Ukraine may soon see three major pro-presidential parties merge. In spite of initial uncertainty about the viability of the bloc of four parties–the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the Agrarian Party (APU), the Party of Regions (UPR), and Labor Ukraine (see the Monitor, July 27)–leaders of three of them have gone even further than the bloc. They have now announced their intention to form a single party. On August 17, the leaders of PDP, Valery Pustovoytenko, of UPR, Mykola Azarov, and of Labor Ukraine, Serhy Tyhypko, issued a relevant statement.
“The new party will become a strong platform for national unity and will contribute to a further strengthening of freedom and democracy in Ukraine,” the three leaders said. They did not mention any particular ideology as basis for unification. This is apparently not very important. If such a party is created, it will not be an ideological organization, but a party of power, established under the auspices of President Leonid Kuchma. Leading positions in each of the three parties belong either to top state officials or trusted people from the presidential entourage. These men do not conceal their close ties and frequent consultations with the president.
The idea of an electoral alliance of the UPR, the PDP and Labor Ukraine with the APU has not gone by the wayside, however. It was reportedly decided that a merger with the other partners would only damage the APU as a party with a specific electorate (concentrated in rural areas). At the same time, a unified party would hardly gain from a merger with a party as small as the APU. The four parties continue work to run in the March 2002 elections together.
It is not clear whether the announced merger will take place before or after the elections. If the current election law remains in force, there is little sense in merging beforehand, because only parties founded at least year before the elections are allowed to participate in them. But it is highly probable that the Rada will pass a new law before the campaign gets officially underway in October, several paragraphs in the old law having already been ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. The leaders of the alliance have significant influence in the Rada, in that they control four factions (Ukrainian Regions, Solidarity, Labor Ukraine and the PDP), and will undoubtedly try to amend the election law in their favor.
It is also not clear who is most likely to lead either the four-party bloc or the unified party. Azarov, Pustovoytenko, Tyhypko and the leader of APU, Mykhaylo Hlady, have made it clear that it will be none of them. None can boast a high individual popular approval rating. The bloc needs, and is seeking, a neutral and, at the same time, popular leader. The most likely candidates are either the former premier, Viktor Yushchenko, or the current one, Anatoly Kinakh. Kinakh, in a recent interview with the weekly Zerkalo nedeli, did not rule out his participation, but was evasive about the possibility of leading it, saying that he had not received any official invitation to this effect. As for Yushchenko, the hopes of the numerous right-wing opposition groups would be dashed were he to join or lead, given that they want him for themselves. On August 29, Yushchenko said in a television interview that he would not belong to the opposition camp in the elections. It is interesting that on the same day Azarov, speaking in Crimea, suggested that Yushchenko may join the bloc of four pro-presidential parties.
For the time being, Azarov, the State Tax Administration chief and leader of UPR, is the alliance’s informal leader. If the three parties do merge, Azarov, who has a very good relationship with Kuchma, may well end up being the unified party head. His party, founded only this March, is the fastest growing and claims to be the largest one in the bloc. Speaking in Crimea on August 29, Azarov estimated the UPR membership at 280,000 and forecast that next year it should grow to about half a million. This may be not far from reality. There are a good many entrepreneurs who would gladly pledge loyalty to the tax authorities through joining Azarov’s party, i only to save their businesses from tax police raids in a country with high taxes, an unruly bureaucracy, controversial tax legislation and, consequently, a high level of tax evasion (Ukrinform, August 17; Zerkalo nedeli, August 23; New Channel TV, ForUm website, August 29).
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