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Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Battle for Kyiv

In the runup to the May 25 city election, Kyiv has fully blossomed into a marketplace of political paraphernalia and competing audiovisuals.

For simplicity’s sake, Kyiv can be segmented into two diametrically opposed groups of voters: vermicelli voters and non-vermicelli voters.

This VALS taxonomy assumes cash and food inducements as the key behavioral driver, one that draws the line between voting by mouth and voting by mind. (Vermicelli and cereals became a staple of election handouts in the March 2006 city election, which Chernovetsky won with 32% of the vote.)

Roughly speaking, we have stabilnist-oriented voters and change-oriented voters. Each of these groups can be further profiled as having two distinct sets of burning questions.

Change-oriented: “Will Chernoco go? Will the newly elected City Hall put the brakes on the barbaric land grabs and construction? Will it ease the outrageous traffic jams and housing prices?”

Stabilnist-oriented: “How much vermicelli do we get? Where and when?”

One can also look at it as voting for the lesser evil vs. voting for the bigger handout.

Most of the change/lesser evil vote will be split between boxing legend Vitaliy Klychko, Tymoboy Oleksandr Turchynov, and maverick Mykola Katerynchuk. (Maverick or mole? Lutsenko recently accused Katerynchuk of having ties with Chernovetsky, an allegation that has spawned an unsuccessful lawsuit and an article that supports the allegation.)

Most of the stabilnist/bigger handout vote will go to incumbent Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky and Vasyl Horbal of the Party of Regions. Chernovetsky and Horbal largely appeal to a pro-Russian electorate; both came into politics as bankers, yet not equally “bright” when they speak.

Some voters will support oldtimers like former mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko and smalltimers like Viktor Pylypyshyn of the Lytvyn Bloc, or Mykhailo Brodsky. These mayoral candidates could siphon a few votes from the main contenders. Yet others will chose not to vote, either out of disenchantment or due to recreation activities. (The election will coincide with Kyiv Day(s), when Kyiv celebrates its birthday.)

Analysts believe that the holiday itself offers certain electoral opportunities. Amidst holiday festivities, young voters will flock to a well-advertised concert at Chaika airfield, on the outskirts of Kyiv. If these fun loving young folks fail to vote, that will give Chernovetsky’s older and better organized electorate more leverage.

Meanwhile, Vasyl Horbal, too, sees a growth market among 20-to-30-something Kyivites, whom he plans to magnetize with a free concert by German rock band Scorpions. Note the eye-popping lack of ideological unison between Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” and the Party of Region’s routine mantra of stabilnist. Well, what if Horbal, who studied in Germany in the early 90s and now wears a $100,000 watch, proudly confesses to having written “skhid i zakhid razom” on the Berlin Wall? As Bohatyryova’s case suggest, President Yushchenko can always find a job for closet patriots.

Who wins? Different polls tell different numbers. Undoubtedly, the bitter divisions in the Orange camp bode well for incumbent Mayor Chernovetsky. Vitaliy Klychko and Oleksandr Turchynov, his major challengers, run a high risk of being knocked out in a plurality vote.

Vice Premier Oleksandr Turchynov, Tymoshenko’s longstanding lieutenant, faces an uphill battle in securing a launch pad for Tymoshenko’s 2009 presidential bid. When it comes to Tymophobia, the City Hall hardly holds a monopoly. According to an increasingly Tymo-friendly Lutsenko, Yushchenko, at a recent meeting, urged his brethren to make this election into a Stalingrad for Tymoshenko. If true, that rallying call, as one someone noted at Ukrayinska Pravda, makes Yushchenko Joseph Stalin, correct?

Ironically, the Presidential Secretariat [read: Yushchenko] upholds Chernovetsky’s “Martian law” with the intensity of Kyivites’ love for the Orange Revolution. Well, times have changed, and so have the allies. Rumor has it Tymoshenko does business with Medvedchuk while Yushchenko recently appointed born-again democrat Kuchma to the board of Taras Shevchenko National University. Kuchma, by the way, views the municipal election as a referendum on BYuT policies. That makes sense: The battle of Kyiv tests the waters of Tymoshenko’s presidential electability.

Some analysts argue that even if Chernovetsky gets reelected, he will be dealing with a hostile City Council. If not, the mind boggles at what Kyiv will look like by the time his second coming expires in 2010. Other scenarios, which surface in recriminations, include sabotage, fraud or legal action to cancel the election or invalidate its results. Police and prosecution claim having uncovered multiple fraud plots. The SBU has interrogated Medvedchuk and vows to clamp down on any wrongdoing with the full rigor of the law. (Reality check: People convicted of 2004 election fraud walked away with suspended sentences.)

As always, politicians largely compete on fly-by-night promises rather than on down-to-earth particulars. Because many voters base their calculus on a politician’s charisma, charisma traditionally becomes a profit center for special interests. The current proportional system allows them to put a celebrity on top and plant themselves deep inside the ticket. If the strategy works, they expect to rake in a decent return on investment.

What’s more, this municipal election campaign misses out on debates between the major rivals. Such aversion to debates comes as no surprise, given the highly idiosyncratic communication skills of the incumbent mayor. Still, with or without him, watching his challengers come to blows live would very much serve the public’s right to know.

With so much at stake, one can find media reports of negative campaigning, including false flag campaigning. A few weeks ago, police arrested a group of people who posed as BYuT activists, disseminating faux campaign materials loaded with defamatory statements. Meanwhile, the Chernovetsky Bloc and the Party of Regions complained of having stale food handouts distributed under their brands.

Chernovetsky leads the way in management by walking around, that is, public relations management by walking around. He revirginizes parks, attends vermicelli rallies, blasts his opponents, trashes illegal slot machines, and aborts barbaric construction sites in embryo.

The 24-storied sardine-packed sunkillers erected during his rule remain intact. But that smoking gun evidence hardly prevents him from delighting the public with his mobile Potemkin village of construction-busting. Vermicelli voters will swallow it, and will pay for their naivete once the honeymoon is over.

Communication strategies depend on capabilities. Virtually hijacked by Chernovetsky, TRK Kyiv, the municipal channel, has revived a Kuchma-era “vox populi” program in which cherry-picked passersby land in front of the camera to badmouth the opposition. Today’s enemies of the state: Klychko, Turchynov, Tymoshenko. TRK Kyiv polls hail Chernovetsky with approval ratings of 34%, nailing Klychko and Turchynov with 10% and 9% respectively.

While the incumbent mayor relies on Big Brother-style brainwashing and paternalist approaches, his challengers take every step to bring their banners closer to home.

Witness the rise in balcony advertising, first used during the 2004 presidential campaign. However, efforts at cross-bundling BYuT’s dark horse Oleksandr Tyurchynov with Yulia Tymoshenko’s stardom appear to be a cliffhanger.

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