KyivPost

In Ukraine, right is left and left is right

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Oct. 9, 2012, 12:01 p.m. | Op-ed — by Will Ritter

Ukraine's leading political parties -- many of them oligarch financed -- claim to adhere to various political ideologies and reform agendas. But rather than sticking to them in practice, they continue to invest heavily into winning voter support through empty political slogans that are spread through television advertisements and streetside billboard campaigns. (UNIAN)
© UNIAN

Will Ritter

Whether it be Republicans and Democrats, Liberals and Tories, Socialists and Christian Democrats, or Labor and Likud, the world's most developed democracies all boast at least two major political forces that are recognized as representing the mainstream right and the mainstream left of the political spectrum. 

In Ukraine, however, rather than being viewed through the lens of left vs. right, politicians and parties have generally been classified as either “pro-Russian” or “pro-Western.” This dichotomy was especially prevalent in the years leading up to and following 2004's Orange Revolution. However, it should have been obvious that in order for Ukraine to mature as a democracy, a modicum of “left” and “right” parties (as defined by Western principles) would eventually have to appear.

Today, with the narrative of President Viktor Yanukovych as a “pro-Russian” politician having collapsed, and with the Victor Yushchenko-Yulia Tymoshenko duopoly of 2005-09 having been unsuccessful in achieving deep integration with the West, the “pro-Western, pro-Russian” template has lost much of its relevance in explaining the “who's” and “why's” of Ukrainian politics.

While there has been ad infinitum discussion of the personal animosity between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko that led to the paralysis of the “Orange years,” another important reason for the dysfunction of the Orange government has been largely overlooked. Tymoshenko is a politician with left-leaning, interventionist views on economic and social policy, while Yushchenko was anchored in center-right principles of individual responsibility and laissez-faire capitalism. Theirs was therefore a political cohabitation that was problematic from the start.

Ukraine's political system finally appears to be naturally producing a left-right dichotomy resembling that seen in more mature democracies. The trouble is that Yanukovych's Party of Regions is pretending to be the left via its association with the European Socialists, while Tymoshenko's Batkivschyna (which, due to her imprisonment, is now led by Arseniy Yatseniuk) receives foreign backing from the center-right European People's Party – a relationship based on personal connections rather than shared ideology.

In Ukraine’s parliamentary election on Oct. 28, the Party of Regions will, just as in the 2006 and 2007 elections, get the lion's share of its votes from the former Soviet heartland of south and east Ukraine. This demographic is still ruled by left-wing voters who expect the government to take a primary role in solving their problems. The Party of Regions has duly extended handouts and other perks, such as the recent law to upgrade the status of the Russian language, to these voters to maintain their loyalty.

Yet, paradoxically, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov of the Party of Regions has spent the past two years preaching tirelessly about the need for budgetary discipline in government. The party continues to move toward legalizing the privatization of land – a primal sin against the ideals of Soviet communism. And, most significantly, the party represents the interests of big private businesses, a flagship characteristic of mainstream right-wing politics in mature democracies.

No doubt helped by years of tutelage from U.S. Republican consultant Paul Manafort, President Yanukovych has learned to effectively talk the talk, if not walk the walk, of market liberalization and free enterprise. The Party of Regions’ point man on economic reform, Sergiy Tigipko, recently spoke of “avoiding the mentality of class warfare” when asked on Savik Shuster's talk show about Ukraine's wide gap between rich and poor – an answer that could have come straight out of the playbook of David Cameron or Mitt Romney.

Meanwhile, with the breakup of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc in recent years, “Orange” members of Ukraine's mainstream right have been stranded in a political no-man's land, with nowhere to turn but the ruling party.

This probably explains why key center-right, staunchly pro-European former Yushchenko allies – including ex-Foreign Ministers Volodymyr Ogryzhko and Petro Poroshenko, former deputy presidential chief of staff Marina Stavniychuk, ex-Deputy Foreign Minister Valeriy Chaliy, and political analyst-turned-candidate for Parliament Vadym Karasiov – have conspicuously kept their distance from the Tymoshenko-led opposition, or even, in the case of Poroshenko and Stavniychuk, accepted appointments in the Yanukovych government.

The primary short-term beneficiary of this center-right vacuum looks be to newly minted politician Vitali Klitschko. His Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) party is campaigning on basic promises to reduce administrative and tax burdens on small business and put an end to corrupt land and property deals – one of the main ways by which government officials enrich themselves while in office.

Although it is too early to say definitively that UDAR has a center-right orientation, by running a simple but competent campaign, the new party is set to scoop up a swathe of former Our Ukraine voters (the party won 14 percent in the last election in 2007). The latest polls suggest that UDAR will win about 20 percent of the national party list vote on Oct. 28, and may end up taking second place ahead of Batkivschyna.

As for the Ukrainian left, the merger earlier this year between Tymoshenko's Batkivschyna and Arseniy Yatseniuk's Front for Change was a positive development in that it brought together two forces that are natural ideological allies. A new Batkivschyna television advertisement in which Yatseniuk promises to roll back last year's pension reform and provide guaranteed jobs to high school graduates evokes bread-and-butter themes of the modern European left.  

However, the merger appears to have been disastrous in the short term, as the rating of the combined Batkivschyna-Front for Change party among likely voters has plummeted from 35 percent at the time of the merger to only about 20 percent today. The obvious conclusion is that most of Yatseniuk's previous supporters were unwilling to follow him to Batkivschyna, instead defecting to Klitschko's UDAR.

A second major problem for the Ukrainian left is that it is divided along linguistic lines. The intentions of the approximately two million Russian-speaking Ukrainians who will cast an anti-Party of Regions protest vote for the Communists on Oct. 28 would probably be better served by support for Batkivschyna, which, unlike the Communists, is a left-wing party that is actually in opposition to the Party of Regions. Yet Batkivschyna, a predominantly Ukrainophone party, has made little effort to expand its reach and win over these disgruntled voters.

Of course, the categorization of political parties into ideologies of “left” and “right” is an imperfect science – and not only in Ukraine, given the exorbitant spending habits demonstrated by governments of all stripes in Europe and the United States over the past decade.

Ideological absurdities like the Party of Regions’ alliance with the Communists and Batkivschyna's non-aggression pact with the ultra-nationalist Svoboda Union can still be found in Ukrainian politics. And the imprisonment of Tymoshenko cannot be explained by any other ideology than a desire by the president’s political camp to ensure its hold on power. Perhaps it didn't occur to Yanukovych that inflicting a resounding electoral defeat on a Tymoshenko-led Batkivschyna would have been a far crueler punishment than putting her in jail.

But, despite the contradictions and ongoing concerns about democratic backsliding, Ukraine is coming closer to the day when analysts should be able to speak about the country's political spectrum in reasonably definitive terms – even if it might still be quite a while before we see Batkivschyna and Party of Regions lawmakers getting together for an annual left vs. right friendly football match and non-partisan picnic.

 

Will Ritter is a Kyiv-based freelance writer who can be reached at writter404@yahoo.com.

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