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Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s prospects and challenges ahead of the parliamentary elections in Ukraine

The renowned Ukrainian musician and activist Svyatoslav Vakarchuk disappointed many by not involving himself more in the presidential election. It remains to be seen if he will have an impact on the next elections.

May 16, 2019 - Ruslan Kermach - Articles and Commentary

Svyatoslav Vakarchuk on stage performing with his band Okean Elzy in Sochi in 2012 Photo: Ivanaivanova (cc) wikimedia.org

Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, a famous Ukrainian musician and public activist, did not meet the expectations of many voters regarding his participation in the presidential election. He seems to finally having decided to return to politics, with intentions to declare his political ambitions for the upcoming parliamentary campaign in Ukraine. Such information was reported by the ICTV Facts referring to its own sources and later spread by a number of other Ukrainian media outlets. It is expected that Vakarchuk will present his team and political program for the parliamentary election already on May 16th.

What are the political prospects for Vakarchuk during the upcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine? What votes might his political party rely on and what challenges could he face?

From potential front-runners to political outsiders

The case of the musician-turned-politician and public figure Svyatoslav Vakarchuk seems to be one of those iconic examples of how dragging out time and missing a window of opportunity for a political start can suddenly open up such opportunities for others – more decisive political contenders. Many observers believe that the sweeping growth in ratings and the landslide victory of the candidate-comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the presidential election in Ukraine would have been less likely, if Svyatoslav Vakarchuk had declared of his presidential ambitions beforehand.

A relatively “new face” in Ukrainian politics, Vakarchuk was considered being among the potential favourites of the presidential campaign in Ukraine a year ago. He was seen to be capable of actually breaking electoral calculations and the plans of such experienced heavyweight politicians as Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.

On the wave of increased public expectations regarding his potential bid for the presidency the baseline rating of Vakarchuk reached some 9-10 per cent
(among decided voters) according to public opinion polls in the spring and summer of 2018. For the time period long before the election itself, having such an electoral capital was quite something.

The fact that Vakarchuk is a well-known musician in Ukraine and was one of the most trusted public figures in Ukraine in previous years, were among the aspects that potentially could have contributed to his political success. According to the KIIS poll, about 38 per cent of Ukrainians had a positive attitude towards Vakarchuk in 2018 and only 12 per cent of the respondents expressed a negative attitude, while 41.5 per cent were neutral towards him.

However, the lack of clarity about his political plans to run for presidency, with public speeches rather distant from the pre-election agenda of that time, eventually led to the disappointment by the public and, as a result, to the gradual drop in Vakarchuk’s ratings to some 2-3 per cent by the beginning of the presidential campaign in 2019. In addition, the public trust in him worsened compared to the indicators of the previous year (only 25.4 per cent in April 2019 were positive towards Vakarchuk, and already 18 per cent were negative about him).

What to expect at the parliamentary election?

The recent public opinion polls regarding the possible support for the would-be “Svyatoslav Vakarchuk Bloc” in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine generally reflect the negative trend that one could observe with respect to Vakarchuk’s personal political ratings over the last half-year.

Thus, according to the latest KIIS poll (for April 2019), no more than 1.5 per cent of voters (decided on their choice) expressed their support for the above-mentioned hypothetical political party, while just a year ago (in April 2018) some 8,6 per cent of Ukrainians were ready to cast their ballots for the “Svyatoslav Vakarchuk Bloc” if elections to the Rada had been held that time.

It is clear that this famous Ukrainian musician and public activist left a string of broken hopes and public disappointment as a result of his belated decision to abstain from running for the presidency. However, a Ukrainian sociologist and director of KIIS Volodymyr Paniotto believes that: “If he (Vakarchuk – auth.) declares his intention to run for parliamentary elections [scheduled for October 27, 2019], he will return to the level (rating – auth.), which he had six months ago”.

Future opinion polls to be held in Ukraine after the expected announcement of his participation in the parliamentary campaign, will show to what extent Vakarchuk is really able to regain his former supporters and recruit new voters. But it is worth noting that the potential to restore the once lost electorate is still there. Circumstantial evidence for this might be that some 19 per cent of those Ukrainians surveyed in March 2019 still expressed their support for Vakarchuk’s participation in the presidential election in Ukraine while he had already announced the opposite at the time.

The core of the electoral base for Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s political party is expected to be primarily younger, pro-European and moderately patriotic voters, mainly from the western regions of Ukraine and especially from Halychyna, Lviv and partly also the capital of Ukraine – Kyiv. Vakarchuk will be trying above all to recapture those former supporters who have recently had to split their support between the alternative ‘new face’ of Volodymyr Zelensky and the proven ‘old face’ of the then-incumbent President Petro Poroshenko.

The team and political program, which Vakarchuk will soon make public, will probably not be the last factor to have an impact on the political future of his political party. Earlier, the musician made a public statement about his willingness to “bring as many young professionals as possible, people of the future, into power”. Who exactly Svyatoslav Vakarchuk had in mind– we are likely to find out very soon.

Plan ‘B’

Though experts expect a speedy restoration of Vakarchuk’s electoral weight soon after he publicly declares his plans to partake in this-year parliamentary campaign in Ukraine, it is possible that certain problems might arise along the way.

The key challenges, as they are seen at this point of time, are the low starting rating of the hypothetical party today (only 1.5 per cent of support), the proximity of the parliamentary election which makes it harder to build up a well-functioning political party with local party cells. Finally, the expected high level of competition on the so called post-Maidan electoral field, where Vakarchuk and his party will be looking for votes. The lack of own or loyal media resource(s) might also be regarded as a weakening factor.

In this regard, it is possible that in order to get into the future Rada, Vakarchuk’s future party might face the necessity of looking for common ground with ideologically like-minded parties sharing the same values hailing from the democratic party camp – Anatoly Hrytsenko’s ‘Civic Position’ party, ‘Self Reliance’ party led by the current Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi and new progressive liberal political movements like “Act with us” (Diy z namy) or “People matter” (Lyudy vazhlyvi) which could also align with Vakarchuk.

Hrytsenko and Sadovyi also seem to have rather fragile electoral positions as for today: the ‘Civic Position’ party, according to a recent KIIS survey, is on the verge of overcoming the 5 per cent electoral threshold (5.1 per cent) while the ‘Self-Reliance’ party (1.4 per cent) is polling at the same level of support as the would-be “Svyatoslav Vakarchuk Bloc” (1.5 per cent), which is definitely not enough to overcome the threshold.

Thus, if the ratings of Vakarchuk’s party will not be restoring as expected, the most rational strategy would be to unite the efforts of ideologically close pro-European democratic forces into a single political platform prior to the parliamentary elections. Otherwise, there is a risk that none of the above mentioned parties, including the one led by Vakarchuk, will be able to enter a newly-elected parliament of Ukraine.

Ruslan Kermach is a freelance political analyst and an associate expert at the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation (DIF) in Kyiv, Ukraine.

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