Thursday, September 20, 2007

Everyone to the Elections! Part 2: Party of Regions

We continue to hope that other major politicians will come to town prior to the election, due in a little over a week. Many likely visitors, such as Yuliya Tymoshenko, seem to be focusing their attention on central regions of the country which may be more "up for grabs" than Western Ukraine. One politician who will almost certainly not be visiting us is Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych's party, the Party of Regions, is based in Ukraine's East and appeals to several constituencies. His base of support is among voters who supported the previous regime of President Leonid Kuchma, are skeptical of the West and its institutions (like NATO and the EU), and who fear "Ukrainianization" and the less prominent status of the Russian language. Among the elites, the Party of Regions has strong backing by wealthy industrialists, notably Rinat Akhmetov. Yanukovych is best known outside of Ukraine as the former felon (imprisoned as a criminal during the Soviet period, not as a political dissident) whose minions committed fraud to secure his victory in the 2004 presidential election. This event was followed by the Orange Revolution and new elections which overturned the fraudulent results.

Yanukovych and his team have conducted a skillful campaign. They have taken away the main policy points of their rivals by co-opting issues and approaches. As noted in a previous blog, Our Ukraine - People's Self-Defense has promoted the rule of law and the elimination of parliamentary immunity as a major issue. Yanukovych called an extra parliamentary session to pass legislation taking away immunity. Tymoshenko has supported a referendum on the constitution. Yanukovych has proposed a much less esoteric referendum on NATO membership and status of Russian. These two issues mobilize his base, much like issues of abortion and gay marriage mobilized the social conservative segment of the US Republican Party in the last presidential election. In addition, Party of Regions advertisements emphasize stability and prosperity with images of happy families, or "regular folks" airing their dissatisfaction with Orange politicians.

The strategy of portraying Yanukovych as a strong leader, restoring order to chaotic post-Orange Revolution politics, protecting the Russian language, and promoting cordial relations with the West while maintaining ties with Russia, may turn out to be a successful approach.

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