Showdown: Yanukovych Stumbles Out Of Campaign Starting Gate

KIEV, Ukraine -- Victor Yanukovych kicked off the first week of the final election campaign by refusing to debate his opponent, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Then the Party of Regions leader and former prime minister riled some voters by suggesting that his female opponent might be better off working in the kitchen.

Combined with grandiose election promises – such as doubling the minimum pension – Yanukovych’s missteps may hurt his credibility and give an opening for Tymoshenko in the Feb. 7 vote.

While it has long been obvious that Yanukovych has limitations as a public speaker, the attacks on his ability to lead and manage the nation may be the most politically damaging to the current front-runner. His campaign strategy, thus far, appears to be to play it safe, visit orphans and hang on to a 10-point lead.

Tymoshenko, his more charismatic – if distrusted – rival, is determined to throw Yanukovych off his game plan by baiting him with unending attacks portraying him as a thug backed by corrupt oligarchs.

Yanukovych’s influential backers, a group of billionaires and bureaucrats, don’t appear to be worried. On Jan. 17, they accurately predicted the outcome of the first round of voting. Yanukovych’s post-election press conference was anticlimactic.

Yanukovych was characteristically vague about whether he would seek support from candidates dropped from the race, saying cooperation would be possible if they embraced his program.

During a brief press conference, Yanukovych voiced support for Russia without saying if he would make Russian Ukraine’s second official language. He was just as unclear about telling Moscow to remove its Black Sea Fleet from the Crimean peninsula in 2017.

Minutes later, as journalists and foreign emissaries dashed for the exit, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov posed for photos near the coat rack and offered his assessment of the result. “Ten percent is more than I expected, but even a 5 percent margin would have been fine,” Akhmetov said.

Now the undisputed front-runner, Yanukovych is on the verge of making a remarkable comeback from his humiliating defeat for the same office in 2004, when a fraud-marred election in his favor was overturned by the democratic Orange Revolution.

But many of Ukraine’s political analysts warn that tougher scrutiny on him in the next two weeks could cause his lead to evaporate.

“If Yanukovych does not tell voters what he can realistically do to improve their lives, he could still lose the race,” said political analyst Mykhailo Pohrebinsky, head of the Kyiv-based Center for Political and Conflict Studies. Pohrebinsky should know. He advised Yanukovych during the last presidential election five years ago.

Vadym Karasiov, head of the Global Strategies Institute, Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies and Kost Bondarenko, director of the Gorshenin Institute of Management Studies, agreed. All said Yanukovych’s victory in the first round represents more a rejection of the Ukraine’s present leaders than an endorsement of Yanukovych’s qualifications for the job.

The Russian-language version of Yanukovych’s program, titled “Ukraine – for People” is a 23-page PowerPoint presentation offering a five-year tax holiday to small businesses and a reduction of profit tax to 16 percent by 2014. The document provides for lump-sum payments of Hr 25,000 ($3,125) to families raising their first child, Hr 50,000 ($6,250) for the second, and Hr 100,000 ($12,500) for each subsequent child.

In addition, the illustrated plan proposes to build 1 million apartments in 10 years, increase the country’s population to 50 million by 2020, and reintroduce state price controls on bread, vegetables, milk, as well as basic medical supplies. Yanukovych also on Jan. 11 promised to double the minimum pension to Hr 1,200 ($150) and the average pension to Hr 2,000 ($250).

Yanukovych’s team includes a group of five parliament deputies who, over the years, have been accused of election fraud, rigged privatization tenders and political persecution. But he says this is the team that can attract $50 billion in foreign investments by 2014. Yanukovych promised to make Ukraine one of the world’s most developed economies within 10 years.

“My reforms will be directed at easing the tax burden on business and increasing turnover,” Yanukovych said, recalling his achievements in two tours as prime minister, from 2002-2004 and from 2006-2007. “Increased revenues then stimulated the retail market, people started to buy more and the economy grew. This, in turn, led to increased payments to the Pension Fund and allowed my government to more than double pensions.”

Yanukovych, however, lacks any proposals for cleaning up the nation’s notoriously corrupt judiciary and ineffective – yet bloated – law-enforcement agencies or attacking government bureaucrats who use stifling regulations to line their pockets.

Tymoshenko took note of the omission. In a televised address on Jan. 20, the prime minister described Yanukovych as “the puppet of the same businessmen who profited enormously during the corrupt presidency of former President Leonid Kuchma.

“There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that as president he will serve the interests of oligarchic groups,” Tymoshenko said. “I am certain Ukraine’s democratic achievements will be rolled back and that prospects for closer integration with Europe and European standards will evaporate if he is elected.”

Karasiov, a political adviser to outgoing President Victor Yushchenko, said Yanukovych’s program is nonsense. “It is gibberish. There is no plan,” he said.

While more polished thanks to hired American political consultants, Yanukovych has, nonetheless, followed more or less this campaign script: giving presents to orphans, visiting Orthodox churches and denigrating his rival in speeches broadcast by regional television companies.

Instead of agreeing to live debates on television with Tymoshenko, Yanukovych and his campaign managers are talking about why it makes sense to avoid direct conversations with his opponent.

“They tell me that it is pointless to argue with women, but that’s not true. I don’t agree. I regard Tymoshenko first and foremost as prime minister and she must take responsibility for her every word. And if she is a woman, she has to go to the kitchen,” Yanukovych said on Jan. 20 in Kharkiv.

Hanna Herman, deputy head of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, explained why her boss will not debate Tymoshenko on live television.

“Tymoshenko is a liar,” Herman said on Jan. 19. “It would be a waste of time to debate anything with her in public.”

Political analysts Fesenko and Bondarenko said Yanukovych risks losing public support by alienating voters by continuing to run an arrogant, uncivilized and undemocratic political discourse.

However, in an article published on Yanukovych’s website on Jan. 20, Andriy Yermolaev, president of the Sofiya Center for Social Research, said it is highly improbable that large numbers of voters would start supporting Tymoshenko before Feb. 7.

“I don’t believe that one out of two Ukrainians is ready to support the present prime minister. Sociologists, journalists, observers and ordinary citizens say they want change. This is the reasons why her chances of being elected president are slim,” Yermolaev said.

Source: Kyiv Post


ende said…
Why doesn't Yuschenko, now that he is out of contention, come out in support of his old Orange Coalition ally?