On March 4-5, President Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc transformed itself into a political party, the People’s Union “Our Ukraine.” The original boc was formed after parliament’s April 2001 no-confidence vote removed Yushchenko’s government. The bloc, consisting of 10 liberal and center-right parties, came first in the proportional half of the 2002 elections with 23.57%, handing the Communist Party (KPU) its first defeat in an election.
The creation of the People’s Union represents Ukraine’s third attempt at creating a party aligned with the executive. The first effort was Prime Minister Valeriy Pustovoitenko’s People’s Democratic Party (NDP) in 1998, but like Boris Yeltsin’s “Our Home is Russia,” it never became a reliable ally for the executive branch. A half-hearted attempt to transform the “For a United Ukraine” bloc into a party of power failed when it disintegrated immediately after the 2002 elections.
Neither Yeltsin nor Ukraine’s Leonid Kuchma took party creation seriously, refusing even to head parties of power. Their successors have a much different attitude. In Russia, United Russia became the leading party after the merger of Vladimir Putin’s Unity with the Fatherland-All Russia bloc of former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov. But while Putin has refused to head United Russia, Yushchenko agreed to be the honorary head of the People’s Union “Our Ukraine.”
The outlines of the new party of power are already taking shape. Although two successor wings of the Ukrainian Popular Movement (Rukh) are members of Our Ukraine, both have refused to join the new party. Yuriy Kostenko’s Ukrainian People’s Party (UNP) and Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk’s Rukh plan to enter the 2006 elections independently. But as more rank-and-file members defect to Yushchenko’s People’s Union, leaders of UNP and Rukh will likely realize they have little chance of crossing the 3% threshold in next year’s parliamentary race. If the threshold is indeed raised to 5%, pressure will grow to merge with Yushchenko’s group.
A recent Razumkov Center poll found that only five parties would pass the 4% threshold used in the 1998 and 2002 elections. Yushchenko’s party leads with 30%, six points higher than its finish in 2002. The Socialists and Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party obtain 4-5% each. Among the opposition, the KPU has a miserly 4.8%, down from 20% in 2002. Former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych’s Regions of Ukraine came second overall with 17%.
A third group in the Our Ukraine bloc is more amenable to merging into the new party of power. These political forces represent the more liberal, pragmatic wing of the national democratic camp and are represented by Petro Poroshenko’s Solidarity, Oleh Rybachuk’s Razom group, Viktor Pynzenyk’s Reforms and Order Party, and Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko’s Unity party. The Reforms and Order Party renamed itself “Our Ukraine” last summer but is willing to surrender this brand name to Yushchenko.
Yushchenko’s People’s Union “Our Ukraine” will possess a more pragmatic and civic nationalist political face than the romantic nationalism of Rukh. The cultural intellectuals and Writers Union who played such a prominent role in Rukh, giving it its romantic nationalist orientation, did not play a prominent role in the 2004 elections.
During the founding congress of the new party, Yushchenko publicly appealed for two other parties to be his allies in the 2006 election campaign. As expected, one such potential ally is Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s bloc. After becoming prime minister, Tymoshenko refused to give up her party leadership, but she has publicly accepted the idea of an alliance with Yushchenko’s new party. Yushchenko’s other appeal was to parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn’s People’s Party of Ukraine (NPU). So far Lytvyn has not responded to the invitation.
Lytvyn’s NPU, the re-named Agrarian Party, was never enamored by Yanukovych as a presidential candidate. Even though the Agrarians officially endorsed Yanukovych, many rank-and-file members worked for the Yushchenko campaign. Since the presidential elections the NPU parliamentary faction has grown to be the fourth largest thanks to defections from other centrist parties.
Yushchenko is courting Lytvyn for two reasons. First, to thank him for staying neutral during the 2004 elections, keeping parliament open, and supporting the parliamentary resolution condemning the official result of round two. Second, to prevent Lytvyn from aligning with centrists who now oppose Yushchenko.
Nevertheless, courting Lytvyn has a price. It suggests that the Yushchenko team does not believe Lytvyn will be charged with a role in the murder of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.
Yushchenko hopes that the People’s Union will inherit the spirit of the Orange Revolution. The party also hopes to capitalize on popular measures undertaken between now and the 2006 elections. Yushchenko’s speech attacked the oligarchs, suggesting he may mirror Putin’s successful attack on the former ruling elites.
Yushchenko remains very popular. A Razumkov Center opinion poll found that 55.1% of respondents believe that he defends Ukraine’s national interests and nearly 50% support his actions. Some 41.5% back Prime Minister Tymoshenko. In comparison, Ukraine’s “opposition” has very low ratings. KPU leader Petro Symonenko is supported by 9.5% (but opposed by 55.3%), while Yanukovych is opposed by 50.4%.
(Ukrayinska pravda, March 3-7; Zerkalo nedeli, March 5)