Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the “Iron Lady of Ukraine,” is starting to show signs of rust.
Her commanding ruling style, which has helped her create a strong political party nationally, is now turning off some of those supporters.
Some allies are starting to jump ship. However, such shifting alliances are not unique to the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, as other political parties have also seen defections in recent months.
But the recent exodus within Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) camp signals that the prime minister’s chances of becoming Ukraine’s next president are not as strong as they used to be. The lingering economic recession and her authoritarian style of rule are slowly eating away at support, insiders say.
“Batkivshchyna is not like a party, but more like a religious sect with a goddess, several apostles and average believers who have to agree with all decisions and carry out all orders even if they have a different point of view,” said political consultant Dmytro Vydrin, who quit Tymoshenko’s bloc in 2007 after a one-year stint. Vydrin is now deputy chief of the National Security and Defense Council.
Tymoshenko’s recent attempt to form an alliance with a former arch-enemy, the Party of the Regions, and to change the constitution to elect the president in parliament – not by popular vote – angered many of her allies. The failed coalition talks became another reason for defection.
Former Transportation Minister Yosyp Vinsky, who resigned on June 17, cited political disagreements as his reason. “The major main conflict was of a political kind. I never was for an alliance with Party of Regions,” Vinsky told Focus magazine. He, along with two other colleagues, also quit their membership in Batkivshchyna, the main party of Tymoshenko’s bloc.
Tymoshenko, in turn, scolded Vinsky publicly for spending Hr 15 million of government money to promote himself before the presidential election set for Jan. 17, 2010. Vinsky said her accusations were an attempt to “massacre a political opponent.”
Vinsky had joined Tymoshenko-led Batkivshchyna after quitting the Socialist Party in 2007 when the latter formed a parliamentary coalition with the Communists and the Party of Regions. He quickly became a member of the prime minster’s core team.
Two parliament members, Volodymyr Kapliyenko and Hennadiy Zadyrko, followed him when he quit and pledged to form a new party together for the 2012 parliamentary elections. In their letter of resignation, they said Tymoshenko’s autocratic style of rule and “the leader’s unethical treatment of party members” were reasons for their resignation.
But those still loyal and influential within the political group, including 150-plus lawmakers, dismiss the problem.
“I never felt any pressure during decision-making,” said Andriy Portnov, a parliament deputy from Tymoshenko’s bloc and a member of her inner circle. “Some people leave the party if they disagree with its position. Others join it. It is a normal process,” Portnov added.
Valeriy Pysarenko, a 28-year-old rising star in Tymoshenko’s parliament faction, says party plans are debated before decisions are taken. The majority of party members usually support the leader because she remains a great influence on them and is trusted by her allies. A case in point occurred in June, when a large share of party members openly opposed plans to form a coalition with the Regions Party and change the constitution.
But Kapliyenko said many party members are usually “afraid to demonstrate their own position and object to party decisions, if they have something to lose.” He said the usual punishment is dismissal from top positions in the party hierarchy and even the loss of party membership. Disloyal party members can be removed from local councils.
Several local leaders in Donetsk Oblast were dismissed recently after they disagreed with the idea of an alliance with the Party of Regions, said Vadym Shorikov, a former party activist from Mariupol, in eastern Ukraine. “It’s a violation of the party’s program and party statutes, and treason of voters,” Zadyrko added.
Kapliyenko predicts that the slow-boiling party conflict will eventually spell doom for Tymoshenko’s political career.
The recent resignation of the transport minister and two of his loyalists is seen as the start of what could turn out to be a large-scale erosion of her support.
Several local leaders in Donetsk resigned on June 25, as well as a quarter of the 200 members of the party’s nucleus in Mariupol. In the middle of June, several activists left the party nucleus in Luhansk. Oleksandr Zasetskiy, former deputy head of Batkivshchyna in Mariupol, said the same is happening in other parts of the country.
Some of Tymoshenko’s former activists from the regions have now pledged their allegiance to former Speaker Arseniy Yatseniuk, seen as a fresh face with a strong chance of being elected Ukraine’s next president. Many think the mass exodus is due to the prime minster’s dwindling electoral support.
According to polls in recent months, Regions Party leader Victor Yanukovych is ahead in the presidential race with more than 30 percent support, while Tymoshenko’s rating has dwindled gradually while serving as premier, to about 20 percent. Yatseniuk has been gaining support and trails just behind Tymoshenko, within striking distance of the presidency.
But political analysts say writing Tymoshenko off is premature. With more than 520 regional branch offices, her party network is considered one of the biggest in the country. “They hope to be the party in power if Tymoshenko wins the presidency,” said Taras Berezovets, director of Politech political consulting company.
But to reach the goal, resignations will have to stop, said political analyst Vadym Karasyov. “The worst-case scenario for her will be if she loses the presidential election and the new president forms the majority in parliament against her.”
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