, respectively -- will put their differences behind them and form a coalition, naming a compromise candidate, current Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, as prime minister.
That leaves Yulia Tymoshenko in the opposition and perfectly primed for a presidential run in 2009. Current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is the nominal leader of the Party of Regions, but his public standing is relatively weak, and there's reason to suspect he may soon stage an exit from the political scene.
But what's been most striking about this election is that it's not just the analysts and the political elite who are busy speculating about the outcome of the ballot. It's also the average Ukrainian citizen. The profile of the standard voter has changed a lot in the past two years, and it's reflected in the way the campaigns have been conducted.
Before the parliamentary vote in March 2006, the campaign was clearly directed at the country's upper and middle class -- intellectuals, academics, and other influentials with a fairly sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the way Ukrainian politics work. Those were the people who turned out to vote.
But everything that's happened since -- the ongoing fight over forming a coalition, the months without a government, and most recently the president's decision to dissolve parliament -- has driven those people away. They have grown completely disenchanted with politics. Recent polls in Ukraine show that public trust in the parliament and president are very low -- hovering around 10 percent. People have much greater faith in the church, the army, and the media.
It appeared very likely that on September 30, this rank of "influential" Ukrainians was going to stay away from the polls, or vote "against all" in protest.
The parties were aware of this, and shifted their campaigns to target the average Ukrainian voter -- working-class, less prosperous. The result has been a competition of promises. If one party comes out with a pledge to boost social welfare spending for mothers and children, another party comes out with a proposal that's twice as big.
Given the current budgetary situation in Ukraine, it's an irresponsible strategy, to say the least. So RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service adapted its programming accordingly. Last time, around we focused on the candidates. This time around, we were focusing on the issues -- to be specific, 20 issues important to Ukraine that we thought voters should know about. Every day we have examined an issue that's dividing Ukraine, or things that are missing in Ukraine.
Some of the topics we've covered include the economy, the military, language issues, the legacy of communism, and membership of the European Union and NATO. And our election-night coverage will focus not on politicians, but on ordinary Ukrainians, at home and abroad. We want this year's vote to be about the issues, not the personalities.