Batkivshchyna party

Image - Yuliia Tymoshenko and Batkivshchyna party deputies (2007).

Batkivshchyna party (Всеукраїнське об’єднання «Батьківщина»; Vseukrainske ob’iednannia ‘Batkivshchyna’). Populist political party in contemporary Ukraine with the unique distinction of twenty continuous years of participation in electoral politics. Founded by convention in June 1999, and registered in September of that year, it has been led since December 1999 by Yuliia Tymoshenko. In ideological orientation the party was supposed to be centrist and reformist. It aimed for the country’s renewal through gradual reform, avoiding both the current ‘wild capitalism’ and the previous communist totalitarianism, and prescribing implementation of a market economy as the path to societal well-being. Handicapped at first by its leader’s prior association with the disgraced former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko, as well as a self-contradictory program composed of liberal, social-democratic, and conservative elements, Batkivshchyna nevertheless was brought effectively to public attention by Tymoshenko’s dynamism, magnetic charisma, and skillful use of television—and subsequently kept there.

Initially a parliamentary caucus (‘fraction’ in Ukrainian usage) of notables with diverse political orientations and origins, Batkivshchyna constituted part of the February 2000 parliamentary majority in support of Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko. By September, its support had become less than reliable, and by April 2001 it had withdrawn altogether from the coalition. It then adopted an ambivalent stance, voting against non-confidence in the Yushchenko government, and abstaining from the vote on Anatolii Kinakh as successor to the prime minister. The caucus as of 13 June 2001 consisted of 26 deputies (MPs).

For the 31 March 2002 elections to the Supreme Council of Ukraine, Batkivshchyna allied with three other parties to form the Yuliia Tymoshenko Bloc (Blok Yulii Tymosheno—BYuT for short, the allusion to a female attribute wholly intentional). The others consisted of the Sobor People’s party, republicans, and social democrats. The bloc obtained 22 seats, 13 going to Batkivshchyna. Late that same year, Batkivshchyna entered into an alliance with Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine (Nasha Ukraina), together with the communists and socialists, to defeat President Leonid Kuchma’s candidate for the presidency, Viktor Yanukovych. As part of the arrangement, Yuliia Tymoshenko was promised to be appointed prime minister should Yushchenko be elected president. Following the Orange Revolution, in which she played a prominent role at the side of Yushchenko, Tymoshenko was in fact confirmed as prime minister by an overwhelming vote of 83 percent of the Supreme Council’s deputies. Like so much else in contemporary Ukrainian politics, the triumph was evanescent. Within months, Yushchenko had dismissed Tymoshenko and her party went into opposition to its erstwhile allies in the Orange camp.

In the 26 March 2006 elections, the Tymoshenko Bloc secured 22.3 percent of the vote for 129 seats in the Supreme Council of Ukraine, second to Yanukovych’s Party of Regions with 32.1 percent and 186 seats. Tymoshenko and Batkivshchyna appealed to Ukrainian voters through their populist platform of higher wages and pensions, lower taxes, and a promise of anti-corruption action. Unlike the Party of Regions, they were more European-oriented, less pro-Russian, and appealed more to nationalists. Following months of political crises centered on the three-cornered clashes between Viktor Yushchenko, Viktor Yanukovych, and Yuliia Tymoshenko, new parliamentary elections were called for 30 September 2007. BYuT’s program offered a comprehensive breakthrough via what it called a ‘New National Idea.’ This would involve a referendum on a new constitution, election of judges, press freedom, eliminating political corruption, universal medical care, cancelling entrance exams and raising stipends for postsecondary students, making Ukraine into an international transit corridor, encouraging small and middle-sized businesses, a program of energy self-sufficiency, inviting massive investment, urban renewal, and ensuring viability for Ukrainian farmers. It did not spell out how all of this could be financed, nor did it address other issues such as the Russian question. The Tymoshenko Bloc gained an additional 8.4 percent of the vote (30.7 total) for 27 more seats in the Rada (156 altogether). Tymoshenko herself managed then to replace Yanukovych as prime minister by allying once again with Yushchenko. Her government’s populist policies, however, together with the 2008 global financial crisis, had a detrimental effect on Ukraine’s economy.

Yuliia Tymoshenko began preparing a year in advance of the 2010 presidential elections, but eventually lost to Viktor Yanukovych. In 2011, she was charged with abuse of office and sentenced to seven years in prison, thus sidelining her from national politics. Also in 2011, the Supreme Council of Ukraine banned the formation of electoral alliances or blocs, thus depriving Tymoshenko of a key instrument for success at the polls. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, therefore, Batkivshchyna managed to obtain only 25.6 percent of the proportional representation (PR) vote, for 62 seats, plus 39 single-member district (SMD) seats for a total of 101, well behind the Party of Regions’ 185 seats.

In 2013, aiming for renewal and transformation into an ‘umbrella party,’ Batkivshchyna was officially fused with Arsenii Yatseniuk’s Front for Change party (Front Zmin), issuing a new manifesto. This called for greater social justice and Ukraine’s full-fledged membership in the European Union (EU). It underlined the inviolability of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the primacy of the Ukrainian language as sole official language, condemned Nazism and Stalinism equally, and declared the Holodomor a genocide. At the same time it called for tolerance and unity of the Ukrainian nation. While attempting to absorb other minor parties and to reinvent itself, Batkivshchyna was plagued by a series of noteworthy expulsions and resignations, illustrating well the chronic fragmentation characteristic of Ukraine’s political party system.

Following the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014, the party reached what appeared to be the nadir of its electoral popularity. In the parliamentary elections of October 2014, it managed barely to transcend the five-percent barrier, obtaining just 5.6 percent of the vote. It thus became the smallest fraction in the Supreme Council of Ukraine with initially only 17 members. In November, it joined the governing coalition supporting prime minister Arsenii Yatseniuk’s newly-formed People’s Front party (Narodnyi Front). Actually, Yatseniuk had previously assumed leadership of Batkivshchyna in Yuliia Tymoshenko’s absence; with her return, however, he withdrew his supporters to create his new party in competition with hers. This alliance was a stormy relationship. Ultimately, after threatening a boycott on voting until gas prices were lowered, demanding the ouster of the Yatseniuk government, refusing to vote for the upcoming year’s budget, refusing to work with the prime minister, and recalling its only minister in the cabinet, Batkivshchyna left the coalition in February 2016. Thereafter, Batkivshchyna supported the candidacy of the Supreme Council’s speaker Volodymyr Groisman for the prime minister post in March, but less than a year later twelve of its deputies were calling for his resignation. Also in 2016, the party objected vociferously when the Supreme Council of Ukraine refused to open an investigation into President Petro Poroshenko’s alleged involvement in the offshore scandal exposed in the Panama Papers. Over the next two years the party became embroiled almost continuously regarding irregularities in financing, and subject to monitoring, investigation, searches of premises, and criminal charges by various law enforcement bodies. All of this was attributed by Yuliia Tymoshenko to simple political harassment. She explained that anonymous wealthy donors’ contributions were being attributed to impecunious and unknowing ‘contributors’ so as to avoid publicity and trouble with the authorities. The party was also embarrassed by having to expel Nadiia Savchenko, the celebrity ex-political prisoner, from its ranks not long after having invited her in, as well as by the failure to initiate its proposed referendum on farm land sales.

Launching her next presidential campaign in 2018, Batkivshchyna’s leader radically changed her image, abandoning her trade-mark braided crown for a long strand of straight hair. Yuliia Tymoshenko simultaneously launched her party’s latest program, ‘A New Course for Ukraine.’ Seemingly patterned after U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal,’ it offered to reduce the cost of natural gas to the consuming public, reinstate family allowances, raise minimum pensions, and introduce a European-style pension regime. For businesses, it would cancel 37 various taxes, including the VAT, as well as the payroll tax. The moratorium on the sale of farm land would be extended and farmers would have access to low-interest loans. There would be a comprehensive overhaul of education and its financing. Finally, the battle against offshore and contraband operations will be intensified and the state’s bureaucracy trimmed. Printing and promotion of the ‘New Course’ was said to have cost a record amount, in line with Batkivshchyna’s reputation as Ukraine’s most extravagant spender on political advertising. Tymoshenko brushed off accusations of populism, responding that populism simply means serving the people.

After the July 2019 presidential elections, in which Tymoshenko failed to qualify for the run-off, her party launched into the August elections for a new Supreme Council of Ukraine. At dissolution it had 21 deputies. Batkivshchyna ran on the same ‘New Course’ program, but with greater emphasis on prioritizing a response to global climate change and on specifying how social benefit payments would be increased. Some of its proposals were outside the jurisdiction of parliament and hence irrelevant; on others within it there was silence (e.g., anticorruption, human rights, infrastructure, decentralization, military veterans, electoral reform, information policy, law enforcement, and the courts). In the PR portion of the ballot the party improved its share of the vote to 8.2 percent, for 24 seats; but it obtained only 2 additional SMD seats (out of 199 in contest) for a grand total of 26. This seemed to indicate that Tymoshenko’s national appeal at the head of her party’s list was overwhelmingly greater than the Batkivshchyna party and its program as represented to the voting public by individual candidates in the simple-plurality districts. It confirmed that hers was more than ever a leader-centered party. For Batkivshchyna the only compensation was that it had edged out Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party, a source of considerable consternation for the latter.

On the eve of these latest parliamentary elections Yuliia Tymoshenko announced that Batkivshchyna would not form part of the opposition—hoping to participate in a governing coalition. Once the Supreme Council of Ukraine had been elected and was sitting, her party appeared to take a ‘wait and see’ attitude towards the 254-seat Servant of the People (Sluha narodu) majority controlled by President Volodymyr Zelensky, as though anticipating its disintegration and moving into the vacuum. This did not happen, despite a turbulent session with a novice cabinet and president. In November 2019, Tymoshenko announced Batkivshchyna’s shift into opposition, primarily over the issue of sale of farm land to which it was vehemently opposed. At the very end of the year a public opinion poll showed Batkivshchyna to have fallen in popularity since the election to 5.3 percent, on the verge of oblivion—or of yet another comeback. Its influence is slowly fading away, though, despite efforts of its leader to reinvent herself and her party.

Bohdan Harasymiw

[This article was written in 2020.]

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