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WHO'S AFRAID OF CANDIDATE OLGA?

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March 17, 1998, 1 a.m. |
The male incumbent she's challenging stage, a baker's dozen, 13 candidates running for Parliament in the 24th election district. All rattled off the issues expected to stir the mostly retirement-age crowd gathered at School No. 8: increased pension payments, less crime, and state utility subsidies. One candidate stuck out. '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 4 percent of Parliament.' For a country where feminism is still a dirty word, that line played surprisingly well. The audience appeared to support Katan, especially when one of her male opponents, incumbent Sergei Chekhmassov, argued during his allotted five minutes before voters 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. 'So things are great after the two years that you've spent in Kyiv,' shouted an elderly veteran. 'What have you done but live in a government apartment?' Had Chekhmassov bothered to ask her, Katan might have told him there is a good reason why this representative of 'the fair sex' is for the second time in two years running a campaign that emphasizes her gender. 'Voters want some one who is in their forties and has managerial experience, and they trust women more than men,' explained Katan's campaign manager Yuri Ratomsky. ' Olga Ivanovna is that candidate. That's why we put her up in this race.' There are plenty of indications that they are right; that while Ukrainian men might like to see their women in the kitchen, they may also not mind sending them to the Rada. Hromada opposition 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, prep 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 Popular Democratic Party candidate: you can get media play by receiving an award from your party's highest-profile supporter, who also happens to be the country's chief executive. The PDP 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 on the home turf of the purported 'party of power,' the PDP 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 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 to problems of Ukrainian distribution of wealth. Of all the candidates on stage at School No. 8 last week, only attacked the rich and the powerful. 'We have these industrial barons, they live in palaces and pay no taxes,' Katan said. 'They should pay taxes like every one else.' 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 PDP asked her to run - we felt that such a person would have a good chance.' A manager at local Diamint Bank, Ratomsky is an old campaign hand. By his count he has managed a half dozen bids for elected office in recent years, most of them successfully. He took leave from his job to work for the PDP on packaging Katan's candidacy. Nor is he the only hired gun helping Katan. A small team of professionals work at the Women's Business Center offices stuffing envelopes and making phone calls. Valentina Seslik is in charge of canvassing. 'My job is to make sure that the people who we are paying and who are volunteers are doing the right things to support the campaign,' she explained. 'I am in charge of 30 to 40 people who hand out leaflets, knock on doors, organize local meetings, things like that.' 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 schmooze the voters and listen to their gripes. '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 day. 'She definitely will hold up.' Katan was thinking more short-term. 'Where do we go tomorrow?' she asked, clearly bushed but still not ready to go home. 'What time do I have to be there?'
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