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Making sense of Ukraine’s political competition

There are only three real parties in Ukraine: the party of the Past, the party of the Present, and the party of the Future. They are cross-factional and their membership is determined by values, rather than partisan identification.

April 5, 2018 - Valerii Pekar - Blogs and podcasts

Martin SCHULZ, President of the European Parliament, addresses to the Verkhovna Rada in Kyiv, on 3rd July 2015.

Ukraine: The European frontier – a blog curated by Valerii Pekar.

Western diplomats and policy makers often struggle to understand Ukraine’s political life. Ukrainian system is immature and, although changes in the political landscape of many European countries may come across as surprising, developments in Ukraine seem particularly counterintuitive. Many MPs are nonpartisan, while still being members of parliamentary factions. Moreover, factions are further internally divided and the left-right distinction is unclear. 

Groups which call themselves “parties” are not political parties in the European understanding of the term, but rather traditional patron-client clans. There are only three real parties: the party of the Past, the party of the Present, and the party of the Future. They are cross-factional, and therefore, almost any faction contains members of all three. Belonging to these parties is determined exclusively by values, not by factions, while factions are products of negotiations, not ideologies.

The party of the Past consists of those numerous members of the political elite who did not accept the changes which took place after the EuroMaidan. This does not mean, however, that they want the return of the former president Viktor Yanukovych. Quite the contrary, Yanukovych symbolised a break with the tradition of the post-Soviet oligarch republic, as he concentrated power and assets in the hands of his closest circle. Rather, the party of the Past longs for the times of president Leonid Kuchma, who kept balance among oligarchs and often served as an unbiased arbiter. Many members of the party of the Past share nostalgic memories about that time: the state was richer, and there was no war. The party of the Past has a strong social base, as they appeal to paternalists, people who are afraid of change, and those fond of the old days when they were happier and younger.

The party of the Present unites members of the political elite satisfied with the recent changes and opportunities they have brought. This group has both political and economic power and seeks to preserve the status quo for as long as possible. There are just two problems. First, maintaining the status quo is a challenge in the rapidly changing world, under the pressure of military, economic, and social problems. Members of the party of the Present are tacticians, not strategists: they got stuck between the past and the future. Second, the party of the Present has little social base: they are happy, but they are the only ones. Average people are frustrated either by too fast or by too slow pace of change. Lower social strata suffer from poverty while upper classes want more economic freedom. Both of them demand more justice. Enormous emigration shows the growing level of disappointment.

Finally, the party of the Future represents the new political elite, which grew out of civil society and the business community. These people were mobilised by the Revolution of Dignity and the war. They joined politics with a hope to introduce fast changes, and their social base is civil society and non-oligarchic business (not only small and medium-sized). The overall number of people sharing liberal values in Ukraine accounts for 15-20 per cent of society. While their share may seem relatively small, this is the critical mass who wants to go forward. They want to build the new Ukraine, not to restore the oligarchic balance. Their mission is to destroy the dead past to open the way to the future.

When we are looking at any Ukrainian political institution, we see members of all three parties.

In the parliament, almost all factions include members of the party of the Present, the party of the Past and the party of the Future. Members of the latter were invited to collect votes of their supporters, but they do not have the real political weight and ended up forming an internal opposition. Only the Opposition Block (representing the old regime of Yanukovych and frequently called by their opponents the “Occupation Block” for welcoming the Russian aggression) and the Radical Party lack MPs belonging to the party of the Future.

The party of the Present has approximately 200 mandates, which is too little to ensure decision making in the 450-seat parliament. They therefore have to look for alliances. If they need support for reforms, they ally with the party of the Future, and if they want a rollback, they look for allies in the party of the Past.

The party of the Future is represented in the parliament by a few dozen MPs (the so called Euro-optimists), but they are scattered among many factions. Since they do not have their own faction, they lack parliamentary instruments such as committee chairpersons, as these are available to factions only. If they were a united political party, they would have a strong position in the parliament.

Other state institutions reflect the same struggle between the three groups.

The fact that these powerful forces are not formed as political parties has been confusing to both external observers and local voters. Especially so, as the party of the Future cannot offer their voters a political party they could vote for in the coming election. In a situation where there are no good options, people tend to choose the lesser evil.

The party of the Present is frequently considered as a party of Corruption. Given their enormous opportunities and desire to catch the moment, the description is partially true.

Their opponents from the party of the Past have been considered as the party of Revenge. But a simple return to the past is impossible. Restoring the fragile import-based growth of well-being of 2000-2010, the multiple vectors foreign policy of cooperation with both Russia and the West, or the low social tension is unconceivable in the current context.

The history of revolutions proves that after sluggish and half-hearted reforms, terror always comes. People want justice, punishment for corrupt bureaucrats and politicians, oligarchs and Maidan killers. That is why in order to win the political race, the party of the Past would have to reshape itself as the party of Terror.

A choice between the party of Corruption and the party of Terror is a bad one. The game changer could be the party of the Future, but its organised form is yet to emerge.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, a lecturer at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council. He curates a blog titled Ukraine: The European frontier.

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