President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych (C), premier Mykola Azarov (L) and a top party functionary, Volodymyr Rybak, are at Party of Regions’ congress.
The Party of Regions is in the driver’s seat, leading all polls in the Oct. 28 parliamentary election. But that doesn’t mean the pro-presidential ruling party is just one big happy family.
Internal conflicts and frictions have become more visible than ever, with some confrontations among various groupings and powerful individuals bursting into public view. Some oligarchs, despite their habitual ritualistic dancing with the Regions, are becoming more independent, and appear to be leaving the Regions’ orbit.
Oleksiy Haran, political analyst at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, says that friction over the recent attempt to criminalize libel was an example of how conflicts in the party spill out. He said the initiative, which caused a massive public uproar, was likely an attempt by one of the groupings to set up a competing clan.
There is plenty of competition on the local level, too. Volodymyr Fesenko, another political expert, says different single-mandate district candidates were offered support in the same constituency by different power brokers in the Party of Regions, causing many bad feelings.
Valeriy Konovalyuk, one of the prominent members of the Party of Regions, is now campaigning in constituency 60 in Donetsk Oblast. Despite being a party member, he’s running as an independent candidate and is competing with Oleksandr Ryzhenkov, a director of a local steel mill, who is heavily promoted by the party.
Rivalry in the party is the cause of this competition. “What happened to me is a usual working relationship,” Konovalyuk says with caution, which is typical for people who compete with the Regions but do not want to burn bridges. Later, on Oct. 12, Konovaliuk withdrew his candidature from the elections.
Viktor Pinchuk, one of Ukraine's richest oligarchs, is another example of both rivalry with the Regions, and caution. After playing along with the Regions for years, he has now nominated his flagship pipe plant's top manager to run against a powerful Party of Regions candidate in a single-mandate district in Dnipropetrovsk. Pinchuk himself has been a deputy from that constituency twice.
He is now calling for his former voters to support his candidate in the single-mandate, first-past-the-post race, yet vote for the Party of Regions in the proportional vote, which fills half the parliament. His TV channels are also presenting more balanced election coverage than UT-1, Inter and 1+1 TV channel, according to monitoring by Equal Opportunities watchdog.
The process of composing the party list for the Regions also showed the rise of some groups, while others got sidelined.
Read more about the Party of Regions list of candidates here.
Olena Bondarenko one of the party's prominent speakers and number 47 on the list, says the list was composed by Andriy Kliuyev, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, who runs the election headquarters, based on consultations with President Viktor Yanukovych.
She says candidates are chosen on the basis of their usefulness for the party in parliament. The core team, she says, includes lawyers and potential authors of legislation. Then, there are “the talking heads” able to present the party's point of view in the Rada and the media.
Party sponsors are another category. “People who have been party's financiers for a long time, who have allowed it to live, exist and support a full-time staff,” she explains.
Then, there are people who “can be useful in case of destructive actions of the opposition,” she says.
The fact that Klyuev was in charge of composing the list has triggered lots of speculation about who is in favor and who is out of favor.
Few people are on the party list who are tied to presidential chief of staff Serhiy Lyovochkin and First Deputy Prime Minister Valeriy Khoroshkovskiy. This is interpreted as a weakening of this group, while “The Family” – loyalists close to Yanukovych – gains more power. The president's older son, Oleksandr Yanukovych and his friend, National Bank governor Serhiy Arbuzov, are considered to be the leaders of “The Family.”
Taras Berezovets, a political consultant, estimated that the Party of Regions has spent $200 million on its campaign. The campaign is clearly well-organized and visible in all regions. Journalists from Ukrainska Pravda news website published campaign plans, complete with slogans and breakdown of actions, long before its official start in July.
Volodymyr Rybak, a prominent party member and No. 10 on the proportional ticket, said the party has no money troubles. “We have enough wealthy people. So there are no problems with financing the party,” Rybak told the Kyiv Post.
The party's private finances appear to be bolstered also by government spending – or at least promises of public spending.
Oleksiy Azarov, the 41-year-old son of Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, is running for parliament in a single-mandate district in eastern Ukraine, promised to solve the longstanding regional water supply problem by getting a government subsidy for it.
This is far from an isolated case.
The Party of Regions advertising billboards are portraying budget-sponsored projects, such as construction of airports and a successful Euro 2012 tournament last summer, as the party's achievements. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov had said in June that infrastructural projects alone for Euro 2012 cost Ukraine Hr 40 billion.
The Regions has also been doling budget cash by raising pensions and salaries to public employers several times over the past year. The tactic has clearly worked in favor of the party's popularity: despite the fact that close to half of Ukrainians are saying they are not satisfied with the current political situation, the Regions are leading in polls with 23.5 percent of support, according to the latest poll by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation.
Experts say the Regions have also partially managed to mobilize Russian-speaking voters in the east and south through the adoption of a law that allows gives Russian regional language status on par with Ukrainian. The Regions hope to get 85-87 parliament seats through the proportional system, and augment them with a whopping 130 single-mandate candidates. Fesenko says they have a decent chance to achieve this goal.
One reason why they could achieve this goal is the fact that local election bodies are heavily dominated by representatives of the Regions party. They are also ruthless campaigners. OPORA election watchdog called the Regions Party the biggest violator of campaign rules.
Rybak says the accusations are nothing but political tricks.
“Go to the courts and you will see that we are far from the first place,” he said. “There are 50-50 court rulings against us and the opposition.”
But Olga Aivazovska, the election programs coordinator for OPORA, says that “only dozens of cases reach the courts, while we have information about hundreds of cases.”