Eight months ago, during the most violent days of Ukraine’s pro-European uprising, the presence of neo-Nazi militants on the streets suggested that the country’s future could disastrously fall into the hands of the extreme right.
But as Ukrainians voted on Sunday in the first parliamentary elections since the ouster of former Pres. Viktor Yanukovych, the far right vote under-performed and fractured, according to exit polls.
If the final results match, it means the liberal pro-European party of Pres. Petro Poroshenko will emerge as the winner. [See update below.]
According to exit polls, the ultra-nationalist party Svoboda captured around six percent of the vote—a drop of more than four points since a high of 10.44 percent in 2012.
Ukraine’s other two extreme right parties, the Right Sector and the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, took in around two percent and 0.1 percent of the vote, respectively. These last two parties are below the threshold needed to enter parliament.
The liberal Petro Poroshenko Bloc took in around 23 percent of the vote, with the conservative People’s Front emerging with around 21 percent.
Which is interesting, considering the crisis Ukraine is in, and which one would expect to benefit the far right. The country’s economy is a mess. An invading foreign power has annexed Crimea. The war in eastern Ukraine is still going on—with ongoing attacks against the government-held airport in Donetsk by pro-Russian separatists armed with tanks and artillery.
The uprising against Yanukovych—which precipitated his ouster and an all-but-official war with Russia—included a prominent far-right contingent. So in Sunday’s election, we’d think the far right would play a major role. There’s the ultra-nationalist Svoboda party. There’s the militant Right Sector. And there’s the luridly extreme Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists.
All of these parties exist in the perfect environment for capitalizing on people’s fears. But there are several factors working against them.
“Svoboda’s relative failure to mobilize its former electorate can be attributed to the demise of former president Viktor Yanukovych’s regime,” blogged Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on the far right in eastern Europe who has contributed to War Is Boring.
“Svoboda was successful in 2012 because it was considered an anti-Yanukovych party, so with Yanukovych ousted, almost half of Svoboda’s electorate was gone too.”
The party is also lucky it only got six percent. Many in Ukraine’s war-torn eastern region were unable to vote in this election. Nor did Crimea vote—as it’s annexed to Russia. These regions traditionally don’t vote for the Ukrainian nationalist right wing. Had these voters been able to in significant numbers, “Svoboda’s results would have been even worse,” he writes.
Another reason could be the lack of any single issue to monopolize. Far right parties around the world position themselves as the only force that can hold off threats to their respective countries. But holding off Russia is also shared by the mainstream, pro-European popular parties.
This undercuts the far right’s ability to manipulate the Ukraine’s patriotic feeling to its benefit. As an illustration, this army advertisement below captures the mood that Ukrainians are all in it together.
But it’s not exactly clear where Svoboda’s voters went. Which leads to an important caveat.
Shekhovtsov suspects one possibility is that Svoboda voters turned to the right-wing populist Ukrainian Radical Party, which captured around seven percent of the vote and will enter parliament. This party is a “dangerously populist and anti-establishment force,” he writes.
The Radical Party is ideologically different in some important respects from Svoboda—the Radical Party fuses nationalism with agrarian populism and eschews Nazi symbolism. But don’t be fooled. It’s still bad news.
The party’s thuggish leader, Oleh Lyashko, supports a hard line against “traitors” and has his own volunteer battalion. He’s promoted himself in videos where he personally interrogated purported separatists.
That means the far right is not a spent force. The extreme-right Azov Battalion—which has ties to Lyashko—is also engaged in the war without Kiev appearing to do much to stop it. But the good news is that the ultra-nationalists now appears to be a more divided and fractured force than it used to be.
Update Oct. 27: With more than 77 percent of the vote counted, the conservative People’s Front is in the lead with 21.95 percent—a slight advantage over the Petro Poroshenko Bloc at 21.54 percent. The results are available at the Ukrainian Central Election Commission.
As far as ultra-nationalist parties go, Svoboda performed below exit polls and is now at 4.73 percent and holding. That’s below the five percent threshold needed to enter parliament. Implosion. This represents the party’s core constituencies—in other words, those who will vote for Svoboda no matter what. The Right Sector is pulling in 1.83 percent of the vote. The Radical Party is at 7.4 percent.
Fifty-two percent of Ukrainians turned out to vote.