At a low start: who and how prepares for the Kharkiv elections-2021 | Center for Political Analysis «Observatory of Democracy»

At a low start: who and how prepares for the Kharkiv elections-2021

On May 19, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology published the results of a survey, according to which the current acting Kharkiv mayor Igor Terekhov is a leader in the mayor’s race (36.5% of those who decided on the choice against 21.5% for Mykhailo Dobkin and 15% for Yulia Svitlychna). The news about the results of the survey was followed by the headline “Kharkiv residents answered whom they see as Kernes’ successor” in “Ukrainska Pravda”, which is also indicative. Although there was no direct question of “succession” in the questionnaire, the headline fully corresponds to the key message of Terekhov’s election campaign.

Trust Do not trust Hard to say Do not know this candidate Balance of trust-mistrust
Igor Terekhov 47,5 36,1 9,1 7,3 +11,4
Yevhen Muraiev 33,4 24,5 5,9 36,3 +8,9
Yulia Svitlychna 40,9 41,1 7,9 10,1 -0,3
Arthur Tovmasian 1,9 4,9 4,0 89,3 -3,0
Oleh Abramichev 1,5 4,5 2,3 91,8 -3,0
Kyrylo Kernes 14,4 22,0 13,1 50,5 -7,6
Oleksandr Feldman 38,3 49,8 9,0 3,0 -11,5
Mykhailo Dobkin 39,9 51,8 7,0 1,4 -11,9

Source: website KIIS.

If we break down the data from the table on the balance of trust-mistrust of the potential candidates into messages, then they also may correspond to the interests of Terekhov’s headquarters. For example, in emphasizing the negative balance of trust-mistrust of Kyrylo Kernes (probably to show that the son of the former mayor, who has become more active in social networks, has no perspectives for independent play), and vice versa, bringing Yevhen Muraiev to second place in terms of the balance of trust-mistrust, whose nomination will impact Dobkin much harder than Terekhov.

Even more curious are the party ratings, according to which the “Kernes Bloc – Successful Kharkiv” gets more under Terekhov than with Kernes alive (45% versus 38% in the elections to the city council). This can be partly explained by the overflow of votes due to a decrease in support for “Opposition Platform – For Life” (16% with a result of 21% in the elections), but it still looks strange. And if Yevhen Muraiev with the subject of the nomination of his party “Our” in the mayor’s questionnaire is included, then why not include the same project in the party questionnaire – perhaps then there would have been no effect that under Terekhov the rating of “Successful Kharkiv” is higher than under Kernes.

Almost two weeks earlier, on May 7, the results of another survey were published from the sociological center “SOCIS”, which almost exactly coincided with the figures of the KIIS. Igor Terekhov’s rating is 31% of those who decided on the choice, Mykhailo Dobkin’s is 22%, Yulia Svitlychna’s is 15%. It specified that both centers show a rather modest sample of 800 respondents, which increases the possibility of error. The “SOCIS” survey is also notable for its indicated methodology of the telephone survey.

It is important to emphasize that both KIIS and “SOCIS” are recognized as “old-timers” and the leaders of the sociological market in Ukraine. At the same time, Volodymyr Paniotto, director of KIIS, refused to answer the journalists’ question about the customers of the survey, referring to the article on nondisclosure prescribed in the contract and the stipulated penalties.

Further, open sociology with Terekhov’s leadership was picked up by a pool of all-Ukrainian and regional media and was issued to Kharkiv social network users as targeted advertising, and local Telegram channels were filled with it. The news feeds were scaling up by engaging Kyiv political scientists who commented on the results with loyalty to Terekhov, which allowed the media to make news based on their comments, maintaining interest in the topic.

It makes no sense to list all the involved “experts on Kharkiv”. The trends of this market are well illustrated by the example of two posts of the famous Ukrainian political scientist Vadym Karasiev. So, back on April 13, the expert emphasized that “Igor Terekhov, who concedes at the start to his main competitor Mykhailo Dobkin in recognition and popularity among Kharkiv residents, is trying to catch up but only makes it worse. Dobkin looks more and more preferable for Kharkiv residents on the background of the current Kharkiv authorities works”.  Whereas on May 10, he commented on the ratings of “SOCIS” in the opposite tone: “Kharkiv residents want to see a manager in the mayor’s chair, not a politician, even of an all-Ukrainian range, as Dobkin is. Also, the Kharkiv residents were confirmed in the opinion that it was Terekhov who was the successor to the Kernes. For 8 months the city has been living without Gennady Adolfovich, but for the townspeople, in fact, nothing has changed. The mechanism of the city government works as if Kernes is in place: Kharkiv is still clean, garbage is being removed, roads are being repaired, and infrastructure projects are being implemented”.

The pool of websites and experts loyal to Mykhailo Dobkin looks much more modest while other potential candidates are waiting and in no hurry to intensify their work in the media sphere limiting themselves only to their own media.

Terekhov vs. Dobkin

The case of the celebration of May 9 in Kharkiv, about which we wrote in more detail in another article of the Center, emphasized that Igor Terekhov and Mykhailo Dobkin are in many ways fighting for the same electoral segment. Both see the key to this segment in identifying their own image with Gennady Kernes, competing for some kind of succession with the former mayor in the eyes of Kharkiv residents.

On Dobkin’s side are:

  • on start a more stable association of the Dobkin-Kernes tandem (2006-2014);
  • a more consistent political background (Dobkin himself emphasizes this in every possible way: for example, the ex-governor accompanied his congratulatory video for May 9 with the comment: “Kharkiv residents distinguish a weathervane from the banner of victory”);
  • Arsen Avakov’s argument about the patronage over Terekhov;
  • All-Ukrainian media coverage and fame (Dobkin’s headquarter is trying to force the topic of debate with Terekhov for a reason but, as expected, gets a refusal).

Source: a shot from Dobkin’s video (January 2021), which uses images and Kernes’s voiceover. 

On Terekhov’s side are:

  • associations through the “Successful Kharkiv” party and a situational alliance with the son of the former mayor, Kyrylo Kernes (who, however, may become a threat and not a partner for Terekhov both before and immediately after the end of the mayoral elections);
  • a control of the advertising market in the city;
  • more active work with regional media;
  • administrative resource and opportunity for PR at any events in the city.

Source: Facebook-page “Persha stolytsia”.

It is significant how, in this intraspecific struggle, Terekhov’s team translates theses about “true succession”, disguising them under the criticism of their candidate from opponents. For example, in an interview with the leader of the “National Corps”, Andriy Biletskyi (close to Arsen Avakov) said that Terekhov is the real successor and continuer of Kernes’s “wadded policy” and Dobkin is “this is not serious”. The interview was actively promoted on the same websites and commented on by the same pool of experts as other publications loyal to Terekhov.

At the same time, assuming the likelihood of a second round in the “Dobkin vs Terekhov” format, the team of the current acting mayor is puzzled by the fact presenting their candidate as “the lesser evil” to “pro-Ukrainian Kharkiv” (analogies with the voting of Right-Bank Ukraine for Leonid Kuchma in the second round of the 1999 presidential elections are appropriate). This leads to a certain positioning dilemma: on the one hand, Terekhov is promoting himself on topics from the series of defense of the monument to Zhukov and demonstratively holds city council sessions in Russian.  But, on the other hand, he needs to be a “lesser evil” for the “pro-Ukrainian electorate” in comparison with Dobkin. This perception of the target audience can be influenced by the candidates and opinion leaders from the conventionally “pro-Ukrainian” camp, whose participation format significantly affects the odds.

“Single pro-Ukrainian”, showmen in showmayors, and promotion of party projects

Since the beginning of spring, calls for the nomination of a single candidate from the “pro-Ukrainian camp” have become more frequent. Such discussions accompanied almost every election campaign in Kharkiv and rarely ended successfully. This time the initiative was taken by Mykyta Soloviev, the leader of the local organization “Democratic Hatchet”. This initiative (not without some skepticism in their prognosis) was supported by deputies from the “Svitlychna Bloc” Igor Cherniak and Dmytro Bulakh, but in the “European Solidarity” initially announced plans to nominate their candidate without any negotiations.

However, later “European Solidarity”, apparently as a parliamentary party with representation in the Kharkiv regional and city councils, has tried to lead the negotiation process to determine a single candidate. There is no specific information about the results of the negotiations – “consultations are continuing”. It is also unclear whether the “European Solidarity” is ready to support, probably, the most rating candidate for this field, Yulia Svitlychna, taking into account the relationship between “Blok Svitlychna” and the local team of “European Solidarity”.

Meanwhile, without waiting for any negotiations, ex-deputy in the city council Dmytro Marynin announced his nomination for mayor. His campaign is based, first of all, on the criticism of Igor Terekhov, and Marynin positions himself not as a “pro-Ukrainian” or “pro-Russian” but as a “pro-Kharkiv” candidate.

In the above-mentioned interview with Andriy Biletskyi, the leader of the National Corps stressed that the party is considering the possibility of nominating its candidate: “Maybe we will nominate a well-known guy, a Kharkiv resident, an anti-terrorist operation veteran, an athlete, a public figure”. Probably, we are talking about Konstiantyn Nemichev, although it is appropriate to recall that Biletskyi himself moved to Kyiv from Kharkiv.

And while Kharkiv patriots were trying to come to an agreement, billboards of Sergiy Prytula appeared in the city, which took part in the elections of the mayor of Kyiv last fall and gained 7.87%. According to one of the versions (media loyal to Dobkin), the unexpected appearance of showman Sergiy Prytula in the “Kharkiv case” has been intended:

  • firstly, to prevent the nomination of a single candidate from the “pro-Ukrainian” camp;
  • secondly, to help promote a new party project (moreover, the Kharkiv elections are needed here as a platform to which the attention of the whole country will be riveted, and the target audience of such a project is rather central and western Ukraine);
  • thirdly, to help to play the “lesser evil” card for Terekhov through Prytula’s “patriotic media killers” against Dobkin (although this can be done without the status of a candidate).

On May 17, Prytula himself published a video in which he called billboards with his image a provocation and denied information about his participation in the Kharkiv elections. Although this denial itself looked rather like warming up interest in the elections and in the future, Prytula’s participation in the “Kharkiv case” (in any role) does not exclude at all. It is indicative that this video clip pursues Kharkiv users in the form of targeted advertising.

In itself, the trend for participation in the elections of non-system candidates from among the “showmen” (with positioning in the style of early Zelenskyi) is hardly viable in terms of a high result in the mayoral elections in Kharkiv. On the other hand, it is still organic, for example, for “Servant of the People” (as an illustration, the participation of Vasyl Virastiuk from the pro-presidential party in the March by-elections to parliament in the majoritarian constituency # 87).

The carnivalization of politics, embedded in the very nature of the “Servant of the People”, can take on a variety of forms during the mayoral elections in Kharkiv. So, about a month ago, in one of the Kharkiv Telegram channels, a screen was posted from the FB-page of the singer Oleh Vinnyk about his intention to participate in the elections from the pro-presidential party. Later both the post on Facebook and the news on the Telegram channel were deleted. Nevertheless, if the options for participation in the mayoral elections of media candidates, who today cannot be called politicians, are considered, then, rather, we should talk about Kharkiv residents. Therefore, Kharkiv singer Sergiy Babkin, a regular of Kvartal TV products, would probably look more appropriate here than Vinnyk.

Doctor Yevhen Komarovskyi has been shifting towards a public policy for several years now, who on April 21 spoke to deputies at a session of the city council. In 2019, he was an adviser to the president, who was predicted to be a ministerial portfolio, but now Komarovskyi is increasingly using opposition rhetoric. Ideologically, Komarovskyi is close to the “counter-Maidan” pole (just remember the careless statement about his willingness to go fishing with Putin), and this is what makes him an interesting (both for the Office of the President and for other players) a potential candidate who will look relevant in the coronavirus realities and qualified.

For a long time, the possibility of own political career in Kharkiv for a writer Sergiy Zhadan has been discussing. In 2014 he was one of the voices of the Kharkiv “Euromaidan” stage, in the last mayoral elections he supported candidates from “Democratic Hatchet” and “European Solidarity”. At the end of March, the sociological group “Operative Sociology” (from Dnipro) even included Zhadan in the questionnaire. According to their data, 6.6% of respondents (or 8.9% of those who decided) are ready to vote for a potential candidate.

Given the all-Ukrainian attention to the elections in Kharkiv, some candidates may indeed use their participation for a start promotion or a reminder of their party projects with an eye to the next parliamentary elections. Several Telegram channels reported that Rinat Akhmetov is creating a new party project “Ukraine is our home” whose frontman in Kharkiv may be Mykhailo Dobkin (although the potential candidate had previously claimed that he would be a self-nominated candidate).

Yevhen Muraiev, who on May 9 confirmed to journalists the possibility of nominating his candidacy, is likely to attempt to draw attention to his party “Our”. According to some all-Ukrainian Telegram channels, this party is also included in the pool financed by Akhmetov and aimed at “picking up” the electorate of the dropping Opposition Platform – For Life.

Zugzwang for the Presidential Office

After the victory of Volodymyr Zelenskyi and “Servant of the People” on a nationwide range in the 2019 elections, political scientists most often drew parallels with the Italian party “Five Star Movement” and its leader, comedian Beppe Grillo. Trying to find analogies for the “carnival” case in the situation of local elections, the 2010 mayoral elections in Reykjavik, and the victory of actor Jon Gnarr with his satirical “The Best Party” are the most mentioned. And nevertheless, it is extremely difficult to believe in the serious chances of the showmen Babkin, Vinnyk, or Poliakova in the elections of the mayor of Kharkiv in the autumn of 2021. In fact, the very results of the local elections in 2020 showed that the pendulum returned to the public demand for “strong manager” and not for “non-system new faces”. Therefore, the strategy of searching for “Kharkiv Virastiuk” for the Presidential Office would mean accepting a rather low result, which would have a negative image impact on the presidential team.

The problem is that ignoring the elections and not nominating own candidate is an even weaker position. An analogy with the “Popular Front” is appropriate, which, having won first place (in terms of proportional component) in the 2014 parliamentary elections, refused to participate in local elections a year later, in fact, having signed its own electoral zeroing and became a typical Ukrainian party of “one electoral cycle”. And the less time it remains before the elections, the narrower the circle of potential candidates becomes, and eventually, it will be needed to focus on just one.

As of late spring, candidates with relatively low citywide recognition can still be considered. From the “own human resources” of the pro-presidential force, even before the mayoral elections-2020, the candidacies of young majority MPs – Oleksandr Bakumov and Maria Mezentseva – were seriously discussed. Now, in addition to them, options are being considered from another inside-party Kharkiv wing. They can be Pavlo Sushko, a head of the regional organization “Servant of the People”, and Tatiana Yegorova-Lutsenko, the deputy of the regional council. At the same time, the only deputy of the “Servant of the People” who openly demonstrates her ambitions to participate in the mayoral elections is the city council deputy Alina Mustafaieva, who is actively leading the media campaign. So far, she is acting in the role of a “media killer” against Igor Terekhov, not skimping on expenses to set up targeted advertising for her videos and posts critics of the acting mayor.

However, if a positive decision on any of the listed names is made not now, but closer to the end of the summer, objectively there will be too little time to “pump” recognition, as well as the chances of reaching the second round. Perhaps an alternative strategy for the Presidential Office is to rely on someone not from “their own human resources” but local politicians with high recognition and a certain personal core of supporters (this was done in the recent local elections in 2020 in lots of the cities of the Kharkiv region). A few months ago it seemed that just such a scenario would be implemented with the informal support of Igor Terekhov (without the subject of nomination, but with an image accent that “this is our candidate” in case of victory). However, now the likelihood of refusal to nominate their own candidate in favor of Terekhov has somewhat decreased.

The “Rakhly” Telegram channel that is close to the Kharkiv businessman Vsevolod Kozhemiako, has recently published information about the possible nomination of Yevhen Muraiev from the “Servant of the People”. It was argued that the author of such an original initiative was Vadym Sliusarev, a member of the Political Council of the “Servant of the People”, but the chances of approval of the candidacy in the Presidential Office are not high. And for supporters of Muraiev who harshly criticize the central government, such a step would be absolutely unacceptable. Given the patriotic bias in the positioning of Zelenskyi himself, the candidacy of Yulia Svitlychna would look more logical, although in her case it would be more beneficial to go to the elections with critical rhetoric against the current government.

Thus, today the Presidential Office needs to choose the optimal move from a variety of options, each of which worsens the current position. In chess, such a situation is called zugzwang, and in Ukrainian politics, the authorities often turn the board over finding themselves in zugzwang. Nevertheless, early elections have already been scheduled for October 31, and attempts to postpone or cancel them are also an overall losing scenario for the presidential team.

Summary

Five months before voting day and three months before the formal start of the electoral process, the election campaign in Kharkiv is already in an active phase. Competition in the conservative counter-Maidan camp where the largely symmetrical campaigns of Igor Terekhov and Mykhailo Dobkin are now being conducted can be strengthened by Oleksandr Feldman and Yevhen Muraiev. Perhaps, in this segment, it will become even tighter.  Other potential candidates are local influential persons and deputies like Volodymyr Skorobagach, Andriy Lesyk, Anatoliy Rodzynskyi.

If any of them really intervene in the duel between Terekhov and Dobkin, the question of the format of the second round will no longer look so uncontested, and the threshold for entering it will decrease. This, in turn, raises the question of a single candidate from the opposite wing as well as the strategy that will be chosen in the Presidential Office. There are very few successful examples of the consolidation of the pro-Ukrainian camp in Kharkiv. The most illustrative case is the victory of Oleksandr Kirsch from the “Popular Front” in the 2014 parliamentary elections in the 169th constituency.

Based on the published sociology of KIIS and “SOCIS”, today Yulia Svitlychna, Yevhen Muraiev, and Oleksandr Feldman are closest to challenging the lack of alternatives of the pair entering the second round. At the same time, both Svitlychna’s team and Feldman himself regarded the latest ratings as biased in favor of Terekhov. In the last month, the headquarters of the current acting mayor has noticeably intensified their work with regional media and the creation of an expert background, delivering (including through commenting this sociology) their key thesis about the succession of Terekhov to Kernes.

In the starting scenario, there are still several missing puzzles. In addition to the decisions of candidates with personal ratings (Feldman, Svitlychna, Muraiev), the position about the elections of the internally heterogeneous “Servant of the People” and the “Opposition Platform – For Life” is not clear. Both political forces look undecided, although, for both, participation in the elections is important as a signal not so much to Kharkiv voters as to the whole of Ukraine. If the pro-presidential party does not nominate a candidate, then it thereby shows its weakness or states the existence of “shadow agreements” with some of the local influence groups, and recognizing that as a formal subject of the nomination “Servant of the People” does more harm rather than good. If the “Opposition Platform – For Life” does not nominate (or does not publicly support) a candidate in its basic Kharkiv, this is a signal that the party risks repeating the fate of the Opposition Bloc and by the next parliamentary elections to be displaced from its electoral segment by new party projects.

Anton Avksentiev, Ph.D. in Political Science,

Center for Political Analysis “Observatory of Democracy”. 

The paper was prepared under the project «Promoting Democratic Elections in Eastern Ukraine», with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The content of the publication does not necessarily reflect the views of the NED and is the sole responsibility of the Center for Political Analysis “Observatory of Democracy”.