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United Democratic Forces is an Phantom Kharkiv Dream

12 November 2020
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“How could this election’s results be best described? There is a song by the band Leningrad – “Our folks love it”. You could put on this song and watch the results from Kharkiv’s polling stations.”

Starting in November, VoxUkraine in partnership with the local media will be holding 12 online meetings with different city communities of Ukraine on topics of importance for local self-government. The first meeting took place in Kharkiv, with the support of the Nakypilo media group.

On November 4, Hennadiy Kernes was officially proclaimed Kharkiv’s mayor. He won with 60.34% of the vote (195,044 votes), becoming mayor for the third time. Overall, 323,218 voters (31.3%) took part in the local election in Kharkiv on 25 October 2020 the lowest figure compared with the 2015 or 2010 election.

We spoke with the candidates for mayor about why Kernes was elected, even though he did not personally participate in the election campaign, undergoing COVID-19 treatment in Germany; why the city’s democratic forces could not agree to join forces and how they are planning to cooperate with the new City Council during the next 5 years.

The discussion was attended by Ihor Cherniak, the Yuliia Svitlychna bloc – Together mayoral candidate, Oleksandra Naryzhna, the Holos party mayoral candidate, and Mykyta Solovyov, the Democratic Axe mayoral candidate. The discussion was moderated by Viktor Pichuhin, deputy editor-in-chief of the Nakypilo media group. 

You can watch a recording of the discussion here.

The main conclusion is that Kernes owes his success to decentralization (the city received more funding that enabled him to build parks and provide other amenities). Consequently, the current mayor’s resource base also increased. On the other hand, the alternative forces have neither the resources nor the positive agenda to unite around. This is discussed in more detail further on in this article.

About the election results

According to Mykyta Solovyov, the main reason for another one of Kernes’ victories is that there is no political discussion in Kharkiv due to a total cleansing of the city’s information space, support on the part of retirees (actively participating in the voting process), and successful promotion of image projects.

“The vast majority of city residents, despite constant problems with heat supply, hot water supply, are unaware of the real state of infrastructure. But everyone sees the parks, we have four of them. There is something to be shown to the city’s guests, something to be proud of. For the Kharkivites, this very image of a strong manager was decisive.”

Solovyov notes that Kernes had a lot of time to build this image of a strong manager, because, although he was first elected mayor in 2010, technically he has been running the city since 2006, his time as secretary of the city council. “On paper, the mayor was Mykhailo Dobkin but he was just a titular leader. The whole of Kharkiv knows about it.”

When answering the question about encouraging young people to vote, Ihor Cherniak says that, firstly, this is an issue that has been on the agenda for years, with little result, and secondly, young people, on the contrary, could increase Kernes’s results.

“It’s among the young people and middle-aged voters that Kernes and the Kernes party find great support. However, a low voter turnout and the voting retirees led to the Kernes bloc’s receiving less votes than planned.”

He names another problem of this election – Party of Shariy’s election to city council, noting that it was a result of the activities of civil society and journalists over the past 5 years. “We do not have independent media. Even those media that are considered independent either openly come up with paid-for content or support certain candidates before or during the election.”

What should be done in a new way? According to Cherniak, they should stop spending 90% of the time and efforts on doing and 10% on talking about what was done. Instead, they should only spend about 30% of the time on doing and the rest on talking about it in a more primitive format that is acceptable to most people.

Oleksandra Naryzhna believes that it is not only about the retirees voting in favor of Kernes: “Kernes works through schools, educating a new generation of those whose parents know and support him.”

According to her, many people could not be reached out to due to a lack of resources. For example, you could only get on TV channels and billboards if you had personal arrangements with Kernes’s team or if you did not care about the amount of money to be spent. “You stick a poster at night, and in the morning, everything is cleaned up by the communal services.”

On consolidating efforts. Why didn’t they unite?

Oleksandra Naryzhna believes that even if the democratic forces had united, the result would have been the same perhaps there would just have been more capacity and resources to do election work. The question also arose as to with whom to unite.

“We were the last to go into the election, when everyone had already stated their position, and also because our team did not see in our competitors the leaders we would have liked to support. We offered to consolidate around us. But probably now’s not the time.”

Ihor Cherniak says that for the parties belonging to the democratic sector, Kharkiv is not a priority, they do not rely on it as their electoral base. That is why there is almost no normal party building here. “Uniting democratic forces is a phantom dream, it’s always been in the wind in Kharkiv, but in my opinion, it’s not very real.”

He adds that in order to engage in political activities in a consistent manner, significant media and financial resources are needed, but those representing democratic forces usually do not have such resources. 

“It’s a vicious circle: “Why are we stupid? Because we are poor. Why are we poor? Because we are stupid”. Why don’t democratic forces enter the scene, or they do so with little support? Because they lack an adequate capacity. And why is there no capacity? Because it’s nowhere to be found. It’s not the first and not the last year like this in Kharkiv. And today, I don’t see a prerequisite for change.” 

Mykyta Solovyov notes that in the period between elections, a very small number of political forces conduct joint activities. The parties are busy gathering some projects specifically for the election, having, therefore, no time left for negotiations and joint actions.

He says that in the absence of a local agenda, the only factor that could now unite democratic forces is a patriotic stance and preventing Russian revenge. But that is not enough. They should share the same or similar values, and, again, have a collaboration experience.

“We are a right-wing liberal party, consistently upholding liberal values. If, for example, ES (Eurosolidarity) recently moved towards a conservative agenda, it’s difficult for us to talk about long-term cooperation with them.”

What’s next?

Despite Kernes’s victory in the mayoral race, the number the Kernes Bloc deputies elected to the City Council is an all-time low – only 34 people (40% of the seats). Kernes’s first deputy Ihor Terekhov has already stated that they are ready for constructive agreements with other political forces in the City Council.

“The new City Council will no longer be as monolithic as it used to be, when decisions were taken without discussion and the opposition’s role was reduced to a few people.” Ihor Cherniak, who was a deputy in the previous council, says that it was difficult to work in such an atmosphere for 5 years. Although elected to the new City Council, he is still thinking about whether to continue. 

“I’m actually more professionally focused on practising law and continuing to volunteer.”

Mykyta Solovyov notes that the Democratic Axe party center in Kharkiv was not set up specifically for the election, and even though this political force failed to be elected to the City Council, they do not plan to cease their activities after the election. “Since the center’s establishment nearly two years ago, we’ve been quite active even without a mandate, holding over 50 public activities and participating in a number of social and political projects. We won’t stop.” 

Oleksandra Naryzhna also says that the Holos party ran in the election with a specific program, a specific vision, and a new agenda for the city that should be implemented. “We have a strong connection with our party in Parliament, we have public activity experience, we know how to advocate for issues. Even in the previous City Council, we succeeded in it. Let’s see what happens in the new City Council. 

This event was organized as part of the ENGAGE Program, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by Pact in Ukraine. The contents of this report are solely the responsibility of Pact and its partners and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) or the United States Government.

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