The Ukraine elections: War as an electoral advantage

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This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum


The 26 October date of the Ukrainian parliamentary elections was chosen strategically by President Petro Poroshenko to provide his own party with the very best chance of success. 

The date of the Ukrainian parliamentary elections officially appeared in the Ukrainian political schedule in late August, when President Petro Poroshenko signed a decree calling for early elections to be held on 26 October. But Ukrainian experts and journalists with good sources in the presidential administration knew the election date two months beforehand, in spite of official denials.

“The President will never stick to the date for early elections. He will be waiting for the constitutional prerequisites of early elections to appear,” Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told me back in June. But Ukrainian politics does not work like that. If you need a formal prerequisite, then you create it. And that is what Poroshenko did.

Why is he so keen on the date of 26 October? The answer is clear – this ballot day will provide his own party with the very best chance of success. Postponement to a later date in winter could lead to high rating losses for the president’s party. If Russia cuts off the gas supply, the heating season in Ukraine could have a late start, which would not be to the president’s advantage. At the same time, an earlier date would not have given his allies enough time for campaigning in the constituencies where they are likely to gain a majority.

The president’s bet has paid off. A week before voting, Poroshenko’s bloc had higher support than any other ruling party in Ukrainian elections in the country’s 23 years of independence. According to recent polls, more than 33 percent are ready to vote for his bloc; the ratings of all other parties are at least three times lower.

What is behind this rise in support for Poroshenko? In August, when the election date was declared, it was crystal clear that the war with pro-Russian rebels in the east would not end any time soon. However, in terms of domestic politics, war is a double-sided coin. It creates many economic problems that complicate the work of the government. But at the same time, it also gives rise to a common enemy, which consolidates the nation behind the leader and distracts people’s attention from what may appear to be temporary difficulties. This is exactly what has happened in Ukraine.

“It’s time to be united”, says the electoral slogan of Poroshenko’s bloc. On TV, the president’s allies say that with war raging, when the country is so fragile, now is not the time for political debate. And the rising ratings of the ruling party show that this point has hit home. But President Poroshenko is not the only Ukrainian politician who is benefiting from the war in the Donbas. Almost every leading party is trying to play on the same issue. Some have been successful, others less so.

Oleh Lyashko and his populist “Radical Party” were the first to jump on the bandwagon. Back in the summer, even before the elections were announced, he adopted military rhetoric, investing in outdoor adverts and TV clips showing him in uniform, with military binoculars and other gear. He promised to bring to parliament the “true warriors” who are currently fighting for the Donbas. No matter whether Lyashko’s actions on the front line during his visits to the Donbas were useful or not (and plenty of army officers say they were not) – the media image that Lyashko wanted to create was created.

During the summer Lyashko got an incredible ratings boost. There was a period of time in which his party’s popularity was as high as 15 percent, making it the second most popular party in the polls. For a party that received only 1 percent in the parliamentary elections in 2012, that was a real breakthrough.

Later on, after the official launch of the electoral campaign, his triumphalist khaki style was copied by all the other parties. Every party declared itself patriotic and placed some military heroes high up on their party list. For example, Yuliya Tymoshenko put Nadia Savchenko, the Ukrainian fighter pilot currently in jail in Russia, at the top of the Batkivshchyna party list. And Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk used the military theme for his new party name – Narodny Front (“Popular Front”, or frontline). Two of the top ten candidates in his party list are battalion commanders fighting in the Donbas. A newly created party of civic activists, “Samopomich” (“Self-Help”), went even further – they have three Donbas battalion members in their top ten. Poroshenko’s bloc has just one army officer in its top ten.

So what if parliament is supposed to be the place for legislative activity rather than for military rhetoric? Sometimes a new trend is just too important not to be followed – even if it means that common sense falls by the wayside.

Sergiy Sydorenkois co-founder of the Ukrainian news portal, Europeiska Pravda.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: Wider Europe Forum, Wider Europe, EaP, Ukraine

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