Recent opinion polls in Ukraine show a spike in support for an as yet unformed political party led by former parliamentary speaker Dmytro Razumkov. Meanwhile, activist and popular ex-comedian Serhii Prytula, who ran in Ukraine’s 2019 parliamentary election for the party Voice, is also preparing a bid for the next vote. While the two candidates have not yet revealed their platforms or formed any party structures, they seem likely to tap into the nascent Ukrainian middle class as their core electorate.
However, previous parties that have claimed to represent this layer of Ukrainian society have soon become marginalised. Understanding what drives this process, and whether it is specific to middle-class parties, might prove useful to gain an insight into the perspectives of the political projects of Razumkov, Prytula, and others.
One of the earliest political projects targeted at the Ukrainian middle class was Anatolii Hrytsenko’s Civic Position, an NGO that was later turned into a party. Hrytsenko had been a defence minister and chair of Ukraine’s parliamentary committee on security and defence. His party and presidential manifestos concentrated on the role of the leadership to the extent that he championed ‘enlightened authoritarianism’ that could ‘set a standard of morality’ and create an economic basis for the development of democracy.
Hrytsenko has consistently positioned himself as a politician for the middle class. From his first presidential bid in 2010 to his last one in 2019, and in both of Civic Position’s parliamentary election campaigns, the middle class had an important place in the party’s programmes and rhetoric. In 2019, in particular, the party declared that it was based on ‘active civil society and its foundation – the middle class’. Nevertheless, the party has never gained more than 3.1 per cent of the vote.
The most successful middle-class party in Ukraine was Self-Reliance Union. It was also created as an NGO and became a party only in 2012. Its founder and de facto leader, Andrii Sadovyi, was elected Lviv mayor in 2006 and has since been re-elected three times. Under his governance, Lviv became a prominent tourist attraction. As more domestic tourists visited the city and found its perceived welfare appealing, Sadovyi received a platform to propel himself into national politics. As a result, his party won almost 11 per cent of the vote in the 2014 parliamentary elections and entered the ruling coalition. Self-Reliance Union’s 2014 manifesto included the protection of small and medium-sized businesses and support for science and innovation.
Yet, after entering parliament, the party suffered from internal conflicts, which led to several MPs being expelled from the party. Subsequently, a major scandal in Lviv significantly damaged Sadovyi’s personal support, and having previously boasted high scores in opinion polls, he had to withdraw from the 2019 presidential election in favour of Hrytsenko. Meanwhile, in that year’s parliamentary election, Self-Reliance Union won just 0.62 per cent of the vote.
Just before the 2019 parliamentary election, a new party called Voice was created, led by Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, the leader of Ukraine’s most popular rock band. The party won 5.8 per cent of the vote and entered parliament. Although its manifesto did not mention the middle class, the party claimed to protect the interests of that class.
A year later, Vakarchuk left parliament to return to his creative work. This move and the following schism in the party’s parliamentary group contributed to the project’s dwindling political support. Prytula, a comedian who had actively promoted the party in 2019, left it in 2021 and is expected to run in Ukraine’s next elections.
The eponymous party of Anatoly Sharii, a popular yet controversial YouTube blogger, is polling at about 3 per cent. It also claims to be a party of the middle class, even if its definition of that class is so broad that virtually all potential voters could identify themselves as members of it. Nevertheless, a national exit poll in 2019 demonstrated that voters of Sharii’s Party, like those of Voice, tended to have received higher education and live in urban communities. The party targets the southeastern regions of Ukraine and is more popular among the urban youth there.
In Ukrainian political discourse, Sharii’s Party is not usually mentioned in the context of the preferences of the middle class. The views of the party’s voters are different from the traditional image of this class, which is seen as strongly pro-Western. According to a 2021 poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI), if Ukraine were to pick between entering the EU or a customs union with Russia, 11 per cent of Sharii’s Party voters would prefer the former and 53 per cent the latter.
All four parties have a clear common feature: they depend strongly on their charismatic leaders. In 2014, Civic Position officially ran as ‘Civic Position: Anatolii Hrytsenko’ to convert the politician’s personal support into votes for the party. Sadovyi, a ‘successful European progressive politician’ who ‘allegedly created comfort in Lviv’ was the driver of Self-Reliance Union’s performance in national elections. Voice, whose name in Ukrainian also means ‘vote’, refers to Vakarchuk’s background as a singer, while Sharii’s Party uses its leader’s name prominently.
A decisive role for political leaders is not unusual in Ukrainian politics. In a country with such a rapidly changing political landscape, party leaders have to be personally popular to capture the electorate. However, this is detrimental to attempts to communicate proposed policies, as voters are often not sufficiently familiar with what a party offers – except for a popular face. In that regard, the Ukrainian urban middle class has failed to produce a popular party that is structurally different from Ukraine’s mainstream political projects.
Furthermore, overreliance on leaders tends to contribute to a lack of party cohesion. Since becoming a parliamentary party, Voice and Self-Reliance Union have experienced shady internal conflicts that have resulted in schisms. The parties have produced several prominent speakers aside from their leaders, but this was born out of a combination of their parliamentary presence and Vakarchuk’s and Sadovyi’s absenteeism from everyday political processes.
The fact that pollsters include the future projects of Razumkov and Prytula in their opinion polls, even though there is hardly any information about what these projects stand for, illustrates the perpetuation of these problems.
Moreover, the middle class itself remains a relatively small part of Ukrainian society and, by extension, the country’s electorate. As the 2021 IRI poll shows, only 12 per cent of adult Ukrainians claim their income is ‘sufficient for almost everything, but buying an apartment remains unavailable’, while just 2 per cent say they do not have to save for anything at all. Finally, several other parties that do not necessarily concentrate on the middle class still compete for the votes of this social group. It is with this knowledge that observers should consider the perspectives of the Ukrainian parties that focus on representing the country’s middle class and its interests.
Kostiantyn Fedorenko is a social scientist, a doctoral candidate at the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and a researcher at ZOiS.