I belong to that rare category of people who try to do something for their neighbourhood or their street off their own bat, although I work with the local authority on other issues. That’s why I didn’t vote in the local elections – I just didn’t see the point.
At the time of last year’s parliamentary elections, a lot of people felt sorry for me – after all, a few years ago I worked for Oleh Lyashko, who is now a prominent politician (leader of Ukraine’s Radical Party and former presidential candidate). And now that many of his assistants from back then are parliamentary deputies themselves, people were telling me I’d missed my chance.
But I believe it’s better to be free and to do what you want, rather than carrying out someone else’s orders, thinking only what you’re supposed to think and pretending to be enthusiastic about things you don’t agree with. So I decided to concentrate on journalism and start-ups, and leave politicking to others.
Polling station, Kyiv. (c) Maksim Kudymets / Demotix. So what was the point of mentioning my time with Lyashko? The point is that I know many parliamentarians personally, know what they’re like as people, but I don’t want to vote, and won’t vote for them because I know why they’ve followed that path. I respect many politicians as people, but I’m not giving them my vote because they are not the people who make policies. They are either a ‘screen’ or an ‘entourage’ for those who place their own corrupt interests higher than those of the state or the public.
I also know many of the candidates for the local elections, and however much the various ‘alternative’ parties are trumpeted these days, none of these new or rehashed projects offer the voter anything really new.
The recent elections have one thing going for them: there have been a lot fewer old members re-elected to local councils. However, that doesn’t mean they have disappeared. It merely signals that the early parliamentary elections that are more and more likely will see an all out attempt by former president Yanukovych and his team to wrestle back the reins of power.
These elections had the lowest voter turnout of any since Ukraine gained independence with the collapse of the USSR. What can I say - I didn’t vote, and neither did dozens of people I know. But that’s no problem: it’s only in dictatorships that turnout is higher than 70-80%. So Ukrainians’ lack of interest in their local elections is, paradoxically, more a symptom of democracy than of apathy.
The low turnout was a symptom of democracy, not apathy
But why were we all so turned off by this year’s elections? Thinking about myself and asking around my friends, I have come to three main conclusions.
Firstly, they didn’t coincide with parliamentary or presidential elections; fewer people bothered to vote because they were less important.
Secondly, the parties’ election campaigns were the least interesting for many years. Looking at many candidates, you felt like phoning the nearest psychiatric clinic to ask them to come and collect their patients. Most parties and candidates showed no creativity and had nothing new to say – even their publicity material was dull. The only emotion that any of them could awake in the electorate was disgust at their pathetic campaigns.
The third reason was that there was just nothing new – no new faces, no new policies and no vision for the future. Most party lists were full of people voters had already protested against, and whom they regarded as corrupt gangsters. But money triumphed, and so our local councils will be packed for the next four years with characters who should really be behind bars. And the big parties have totally failed to grasp a key trend – a demand for the renewal and public creation of engines of social mobility.
Words can’t replace actions
I, for example, am involved in LGBT issues, local social problems and urban planning. Not one party or candidate in the elections had anything sensible to say on these issues. And if you ask mayoral candidates in the big cities about them, you probably won’t get any answer. Ukrainian local government is incapable of solving local problems.
That is the trouble with the parties and politicians, even the young ones. We can all, of course, write clever comments, get worked up and discuss global issues on Facebook and Twitter, but let’s face it, social networks are pretty much the diametrical opposite of reality.
It’s one thing to produce memes, viral video clips and quirky ads, but it’s quite another to have proper policies on replacing slums with new, comfortable housing, or how and where to create car parks or create an accessible environment for disabled people and so on. And most of the people who have acquired some political power have little more clue than your average armchair orator.
Also, a peculiarity of Ukrainian politics is the fact that all parties and groups are identified first and foremost with their leaders. So everyone knows the number one candidate on a party list, but few have any idea about candidates further down the list, even in the top twenty. And this creates an unnecessary mystique, conspiratorial feeling and suspicion of this corrupt circle.
Naturally, I will not vote for people and things that I don’t trust, and nor will most of my friends.
I am, of course to open to criticism for ignoring the elections and then moaning about the bastards that rule us and why they don’t listen to us. But I have known these ‘bastards’ for years and encountered them in enough situations to know that it makes no difference whether we elect them or somebody else. Power, alas, is an intoxicant that makes people forget their promises, vital concerns and future projects.
Ineptitude and indifference
You can also look at the pointlessness of the recent elections in terms of renewal of local elites. This hasn’t happened and won’t happen, because of both the voters’ political immaturity and the politicians’ love of buying votes, rigging results and doing shady deals.
I, for example, come from Zaporizhia, in south-eastern Ukraine. This is a city where chaos has always ruled, no matter who is in power, and this suits the populace fine. They are happy to vote for anyone who will buy them free dinners and promises of a bright future, or simply a day off work.
The choice there was between a stooge of Ukraine’s richest citizen and an official who just mimics him in everything. Neither of them have any idea about how to fix the drains, campaign for clean air or get the trams and trolleybus services working properly. But everyone voted for them anyway.
Or take Lviv. It looks like the old cities of Western Europe and the tourists love it, but what’s it like to live in? I, as someone who lives in Kyiv, don’t like Lviv for its infrastructure problems, especially with transport and communications. None of the previous mayors have been able to sort this out, and nor has the current incumbent – but he still got re-elected.
The mayors of Kharkiv and Odesa will also probably keep their jobs. This is not because of what they have done for their cities: life has not improved there in the last few years; in fact the opposite is true – constant acts of terrorism in Odesa and an unstable situation in Kharkiv have done nothing to attract investment or positive attention to these cities, and their mayors have not made enough of an effort to resolve conflicts.
As for Kyiv, Mayor Vitaly Klitschko (and indeed the mayors of Ukraine’s other large cities) had no fear of rivals. The feeling one gets is that the parliamentary parties agreed in advance who would head the country’s key cities, so there was no real contest. In football, this kind of thing is known as ‘match fixing’ and is a serious infringement of the rules, and the perpetrators end up in court.
Most local parties and politicians have no strategies or agendas to offer, let alone mechanisms for solving problems, and they either concentrate on national issues which are outside the competence of local authorities or fall back on empty party slogans.
I was also struck by the fact that for the first time a widespread and active system of open voter bribery was in operation; parties and candidates didn’t even bother to hide it, as they knew they could do it with impunity.
In other words Ukrainians, like most of the peoples of the post-Soviet space, have once again believed the populists and completely repudiated the values of the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-4 and European principles of local government organisation. Most of our citizens, alas, have become no wiser and have not learned to see elections as a contest of ideas and real political programmes. People choose slogans, not concrete issues and visions.
To make matters worse, Ukraine, with the active support of Switzerland, Sweden and Germany, is now undergoing a process of decentralisation. The danger here is that having elected a crowd of corrupt and populist politicians onto local councils, the voters have now entrusted them with greater powers and greater control of their budgets. So in the next four years these lovers of populism will pay a high price, out of their own pockets, for this fraudulent election, and will no longer be able to blame Kyiv or neighbouring countries for it. The imminent return of feudalism and spread of corruption will not be the fault of the president or parliament, but of the voters themselves (or those that bothered to vote).
Anyone who voted for any party needs to be aware of what their council actually does. Local government is not responsible for legal reforms, the army or police, the rooting out of political corruption or other problems that the candidates swore to solve on their election posters. Local elections and local councils are basically responsible for solving the local problems of their local population – that is the main point of local government.
But ironically, this particular point is of no importance to Ukrainian politicians and voters.
This is why I don’t vote: I don’t want to have to choose between one populist or gangster and another; I don’t see a single political agenda that focuses on local issues and I haven’t seen any candidate putting any real effort into improving peoples’ lives and the places where they live. And I am genuinely sorry for those who have yet again handed their villages, towns and districts over to kleptocrats, demagogues and dreamers.