Sergei Kuznetsov and Graham Stack in Kyiv -
Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s former prime minister who served three years in jail under former president Viktor Yanukovych, is fast emerging as the lead challenger to President Petro Poroshenko, latest opinion polls show.
Three weeks away from local elections, Ukraine's presidential party, the Bloc Petro Poroshenko (BPP), and Tymoshenko's Batkyvschina party are neck-and-neck in the ratings, prompting experts to bet on the former ‘gas princess’ – so-called because of the fortune she made in the natural gas business – as the person most likely to overturn the current political party landscape.
Tymoshenko's Batkyvschina party has almost entirely replaced Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk's struggling People's Front party as the main rival to BPP, even though both parties are BPP coalition partners. Yatsenyuk's party's support has fallen to near zero, less than one year after taking first place in national elections, when People's Front won 22.14% of the total vote.
According to a fresh poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute for Sociology, if parliamentary elections were now to be held in Ukraine, 11.6% of respondents would vote for BPP, 11% for Batkyvschina, 7.5% for Lviv mayor Andriy Sadoviy's party Sampomich, 7.5% for the Opposition Bloc (a successor party to the now defunct Party of Regions of ousted former president Viktor Yanukovych), 4.3% for the nationalist Radical Party, 3.8% for the ultranationalist Right Sector, and only 0.7% for People's Front. The poll excluded Crimea and territories in East Ukraine held by Russian-backed rebels.
This means that Yatsenyuk's plummet in popularity has opened a vacuum into which Tymoshenko has successfully stepped, after her career seemed nearing its end when her party took only a disappointing 5.7% in national elections in October 2014.
If adjusted for the 58% of respondents who said they would participate in elections, the figures mean that 19.9% of actual voters would vote for BPP, marginally down from 21.8% of the vote Poroshenko's party took in 2014, 18.8% would vote for Tymoshenko's Batkyvschina, triple her share of votes in October 2014.
Only 1.3% would now vote for People's Front, which was founded only six weeks before 2014 elections by Yatsenyuk, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, and secretary of the National Defence and Security Council Oleksandr Turchinov. It would thus be entirely eliminated from parliament if elections were to be held now.
‘Financial genocide by kamikaze cabinet’
Tymoshenko has pulled out all her populist firebrand tricks to criticise the government from within over implementing hikes to utility tariffs and reducing the value of the hryvnia as demanded by the International Monetary Fund. Tymoshenko has characterised government policies on the economy as “financial genocide”.
Oleksiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, told bne IntelliNews that Batkivshchyna is now an “interim opposition” that exists within the ruling coalition.
"There used to be a clear division in Ukraine between the 'orange' [pro-Europe] parties and 'white-blue' [pro-Russia] parties," said Volodomyr Paniotto, director of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. "Now the dividing line between government and opposition has become blurred."
Some analysts argue that Yatsenyuk's loss of popularity is because of his failure to carry out reforms. “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.
But the fact that it is Tymoshenko's brand of populism that has benefited most from Yatsenyuk's fall points to antipathy in the population towards the effects of the harsh austerity measures implemented thus far by Yatsenyuk, who from the outset called his government a 'kamikaze cabinet'.
Tymoshenko's rise and Yatsenyuk's fall thus reflect deep uncertainty in the population about the direction the country is headed.
According to a fresh poll by the Razumkov Centre that was published on October 5, as many as two-thirds of Ukrainian believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, with only 17% believing the opposite. This means the number of Ukrainians believing the country is on the right track halved from March 2014, in the immediate aftermath of the ousting of Yanukovych, when 32.3% believed the country was headed in the right direction.
The core of the problem is Ukraine's economic collapse, coupled with prevalent pessimism about the future. According to the Razumkov poll, only 6.9% of respondents believe government promises that the crisis will end this year and economic growth will start. Some 23.1% believe the crisis will be followed by stagnation, 33.8% believe the crisis will deepen, and 23.1% believe the economy will collapse.
Democratic cannibalism again?
One of the main questions now is whether the return of the 54-year-old Tymoshenko 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 has warned from the start 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 warned presciently in a December 2014 interview with the Ukrainian website Ukrainska Pravda.
Roller coaster career
Tymoshenko's re-emergence as a main political contender is the latest twist in a remarkable political career spanning two decades. Her trademark braided hair became part of Ukraine's international brand after she swept to power during the so-called 'Orange Revolution' in January 2004, taking the post of prime minister, with Yushchenko as president. But things turned sour quickly, and Yushchenko fired her in September of the same year after a major conflict with none other than Petro Poroshenko, at the time head of the national security and defence council, whom Tymoshenko accused of corruption.
Tymoshenko returned as prime minister after snap parliamentary elections in 2007, and stayed in the post until losing in close-run presidential elections to Viktor Yanukovych in February 2010. Within months of Yanukovych's victory, criminal proceedings were launched against her, widely regarded as political motivated, and in October 2011 a court jailed her for seven years over a 2009 gas deal agreed with Russia.
Only with the flight of Yanukovych from Kyiv after mass opposition protests turned violent in February 2014 was Tymoshenko released from jail, and immediately rejoining the political fray. But she failed to find her political footing quickly enough to prevent Poroshenko sweeping to power in pre-term presidential elections in May 2015, where she came a distant second.
In September 2014, her Batyvschina party splintered, with Yatsenyuk, Avakov, and Turchinov setting up shop on their own as People's Front. At the time this seemed to have spelled an end to Tymsohenko's political career, but with hindsight it seems to have been a blessing for her – Yatsenyuk's austerity measures have destroyed his rating, while Tymoshenko has been able to take on the populist role she most loves as 'mother of the nation', criticising the dastardly powers that be.
But while she can command votes in Ukraine when oligarchs give her the airtime to do so, after her career's many volte-faces she is now regarded with intense suspicion by the Maidan / Facebook community that played the most active role in opposition protests in the winter of 2013 / 2014.
Thus on the same day as the opinion poll results confirmed her comeback as a real contender for power, an internet petition on the presidential website requesting that she be dispatched as ambassador to Honduras, achieved the 25,000 signatures that oblige the president to consider the demand.
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