Trying to Change Political Base Won’t Work for Yanukovych in Ukraine
Trying to Change Political Base Won’t Work for Yanukovych
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU
American Institute in Ukraine
A recent poll of Ukrainians’ political attitudes produced two strikingly, but only superficially, similar headlines:
First,“ One in five Ukrainians ready to vote for Yanukovych for president”: In a survey conducted in the second half of September by the Research & Branding Group, President Viktor Yanukovych topped the list of potential presidential candidates. About one of out five (20.8%) prospective voters would vote for him if the election were held on Sunday, October 6.
Second, “One in five Ukrainians credit Yanukovych with EU progress”: By a very similar margin (19%), the same poll respondents are willing to credit Yanukovych for having done more than any Ukrainian politician to bring about the signing the Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union (EU). (Whether the AA does get signed in the end is a question not addressed in the survey.)
Though both poll results sound very similar in pointing to the attitudes of some 20% of the population on two somewhat related questions, the obvious question is: Are we talking about the same 20% of Ukrainians?
In all likelihood we are not, and there is little indication the two 20% blocs overlap.
Or to put it another way, the people who are cheering Yanukovych’s push toward the EU are not the same people who would vote for him.
With respect to the one out of five Ukrainians who would vote for Yanukovych, most of these are – as expected – in the east and south of the country. (The actual numbers in the R&B poll are 29.2% in the east and 27.9% in the south. In the central part of the country, Yanukovych edges Vitali Klitschko 16.2% to 15%, with Yulia Tymoshenko close behind at 14.8%. In the west – small surprise – Yanukovych has only 10.3% support, behind Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk.)
These Yanukovych voters can be seen as a residue of Yankovych’s once-commanding base of support in east and south – which in 2010 was comfortably over 71-90% and 60-78%, respectively. It is significant that in the R&B poll support for Yanukovych personally is below that of support for the Party of Regions (PoR), at 32.2% in the east and 30.9% in the south. These are the part of the population least ready to cheer for a “pro-Europe” policy for which Yanukovych gets credit in the other part of the poll. Especially in the east, workers in uncompetitive industries facing unemployment in an EU free trade area might more properly blame Yanukovych for the AA than praise him for it.
In the portion of the R&B poll dealing with who is most responsible for Ukraine’s pro-EU course, Yanukovych’s 19% is more than double the 7% of his nearest rival, Yatseniuk. While this part of the R&B poll isn’t broken down by region, it isn’t hard to guess most of the support is from outside traditional PoR strongholds. On the contrary, this response would be a measure of the most reflexively “pro-Europe” part of Ukraine’s population, who would applaud any move “toward Europe” – even grudgingly crediting the hated Yanukovych for it.
That doesn’t mean they’ll vote for him. Even if the AA is signed, there’s little question that those who give Yanukovych his due for it today will be more than happy to vote for any viable “pro-Europe” alternative in 2015.
The number one rule of American politics is “protect your base.” You don’t alienate voters who have always supported you, in the hope of attracting people who will never vote for you.
This is a rule that Yanukovych and his team seem determined to defy by chasing away their most loyal regional supporters and futilely courting their adversaries. Leaving aside the questionable economic merits of the current pro-EU course, the political results could spell trouble in the future for Yanukovych and the PoR.
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