Virastiuk's victory is a signal for Zelenskyi. What have Rada by-elections shown?
Usually, by-elections to the Verkhovna Rada are held with little fanfare: only the most active and conscious electorate comes to the polls, and the total turnout doesn't exceed 30%. The winners quietly rejoice and go to receive their share of the benefits within the walls of parliament, while the losers count the losses and think about how to compensate them as soon as possible.
On the one hand, the by-elections that took place in Ukraine on March 28 fully correspond to this stereotype. On the other hand, they're discombobulated and show us interesting trends in Ukrainian politics. The result in the 50th constituency in the Donetsk region turned out to be predictable: the mayor of Dobropillia Andrii Aksenov won; oligarch Rinat Akhmetov supported him.
But in the West of Ukraine, we watched a real epic and a tense struggle: the candidate from the "Servant of the People" party, Vasyl Virastiuk won, but he hasn't been declared the winner so far, the situation is too complicated there.
What do they say about the rather unexpected victory of the strongman in the 87th constituency in the Ivano-Frankivsk region, why can the result in Donbas form a new strategy for the Office of the President, and what meaning does it have for big Ukrainian politics? Read further in the Rubryka article.
"Shevchenko got a boomerang for the fall"
A few weeks before the vote, Rubryka was preparing a large article about the pre-election situation in the Ivano-Frankivsk region. At that time, local experts named among their favorites the European Solidarity party contender Marusia Zvirobii, one of the leaders of the Svoboda party Ruslan Koshulynskyi and the owner of Bukovel Oleksandr Shevchenko. The chances of the candidate from the "Servant of the People" party, Vasyl Virastiuk, were estimated lower. Yes, the fact that he had lived in these places all his life and had excellent recognition and authority was in his favor. But his zero experience in politics and serious competitors seemed to make his chances not so high.
Moreover, the conventionally right-wing forces did everything imaginable to mobilize their electorate as much as possible: Zvirobii withdrew from the elections and began campaigning for Koshulynskyi in the "European Solidarity" party. Well, Shevchenko was supported with a huge financial resource, connections, and reputation of a "road builder," which he actively supported.
It turned out that it's not enough — also thanks to the administrative resource, which could've played its role — Zynovii Andriiovych from the Servant of the People party is working as the mayor of Nadvirna city. It was for his mandate that the struggle unfolded after the elections last fall.
"Shevchenko has been 'smoothing' this district for many years: there are a lot of supportive people he brought to the local authorities. Also, with the same methods as it was happening currently: not recognizing election results in some polling stations, manipulating protocols; we saw this happening in favor of Shevchenko in the fall. And the ongoing theft of votes in favor of Virastiuk is considered fair in its way among people. Shevchenko got his boomerang," local political strategist Ihor Tkach told Rubryka.
According to him, there were obvious violations in favor of Virastiuk. "We saw strange things. To put it bluntly, the Security Service kept a lookout while the data changed. Well, Bakanov is a childhood friend, so everything is fine. But I must note that the legal service of the "Servant of the People" party has worked perfectly. It's not about the theft of votes, but about the fact that most electoral violations aren't malicious intent. In 80% of cases, it's the commission members' ignorance and wishing to do it the old way. And that same Shevchenko saved money on election day, although he had very cool specialists who could do everything right, they weren't fully involved. So that's the result they got," the political strategist explained.
"Zelenskyi won't become a Banderist. There's no sense"
Naturally, the by-elections to the Verkhovna Rada don't have a global impact on Ukrainian politics. However, as one of the political strategists who entered the corridors of the President's Office explained to Rubryka, the Office could use them to work out new ideas; there's not so much time left until the next elections, even if they're held on time.
One can notice that from the beginning of the year, Zelenskyi began to shift "to the right," bringing the electorate of Petro Poroshenko to heel. It seemed that it'd be quite difficult for him to do this, but Virastiuk's victory in the West of Ukraine suggests that the president can still win votes. You just need to choose the right "key" using a candidate understandable on the ground; it seems that the lesson was learned last fall.
At the same time, it's no longer possible to have it both ways, attracting the electorate both in the West and East. Spring-summer 2019 won't happen again, meaning Zelenskyi needs to look for an alternative model that will help not only win the presidential elections but also form a relatively stable majority in the Verkhovna Rada.
"Akhmetov builds good relations with any government, it's his 'superpower.' Zelenskyi was no exception; he needs Akhmetov's TV channels, and help in eastern Ukraine. In the meantime, Rinat Akhmetov needs Zelenskyi's help: the 'opposition bloc' has died, and the story with the small-town 'Order' party, for which Aksenov stood, may soon become national. The problems of the OPZZH party open up very interesting prospects: I think that someone will break the bank in the next elections. So why not Akhmetov?" political strategist Serhii Didkovskyi told Rubryka.
However, expert Ihor Tkach doesn't agree with this opinion. "I think it won't happen since we already see him flirting with the electorate of the South and East. In the West, Zelenskyi will use the same techniques as his predecessors: relying on people's deputies, the old government, the language topic. And in the East, flirting with the electors. Zelenskyi won't become a 'Banderist,' because mathematically, there's no point, the West has fewer voters," the political strategist believes.
"These elections showed that Zelenskyi's electoral field has slightly shifted to the right. If we compare with 2019, then the results of the 'servants' deteriorated little, and in the district where Aksenov won, they became significantly worse. Last time the Servant of the People party candidate got over 20% there, and now, it's only 3%. But I don't think that it's some kind of Zelenskyi's purposeful policy because he's unlikely to shift towards some region if he doesn't want to repeat Poroshenko's fate, who put an end to his great political career," political scientist Marian Oshchanovskyi explained in a conversation with Rubryka.
"Meanwhile, the Servant of the People party has partially lost the electorate in eastern Ukraine and is unlikely to return it. From this point of view, it's beneficial for Zelenskyi to cooperate with resource people in the regions. Most likely, he'll implement a model in the southern and eastern regions giving land to Akhmetov's people and other big entrepreneurs. It'll be beneficial for him to give the eastern regions to Akhmetov so that he can lead his people there, also, because they can finance themselves. The second point is that there'll be no majority, so by the next parliamentary elections, he may create a party formally independent from the government, which will finance itself and, having entered power, will be loyal to the President's Office," the expert predicted.
Poroshenko might no longer take off
It's extremely interesting to look at what the political future of the new "servant of the people" Virastiuk will be in the Verkhovna Rada. He was repeatedly invited to various political projects, but only the Servant of the People party succeeded. Very specific promises might've been made to the strongman; the new elections won't be found wanting, and the ruling party needs popular people on the ground.
"Virastiuk is loved in the West of Ukraine. He's strong, a patriot who didn't get involved in scandals. Vasyl can become a real find for the Servant of the People party. Moreover, the struggle for the electorate in the Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv regions promises to be a frenzy: Poroshenko won't give up 'his' voter just like that, in this case, you can give up on him," Didkovskyi said in an interview with the publication.
However, things aren't going well for Poroshenko. They threw very serious resources into campaigning for Zvirobii. It definitely wasn't a gallery play. The ex-president himself came to the district with his wife Marina, having organized a PR campaign in the hospital in the city of Nahirna; it didn't help.
So it's an alarming sign for the ex-head of state, whose anti-rating is discussed even within his own political force; will the moment when Poroshenko's supporters decide it'll be much easier for them without him come soon? It could likely happen much earlier than many thought.
For a politician who, until recently, flaunted that he had won all the elections in his life, it's a serious blow. Removing Marusia Zvirobii looked like the same "all or nothing" move, but the reinforced "servants of the people" managed to get a victory for their candidate, albeit not in the most honest way. Well, in the next elections, these skills will come in handy; they definitely can't leap over again with Zelenskyi's brand.