Sergei Kuznetsov in Kyiv -
When Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), the party headed by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, barely scraped over the 5% barrier required to secure representation in Ukraine’s parliament during snap elections in late October, many experts declared that Tymoshenko’s political shelf-life had expired. Society wanted to see new leaders in post-Euromaidan Ukraine, they argued. However, nine months later and Tymoshenko is staging a comeback as one of the country’s main political leaders, which could lead to new wave of infighting in Kyiv and a major reshuffle of the political elites.
“[There is] only chaos, irresponsibility and corruption today,” Tymoshenko said emotionally, describing the situation in Ukraine in an interview with Inter TV in mid-July. This quote is characteristic of the tactics that Tymoshenko, who played a leading role in the 2004 Orange revolution, has employed over the past few months.
As a member of Ukraine’s ruling coalition, Tymoshenko and other members of her party have used every opportunity to denounce unpopular measures implemented by the government – measures that are necessary for reforming the economy and obtaining donor support. Criticism of the recent sharp rise in utility tariffs, which is a condition for the receipt of a support package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has been front-and-centre of Tymoshenko’s rhetoric for many months. In May, Tymoshenko described the government’s refusal to index pensions and salaries as “financial genocide”.
Oleksiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, in an interview with bne IntelliNews has described Batkivshchyna as a part of an “interim opposition” that exists within the ruling coalition. And this role is being fruitful for Tymoshenko, who spent more than two years in prison during the rule of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych for what many considered trumped-up charges of abuse of office, and was freed on the same day that Yanukovych fled the country in February 2014.
According to a recent poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), in a hypothetical presidential election held in July with expected turnout at 54%, support for Poroshenko has fallen to a record low of 26.9% since his 54.7% first-round election win in May 2014. Tymoshenko is already hot on his heels with 25.6%. Other Ukrainian politicians are far behind Tymoshenko and Poroshenko.
Collapse of Yatsenyuk’s rating
KIIS also held a poll for hypothetical parliamentary elections. With an expected turnout of 56%, Batkivshchyna would obtain 22.7%, slightly behind Poroshenko’s Bloc with 23.5%. Significantly, the People’s Front, headed by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who led Batkivshchyna during Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, could count on just 2.8% of the vote. This represents a crushing fall for the party that won last October’s parliamentary elections.
“Yatsenyuk`s performance as Ukraine’s prime minister has been weak, especially when it comes to reforms (he is mostly blocking them). Endless rumours that he is taking over, or at least resisting initiatives to clean up previous corruption schemes, have hurt his and his party’s rating,” Balazs Jarabik, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells bne IntelliNews.
The expert believes that the legacy of Euromaidan – the street protests that ousted Yanukovych and his corrupt regime – has mainly been taken up by Poroshenko and Samopomich, a party which positions itself as a younger generation in Ukrainian politics. “In many people’ eyes, the People’s Front has become a party of hawks. It has less and less support in society,” Jarabik says.
In such a situation, it would be strange if Tymoshenko refused to lobby for new parliamentary elections, which theoretically could give Batkivshchyna significant control over the government. And it appears that the charismatic Tymoshenko has already started to campaign for fresh polls. “This parliament has no right to exist, because it does not serve the people, it does not feel responsibility [for the country],” she said in an interview with Inter TV in July.
Tymoshenko will have her first battle with the post-Euromaidan elites on October 25 in local elections. And it looks as though she is ready to taste victory. In her interview with Inter TV, she called the upcoming local elections “a unique chance to change the country”, adding that a change of local authorities will provide an opportunity to prevent the government from enacting its current policies. “Today, all the issues that hurt the people are generated in the government.”
Poroshenko announced in late May that the elections would take place “despite numerous appeals to cancel [them]”. There has been a lot of media speculation in Ukraine that some of Poroshenko’s advisors and members of his party had insisted that the campaign should be cancelled due the decline in the popularity ratings of Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk.
Success for Batkivshchyna during the local elections would be especially valuable to Tymoshenko because Poroshenko has started a process of devolution in Ukraine, which envisages, in particular, additional financing for local authorities. “We believe that the best pattern for Ukraine in implementing a real decentralisation is just to use Poland’s model. We are similar [countries], and if we adopt Poland’s model in Ukraine, this will definitely work,” Yatsenyuk said in late April.
Jarabik says that Tymoshenko has learned “to be silent and patient”: she is willing to act as an ordinary member of parliament whilst also employing radical populist rhetoric. This puts her closer to the Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko than to the “mainstream” parties of Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk. “Tymoshenko is riding the waves of dissatisfaction with the post-Maidan government,” he underlines.
Meanwhile, one of the main questions now is whether Tymoshenko’s return to the main political stage means that bitter infighting between different parts of the democratic camp in Kyiv is now inevitable. After the Orange Revolution, pro-Western president Viktor Yushchenko found himself locked into a long drawn-out battle with Tymoshenko.
Yushchenko is now warning about a possible repeat of this situation as a result of Tymoshenko’s desire to gain more power in Ukraine. “Putin has no greater political destabilising factor in Ukraine than Tymoshenko. When Poroshenko stumbles on the threshold first time, you will see her mission… When the public authorities shout, ‘we are for peace’, she will provoke a war. When the public authorities offer a war, she will offer peace,” Yushchenko said in a December interview with the Ukrainian website Ukrainska Pravda.
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