The young candidate in Ukraine’s presidential race may not be the candidate of the young.
Arseniy Yatseniuk, only 35 years old, and touted as the fresh face in Ukrainian politics, doesn’t seem to have caught the fancy yet of younger voters.
If the former Verkhovna Rada speaker doesn’t find a way to change minds, his candidacy could be doomed. Neither he nor representatives of his political campaign were available for comment for this story.
Given dissatisfaction with the established leaders, now would seem to be the time for Yatseniuk to make a breakthrough.
Public opinion polls show that Ukrainian voters are tired of the three feuding politicians who have dominated politics since the 2004 Orange Revolution: President Victor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and ex-Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych. They are also candidates for president.
Not only has this trio’s infighting – and inability to stop Ukraine’s endemic corruption -- turned off people, they are also too battle-hardened and too far into middle age to present themselves as “fresh faces.” The youngest of the three is Tymoshenko – and she’s almost 50.
But if recent polls are correct, Yatseniuk has failed to capitalize on the youth vote – including some two million new voters who will reach the age of 18 by the election.
A recent poll by the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv think tank shows, that Yatseniuk has less support from younger voters (12 percent) than Yanukovych (24 percent) and Tymoshenko (14 percent).
If he fails to get the youth vote on board, his chances of capturing the presidential seat appear slim. And they are getting slimmer each day, according to polls, which show that Yatseniuk’s popularity may have peaked after a sharp surge in support detected early in 2009.
However, the race appears to be still wide open. With most people counting out Yushchenko, Yatseniuk has ranked in third place among all voters with about 12 percent, with Yanukovych in front at more than 20 percent and Tymoshenko not far behind him.
“Yatseniuk has stopped rising in polls and if he doesn’t present a concrete program and show who is in his team, he will lose votes of youth supporting him in favor of Tymoshenko,” said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.
Political analyst Taras Berezovets said the “youth are the most critical group of voters” if they decide to show up, but have shown themselves to be traditionally “less active, often not coming to the polls at all.”
“Turnout will be important in these elections,” said Fesenko, adding that the traditional 2004 Orange Revolution electorate is packed with youth and is seen as leaning towards either Tymoshenko or Yatseniuk. If they are less active because of their disgust with all the rivalries within the Orange camp, “then this will play into the hands of Yanukovych,” whose party has a tradition of rallying up its voter base in big elections, Fesenko said.
Asked why Yatseniuk has failed to rally young voters, Fesenko blaimed the candidate’s inability to present a clear-cut program and team. “If he thinks that youth will support him for no particular reason, just because he too is young, this is his big mistake,” Fesenko said.
Still, much can change between now and Jan. 17.
And experts say that, while older people are more consistent voters, young people could still tilt the outcome.
Berezovets predicted that the youth will choose a candidate favored in their region, and not make the choice by age. If that’s the case, Yanukovych will do well – with young and old – in eastern and southern – Ukraine. That leaves Tymoshenko and Yatseniuk scrapping for votes in central and western Ukraine.
With so much at stake and in their hands, the Kyiv Post decided to talk to several 18-year-olds to get their take on the political scene and coming election campaign.
Their answers suggested that Ukraine’s youth remain divided along geographical lines, along with all voters.
“When Yankovych was prime minister, the situation was more stable in material welfare terms,” said Denys Karnelyuk, a Donetsk resident. “Material welfare is most important.” Karnelyuk said the majority of people whom he knows in Donetsk share the same opinion.
“I will vote for Yatseniuk,” Kyrylo Katyshev from Ostrih in Rivne Oblast said. “He met with the students of my university; he seemed smart, open and independent. And he is a young politician”.
“Yatseniuk is a good specialist in economics and law. We need such a president to resist economic crisis in the country,” said Kateryna Romanyuk from Kyiv. Another reason why Romanyuk is going to support Yatseniuk in the elections, she said, is that he seems to be tolerant both to Russian-speaking east and Ukrainian-speaking west Ukraine and capable of uniting the nation.
Tymoshenko is popular among those who pay attention mainly to a politician’s personality. “I will vote for Tymoshenko,” Daryna Sokolova said. “I like the way she holds on strong to her opinions and reaches her goals.”
Lyudmyla Kudina is the head of Molodizhna Alternatyva youth organization. It organizes internships for students interested in going into politics and government service. She said that most young people that she knows favor Yatseniuk.
But others say that Yatseniuk needs to show he is different from the others. “All the information I receive from mass media shows that each of the presidential candidates was involved in something illegal directly, or via people from within their political camps,” said 18-year-old Iryna Bondar, who may vote against all.
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