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Ukraine: A Female Candidate Gains Ground

  • Stefan Korshak

Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, 18 March 1998 (RFE/RL) - There they sat on the stage, 13 candidates running for parliament in the 24th election district in Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine. All rattled off the issues expected to stir the mostly retirement-age crowd gathered at Dnipropetrovsk School No. 8: increased pension payments, less crime, and state utility subsidies.

"We need to increase the number of women in government," declared People's Democratic Party candidate Olga Katan. "We are 54 percent of the population, and only four percent of Parliament."

The audience appeared to support Katan, especially when one of her male opponents, incumbent Sergei Chekhmassov, argued during his allotted five minutes that post-Soviet government is no place for women. "Politics can be a dirty business and the fair sex is not always ready to make difficult decisions," he said.

Katan's campaign manager Yuri Ratomsky later told RFE/RL, "Voters want some one who is in their forties and has managerial experience, and they trust women more than men. That's why we put her up in this race."

The Hromada centrist party's leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, is far more popular than the party's male lead, former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko. Progressive Socialist Natalya Vitrenko has a following out of all proportion to her tiny party's weight in Parliament.

Katan, best known here as the director of the Dnipropetrovsk Women's Business Center, is not betting on gender alone, though. She puts in 14-hour days meeting with voters, dashing into her campaign headquarters to grab lunch, issue midday orders, prepare for evening debates and discuss tactics with her campaign manager.

"That's a great shot," she says to Ratomsky of a photo of President Leonid Kuchma awarding her the Princess Saint Olga Medal for work on women's issues. "How much do you think it would cost to get that blown up into posters?"

That's one of the advantages of being a candidate of the People's Democratic Party, led by current Prime Minister Valery Pustovoytenko: you can get media attention by receiving an award from your party's highest-profile supporter, who also happens to be the country's chief executive.

The People's Democratic Party also provides its candidates with a bit of free TV time and campaign cash. A little cash.

"It's helpful, but not too much," said Katan. "We have to look for support everywhere."

But even in Ukraine's eastern base of the "party of power," the People's Democrat candidate is not guaranteed victory. Here in a Dnipropetrovsk industrial suburb, where voters are mostly factory workers or retired factory workers, candidates range across the ideological spectrum. Many have more cash than Katan, while others push their own specialty issues.

"In this district there are 17 different candidates," said Katan's campaign manager Ratomsky. "Our first task was to somehow establish our candidate as different from all the others so that the voters can remember her."

Katan says she is seeking office because "We have to start somewhere. I cannot change everything, but unless someone begins to work to change things, everything will stay as bad as it is. I don't think you can find a country where the situation for women is worse than in Ukraine, and we must work to make women equal citizens with equal rights."

Katan refuses to describe herself as a feminist, but her views on women's rights are still a bit too radical for her campaign manager, who visibly winced when Katan tore into opponent Chekhmassov for dismissing women from politics.

"Show me a Soviet woman, and I'll show you a manager as good as any man," she fired back.

Strong views appear to go over well in Dnipropetrovsk. Gray-haired World War II veterans and grandmothers seemed to agree with Katan, taking her women's rights view with a grain of salt, but loudly applauding her direct approach.

Her manager believes the campaign is going well, and, like good campaign managers everywhere, he has the numbers to back up his optimism. "The polls show that the populace is looking for a candidate who is centrist-leaning, is perceived as honest, and who has experience managing a business or organization," said Ratomsky. "That's why the People's Democrats asked her to run -- we felt that such a person would have a good chance."

Ratomsky is not the only member of the campaign team. A small group of professionals work at the Women's Business Center offices stuffing envelopes and making phone calls.

Katan knows a thing or two about campaigning as well. After the forum at the school, most of the candidates took off in their Korean and German sedans. She stayed behind to meet voters and listen to them.

"I'll vote for you, darling," said retiree Marina Koval. Ratomsky said his latest numbers show Katan running first or second in the district.

"I think she has a good chance," he said at the end of a long campaign day.