Leading Ukrainian sociologist and chairperson of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation Iryna Bekeshkina told the Tuzhden about the surprises of the election and the danger of direct democracy
Last year, we recorded an interview at the beginning of the presidential election campaign. Back then the rankings of all candidates did not exceed 10%, there was a large number of undecided voters. You said that we had not seen such a political crisis since 1999 at the very least…
— Yes, that’s right. There had always been two clear leaders in the presidential election: one candidate with the strongest support in the West, so to say, the other having the strongest support in the East. Yes, that’s true.
Continuing this discussion, at what stage is the political crisis now: closer to the solution or just getting worse?
– I think it is at its peak. It is not clear what will happen next. We said that the election result would be unpredictable. It is a predictable now, but so is the future. What is going to happen next? So far, we cannot see a clear action plan from the party that may either have a significant majority or will form the authorities without any coalitions at all. Moreover, its representatives avoided debate. That is, they either promise and do not show up, or do not promise at all. Because they do not want to lose potential voters. And their voters have different, often opposing views both in the West and in the East.
The result of the presidential election was decided by the people who remained undecided until the very last moment…– Not only, though there were a lot of undecided voters. There were shifts in opinions. For example, Liashko’s Radical Party voters were substantially drawn away, that’s why this party is below the threshold; voters were also largely drawn away from the Fatherland, and a little from other parties.
At this election, is there a group that can have a significant effect on the outcome?
– Firstly, there is the Voice, and it had to get its share from somewhere. We have studied where they got it from. For comparison, we took the first round of presidential election, because there people voted for a certain candidate rather than against, as was the case in the second round. So, firstly, the Voice received votes from those who did not take part in the first round (of the presidential election – Ed.), and secondly, it drew away Zelenskyi’s voters (partially) and Poroshenko’s voters (mainly). Therefore, the Servant of the People had somewhat less support with the emergence of new parties than immediately after the presidential election. For them, a 2-3% drop is not critical, though. But for the European Solidarity it may be critical. And I think that it will be Sviatoslav Vakarchuk’s party that will draw away the biggest number of voters, because they have very similar voters concentrated mainly in the western region. We could have assumed that the Voice would mostly be supported by young people, but we see that this is not the case. The party has roughly the same share of voters in almost all age categories, with the exception of the oldest ones where the European Solidarity has obvious advantage.
What I am afraid of the most is the reference to 2000 referendum and the statements that the will cannot be ignored. This is an example of a dishonest referendum. Perhaps one of the most striking in the world.
Why was Zelenskyi able to get voters both in the East and in the West, and Vakarchuk succeeded only in the West?
– Because Vakarchuk is very “determined”, and Zelenskyi is not. Also, Zelenskyi has gained momentum. 72% of voters in the second round voted for him. It is almost half of the population of the country as a whole. And now, to decide: “No, we will not vote for him”, one need to have arguments.
Before each election, we can hear: “This will be the dirtiest election campaign.” This was also the case before the most recent presidential campaign. Other than the winner himself, was there anything extraordinary in that campaign?
– Yes, there were a lot of fears. For example, this time more than 100 NGOs have registered for election observation, although they had never been involved in the past. Who are they? Therefore, it was expected that they would interfere with the electoral process, file complaints at polling stations, interfere with the tabulation. However, nothing happened. There were fears that someone would call in bomb threats at the polls or otherwise interfere with the election. Also, nothing happened. It (campaign – Ed.) was very peaceful. I would even say, unpredictably peaceful.
In 2004, there was a big conflict among sociologists during the exit poll (back then, leading sociological companies created a consortium for the joint National Exit Poll). However, the results received by various consortium participants were different. There was a split. Later, Olha Balakirieva, the head of the company “Social Monitoring”, admitted that there were errors in the exit poll: It was this company that, together with SOCIS, announced the victory of Viktor Yanukovych, although other colleagues established the primacy of Viktor Yushchenko. After that, the consortium has never gathered in the former composition. Now, National Exit Poll is held only by Democratic Initiatives, KIIS and Razumkov Centre. – Ed.) Today, the same people who caused the conflict are conducting political surveys again, and these surveys are in great demand in the media. At the same time, the Sociological Association says nothing, as do other sociological companies. Do we need to respond?
– It was 15 years ago. They have learned their lesson, and since then I have not noticed any backslides. There were some manipulative surveys, for example, when Social Monitoring conducted an election survey “with the exception of region centers”. But they did specify that. Another thing is how it was used. All exit polls at the recent election were very accurate regardless of the sources of funding. And it was different from different political forces.
So you think there is no risk of repeating the situation that was 15 years ago, don’t you?
– Yes, there is no risk. Because once was enough. In addition, it was almost a war then. Not everyone can behave in good faith in this situation. It was more about fear than bribery. Now, there is no such fear.
At the elections in single-member districts, it is self-nominees that most often win. In fact, it is eternal and one of the most influential “parties” in the Verkhovna Rada. Will the Servant of the People be able to overcome self-nominees in the constituencies on the wave of popularity this time?
– That depends. I think that where the MPs worked and engaged in the needs of the citizens, it is unlikely. And there where they did not work systematically, it is quite possible. If both candidates are unknown, they will choose candidates from the Servant of the People.
People from the President’s Office actively and publicly promote the idea of referendums or some kind of consultative polls. How do you feel about such ideas?
– I think it is dangerous. It is about trying to make a transition to the so-called direct democracy. They say we do not need any parties, any NGOs or other organized structures. Instead, we need a referendum: people will make the decision. However, we are well aware that, firstly, we do not have a referendum law and we do not know what it will look like. Secondly, as a sociologist, I know that everything depends on how the question is posed: it is possible to come up with a manipulative one and get the desired answer. Thirdly, what scares me the most is the reference to 2000 referendum and the statements that the will cannot be ignored. Perhaps people do not know how that referendum was held, when almost half of the people voted ahead of time (in Zakarpattia Region, for example, 72% at voted in advance). Everything was adjusted for the desired result. This is an example of a dishonest referendum. Perhaps one of the most striking in the world. And refer to that referendum it and use those results … I am frightened by a possible desire to do anything similar.
The idea of “A State in A Smartphone” is also frightening. Voting through petitions or the like. I understand it when a petition gets a certain number of votes and it can be considered. However, this should not mean that everything has already been decided. You can always falsify a certain number of votes. We know very well how it is done. Let alone the fact that in many villages there is no Internet connection at all, and many older people do not even use mobile phones. Therefore, in general, I am intimidated by the so-called direct democracy. It was possible in ancient Greece when everyone voted in a forum. By the way, let me remind you the Socrates story when he was sentenced to death for his views. Public opinion is very variable and subject to manipulation. The whole world has moved on to representative democracy, and we are trying to introduce innovations.
Moving on to current trends in public opinions. Now, people talk more and more about the so-called threat of old system comeback, at least in Kyiv and in social media. Is there a danger that society will get polarized again because of the Russian issue?
– I will repeat that we are in a situation of uncertainty now. And the new president rarely speaks and we see him rarely. Instead, people from his team speak, and they often say controversial things. Obviously, their views are different. The team of the new president might split. People were picked up very quickly, to a large extent through recommendations and acquaintances. What are the values of these people? It’s difficult to say. How much do these values coincide? It’s also hard to say. I think so far, we are threatened by uncertainty and administrative chaos rather than old system comeback. I hope this will not happen, but so far we can see all the signs.
You are monitoring the question of what Ukrainians are ready for for the sake of peace. Does the mood change somehow or remain stable for a long time?
We have conducted such a survey recently. There are no significant changes. As before, people generally think that the problem should be resolved peacefully and through compromises, but not all compromises are acceptable. This is the opinion of more than half of respondents. However, when we offer a list of possible compromises, it turns out that people do not agree with the key ones. This is when we talk about the country as a whole. Looking at the East-West differences, the East is ready to compromise in language, neutral status issues, but does not support autonomy or special status. But it is willingness to negotiate with the so-called leaders of the DPR/LPR that has increased (now the public opinion on this issue is 50×50). There is a clear regional division. I would put it this way: the closer to the front, then higher the readiness for compromise. People are very tired and it’s obvious. But even there not all the compromises are acceptable, in particular, the autonomous status is supported neither in Donetsk nor Luhansk Regions (of course, I mean the territory controlled by Ukraine).
Certainly, fascination with Zelenskyi will be lifted very quickly. If we have a look at the post-election polls by KIIS, the first expectation of voters is decrease in tariffs. Maybe they will decrease them, I do not know, but these expectations are very inflated.
Your KIIS colleagues are monitoring the issue of attitude to Russia. Now, for the first time in recent years, we have seen that more than half of the population is sympathetic to the Russian Federation. Do you think this poses a threat?
– You know, it will also depend on the policy of the new government. So far, I see no danger in this issue. At least Zelenskyi clearly stated the prospects of Ukraine: EU and NATO. Moreover, so far, he has not broken the ice in his relations with Russia. Therefore, I do not see any danger now, but we’ll see.
Recently, the study ‘Political Compass of Ukrainians’ has been actively discussed. Can we draw a conclusion that the majority of the population does not have any idea what politics is and what economy is?
– Certainly. Our people do not have a holistic ideology. The Institute of Sociology annually monitors “What ideologies do you share?”. There are options: communist, socialist, national-democratic, liberal, nationalistic and so on. From year to year, the number of responses such as “I do not have a clue” or “None” decreases. What can we be talking about if even the parties themselves cannot define the party ideology? Obviously, in terms of real ideology, the Fatherland is a center-left party. However, even in Europe, they joined the commonwealth of “right” parties.
Unfortunately, today we do not have any parties that would be built on the left ideology. They all become “left” before the election. Most of them at least. And after the election, they begin to make decisions closer to the right spectrum.
Do the main demands of the population primarily concern the economy?
– Not only. We are investigating this issue. We ask about the most important problems, and on the eve of the election, about those that need to be addressed first of all. First of all, this is, of course, the Donbas war. And after that, everything that concerns economic problems: pensions, salaries, economic growth. Then, there is corruption. The rest of the issues are less worrying and lag behind considerably.
After the elections, many people divided voters into conditional “72%” and “25%”. Do these groups really exist, and if so, what is the key difference between them?
– They do not exist as coherent groups. If we have a look at the voters of the parties, then, for example, Opposition Platform – For Life is characterized by a very clear certainty with regard to external issues. As is the European Solidarity and the Voice. But the Fatherland’s voters and especially voters of the Servant of the People have opposing views with a certain preponderance in favor of European integration and NATO. However, this division has a clear regional certainty: the same situation as in attitude to compromises that are acceptable for peace in Donbas. The voters of the Servant of the People largely have the same views on this issue as the whole country. Therefore, these “72%” are very different.
And “25%” as well?
– They are more concentrated. I would say, this is mostly middle class of the West and the Center.
Can we say that it is still a certain prototype of a party united by values?
– Maybe if, of course, we are able to do so. So far, we had no real party system. If we compare the elections in 2012 and 2014, only one party has survived in the parliament, it’s the Fatherland; however, then it had 20%, and now it has a mere 5%. In general, in Ukraine, political parties are creates specifically for the elections (there are certain exceptions though: Fatherland or Svoboda). You see, a party means part. And we always try to reach out to everyone. Sometimes it works like with “72%”. In general, we are largely unique. For example, if you have a look at Transparency International’s findings on corruption, then next to us you will not see not only a democratic, but even semi-free country with the same results, solid dictatorships. That is, we are kind of an incredible centaur: a relative democracy (according to the Freedom House) with a high level of corruption.
Zelenskyi’s ranking has already reached its peak and began to drop. If we try to have a look into the future, can the frustration of people pose a threat to the entire state? After all, the voters have really pinned a lot of hopes on him.
– Certainly, fascination with Zelenskyi will be lifted very quickly. If we have a look at the post-election polls by KIIS, the first expectation of voters is decrease in tariffs. Maybe they will decrease them, I do not know, but these expectations are very inflated. Let’s remember how disappointed people were with Yushchenko. By the way, I have not seen anyone driving down Kyiv and signaling “Ze-len-skyi!”. And “Yu-shchen-ko!” — I have heard that. Yushchenko was generally perceived as a god. And disappointment built up as early as at the end of the year. It is true to say that then there was a corruption scandal. One can mention Poroshenko’s 50%. Yes, it is no 72%. This result was made possible because the East ignored the election. But in the Center and in the West, voting was almost unanimous. And what happened to the country when people got disappointed? Nothing. I’m not afraid of this. I repeat, I still consider administrative chaos more dangerous, when they will appoint every Tom, Dick and Harry to the posts. We still must carefully approach this issue. I know that there are very good young managers in the executive branch, in the departments. Is it a good idea to replace everyone just because you need new people? It is necessary to appoint new people only if there are better candidates, rather than just “friends”.