KIEV, Ukraine -- President Viktor Yanukovych’s approval rating has plunged by double-digits as voters have balked at tough austerity measures adopted by his ruling coalition.
After accepting tough austerity measures in return for a $15 billion International Monetary Fund bailout, President Viktor Yanukovych’s popularity has plunged. With voters feeling the pinch of higher gas prices, his popularity could dive further if the cost of bread rises more amid surging global grain prices.
What will Yanukovych do to preserve his coalition’s strong grip on power? Will he win back voters by delivering reforms? Or will he trample on democracy, grabbing power long term as Vladimir Putin did in Russia?
Yanukovych’s popularity suffered a double-digit plunge, according to an August opinion poll, as voters balked at tough austerity measures adopted by his ruling coalition in return for badly needed loans from the International Monetary Fund.
The nationwide poll, conducted by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center Aug. 10-14, found that 22.5 percent of Ukrainians completely supported Yanukovych in August, down from 39.7 percent in May and 40.9 percent in April. According to the poll, 38.7 percent of those surveyed support some of his actions, while 33.3 percent don’t support him.
During Ukrainian Independence Day celebrations on Aug. 24, Yanukovych pledged to pursue reforms, even “unpopular” ones, and preserve democracy.
But some observers say the Donetsk strongman could tighten his grip on the country’s media and employ other authoritarian measures to quell rising popular dissent against the austerity measures, which include higher gas prices and retirement ages.
Yanukovych took office in February with less than 49 percent of the popular vote, banishing the compromised heroes of Ukraine’s 2004 democratic revolution by a paper-thin margin.
His approval rating jumped soon afterward, amid promises that he would set the country on a more prosperous track. But with local elections scheduled for Oct. 31, the latest poll figures make for grim reading for the president and his Regions party.
Popular support of the party, a core element of the president’s ruling parliamentary coalition, has also sunk, according to the Razumkov poll, from 41 percent in May to 27 percent this month.
In May, almost 50 percent of Ukrainians also believed that Yanukovych was guided by national interests, with only 30 percent believing that he gave priority to personal or party interests. Now the figures have been reversed, with some 48 percent of Ukrainians suspecting Yanukovych of putting himself and Regions above the nation.
Pollsters had predicted that, following the post-election honeymoon period, Yanukovych would see a dip in his voter support ratings, according to Iryna Bekeshkina, acting director of the Kyiv Democratic Initiatives Foundation.
Experts at Razumkov said the 14.5 percent plunge for Yanukovych picked up in their poll was partially due to the president’s decision to prolong the stay of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet at a Crimean port, as well as his implementation of unpopular economic reforms.
Experts said cash-strapped citizens are most upset that Yanukovych, who pledged not to raise utility prices while campaigning for president last year, agreed to raise natural gas prices for households by 50 percent effective Aug. 1.
Badly in need of cash from the IMF to plug gaping budget holes, Yanukovych also agreed to gradually raise the pension age for women by five years over the next decade.
But his popularity rating could touch even lower depths if prices for the nation’s staple foods, starting with bread, continue to increase in response to poor harvests in the Black Sea region from this summer’s heat wave.
Moreover, the effect of increased gas prices, instituted at the beginning of the month, have yet to hit home in the form of utility higher bills. Heating bills peak in winter.
“I think Yanukovych's approval rating might plummet, but only to about 20 percent [from the current 27 percent] because his electorate does not have many alternatives,” Bekeshkina said.
Yevhen Kopatko, head of the Kyiv-based Research&Branding Group, which is widely believed to enjoy warm relations with Yanukovych and his party, said it’s too early to say whether the president’s ratings are in decline.
According to him, only in September, when the political season starts, will it be possible to determine whether the Razumkov poll indicates a clear-cut trend. Kopatko acknowledged, however, that the unpopular measures pushed forward by Yanukovych will negatively reflect his popular support.
“It depends not only on the decrease in living standards but also on how all these changes are presented to the public through propaganda on TV,” said Valeriy Khmelko of the Kyiv International Sociological Institute.
Yanukovych himself recently announced that he would soon begin touring Ukraine to explain to people why the austerity measures are so badly needed by the country. Some analysts interpret this announcement as an attempt by the president to preserve voter support ahead of local election scheduled for Oct. 31.
Bekeshkina believes this to be the only way out for Yanukovych to avoid falling sharply further in poll ratings. “Another option for Yanukovych would be to show that the austerity measures are being shouldered not only by the poor, but he failed to deliver on this by not cutting the pensions of former high-ranking officials,” she said.
Instead, he could try to tighten the screws in order to boost his power, a trend some analysts already detect.
The new law on local elections, adopted by Yanukovych’s ruling coalition this summer, severely limits competition by preventing parties formed less than a year ago as well as independent candidates from participating. Some believe that Yanukovych’s dominant ruling coalition is also not above browbeating the country’s media into submission.
“His administration may try to take full control of the national TV channels, which are still largely unconsolidated in support of the current administration,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of Kyiv Gorshenin Institute of Management Issues, a Kyiv-based think tank. “Yanukovych may now be tempted to use authoritarian methods,” he added.
Oleksiy Haran, the director of the School of Political Analysis at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said that Yanukovych is likely to tighten his grip on the country’s media in tandem with the use of some carrots. “In order to secure his powers, Yanukovych will keep promising people some social benefits, partially following up on such promises, while backtracking on other unpopular measures such as the tax code,” he said.
Regarding the upcoming elections, the president can be expected to use so-called administrative resources to help candidates whom he supports while hampering his opponents' chances, Fesenko said. Similar tactics were initially used by Russia’s Vladimir Putin in his building a managed democracy, Fesenko recalled.
Yet authoritarian measures alone are not enough to improve Yanukovych’s hold on power, according to Fesenko. “In Russia, broad public support was secured by huge revenues from rising oil and gas prices.” In the mean time, Yanukovych has called for an emergency session of parliament at the end of August.
He now seems to be pushing for the election law his coalition adopted this summer to be amended, supposedly to cancel clauses that undermine the chances of opposition parties.
“Yanukovych's proposal to introduce changes into the election law is driven by the drop in his approval ratings,” Bekeshkina said. “This is aimed at bringing in more parties to scatter the opposition.”
Other experts expect the president to also propose generous social packages to soothe public dissent.