Libertarians or libertarians in name only? “Servant of the People” wins Ukrainian elections

By Marcin Chmielowski

I am by no means an expert on Ukrainian politics. However, thanks to education and experience, I know something about libertarianism. Surprisingly, these two areas are linked together due to the quiet political revolution that took place in our eastern neighbors. Exit polls are showing that something unprecedented has happened. For the first time in history, parliamentary election in a large, populous country are won by political party which identifies itself as libertarian.

And it’s worth a comment.

What’s crucial, this victory took place in a country that is placed as 147th in 2019 Index of Economic Freedom prepared by Heritage Foundation. It’s a country, which economy is supposed to be less  free on the whole European continent and it’s currently defending itself from Russian armed aggression.

Certainly, this election’s result means a huge change in the two dimensions that I wrote above, and so in the Ukraine’s politics itself as well as in the libertarian movement, which may be able to capitalize this success. Due to my knowledge and interests, I will focus on the second aspect, although I will not run away from the brief commentary on Ukrainian matters. In this case, however, my voice is not the expert’s voice but only observer’s one.

Important remark for the beginning: the success of the Servant of the People should be seen as a breakdown of the popularity of President Volodymyr Zelensky – politician, who can be seen as reformist but who is definitely not a libertarian. It should be seen as de facto introducing until recently a purely virtual, structureless party to general public. We do not know yet whether the Servant of the People will enter into a coalition with someone but even if it will do it as a stronger side of the system. Even then, this success will have to be seen in the context of Zelensky’s personal popularity and the building of his own political backing.

The first clear and well-heard statement linking the Servant of the Nation with libertarianism was the one made in May by Ruslan Stefanchuk, under the decree of the presidential adviser Zełeński and his representative in the Verkhovna Rada. Stefanchuk then declared that the party chose libertarianism as its main ideology. These words were strengthened by Danylo Getmantsev, also a presidential adviser, but from tax matters. When describing the party, he announced that he would be in favor of “a clear liberal economy, minimal government involvement in business regulations.” “Liberal” in European sense of course. These words must arouse interest of the libertarian.

Let’s look at the party program. It consists of seventy-five points divided into sixteen areas. At first glance it is an extensive program. It touches on various issues related to the functioning of the state. Unfortunately, there is no information on how the party wants to achieve their goals, which alone reduces to the list only wishes. From the idea to the implementation is a long way and yes, a favorable president, a social mandate for change and probably also, as confirmed by the official election results, victory in the parliamentary elections can be treated as a security for the implementation of the plan included in the program. Unfortunately, some of its points are unclear and can be interpreted freely as possible thanks to the libertarian and market reforms, and even the opposite.

The Servant of the Nation’s program is, nonetheless, heterogeneous from a libertarian perspective. From the libertarian’s point of view, it consists of three distinct groups of postulates: pro-civic, pro-market and anti-market. If, therefore, the Servant of the Nation manages to achieve the intended goals, then in Ukraine the position of the citizen in relation to state power will be significantly strengthened. The immunity of the deputies is to be abolished and the mandate given to them by citizens is to become a binding mandate and give the opportunity to dismiss the representative during the term of office. Strengthen ordinary Ukrainians also have organized referendums, mechanisms to deal with corruption, judicial reform and decentralization of power.

Economically Ukraine should to start to develop faster. Of course only when Servant’s program will be introduced and introduced in a smart way. The industry is to be demonopolized, the investment conditions improved, the opening and closing of economic activities accelerated, and the state’s involvement in the economy is supposed to be reduced.

At the same time, however, the party’s program declares spending five percent of GDP on defense, compulsory health insurance, state support for innovative industries and the preservation of the social support system, with its simultaneous reconstruction. These are not libertarian postulates. Nevertheless Ukrainian citizens probably expect such solutions, they are also understandable from the point of view of the state’s existence itself. All the more so for the state in such a difficult situation as Ukraine.

A very large part of the postulates mentioned in the program eludes the coarse description above. Many of them simply cannot be qualified as libertarian-friendly or not. It shows the dispersion between the libertarian idea, variously expressed and quite capacious in meaning, and the political practice of preparing a document (and on the basis of its political message) that’s supposed to apply the existing state. So if I were to take off my libertarian glasses, I would see the Servant of the Nation’s program as a mix of anti-establishment, pro-western and pragmatic postulates. It is also a program with ideas based on the free market, entrepreneurship and self-organization as mechanisms to pull Ukraine out of the East and push it to the West. An association with the political and economic contemporary history of Georgia comes to mind, and perhaps this is a key clue given that Oleksandr Danyluk, secretary of the National Security Council and Defense of Ukraine, was a friend of the Kakha Bendukidze, a Georgian libertarian and reformer.

In that case is the Servant of the People a libertarian party at all? At the moment we may identify it as one, but the most important test is ahead of us. If we focus only on declarations, we would answer yes to this question. We could be less sure of this after reading a party program that, even if libertarianism in the party is genuine, must maneuver between what can be done, what should be done, and finally what one would like to do. However, we will not have certainty for some time yet, because practice will show the most. If, in the framework of the real politics created by the Servant of the People, Ukraine will seek to reduce the role of the state (also Russian) in the lives of its citizens, we will certainly be able to talk about the implementation of libertarian principles and being a true, not just self-declared libertarian party.

Libertarians as such have a huge problem with formulating programs that are currently realistic. We are good at describing the ills of the existing state and describing ideal scenarios. The least developed part of the reflection is the politically most important part: the construction of a political vehicle allowing us to move from “now” to “there.” Perhaps the Servant of the People program is a pragmatic response to this weakness, a response that today is still difficult to classify as right or wrong.

It is not a secret that I am personally very suspicious of libertarian political projects, usually classifying them as premature. Libertarian voters are necessary for a libertarian change, and these are yet to be obtained. As far as I know, there are Ukrainian libertarians, but certainly there are not so numerous to cause the victory of Servant of the People alone. The party won primarily by the votes of people wanting changes and chasing the West, and the term “libertarianism” probably is not familiar for the majority of voters. It could be similarly with the party representatives themselves in the Verkhovna Rada. The exit polls results predict the actual election result with greater or lesser accuracy, but this in the near future will be impersonated by the bodies of specific people who will sit in the parliament as the servants of the people. How many of them will be libertarians? How many of them will understand what libertarianism is? For how many of them it will be just some fashionable word? Yes, in a pessimistic scenario, the term “libertarianism” may be compromised and, consequently, the efforts of all libertarians, whether focused on politics or those working in the non-governmental sector, are hindered. This is probably the greatest risk from the point of view of the libertarians themselves. Of course, Ukrainians have much more to lose, in a situation in which they simply cannot afford a bad government.

It may also happen that, due to incoherent decisions taken in Ukraine, which will be labeled as libertarian, the very term “libertarianism” will expand to the size of supposedly ubiquitous “neoliberalism” and will become an insignificant term.

So much about the risks, but what about the chances? The obvious opportunity is to improve the lives of the Ukrainians themselves, who are most interested in positive changes in their country. If it can be done then libertarianism will gain a loud confirmation of being a political thought that actually works and is capable of pulling people out of poverty. The success achieved in Ukraine by the party declaring itself as libertarian in a very large but also very poor according to European standards country, can also help those libertarians who have never been in Ukraine. Like every movement, ours also needs successes that can later be shown as successful realizations of the best theories we can think of. Perhaps there will be a chance for that now.

The libertarian movement itself, but also in more general term, freedom movement, will have to be able to bear the burden of winning the Servant of the People. First and foremost, the Ukrainian libertarians themselves will have to learn how to wisely support their politicians and how to cooperate with them. But also how not to gibble them when they make anti-liberty decisions. Which can happen eventually. In a wider, transnational context, libertarians will have to observe the political practice in which the party declaring itself as “their” finally rules. And ruling may not be easy. Certainly, it will not resemble the postulates of more consistent theoreticians of our movement. Perhaps, however, we will have the opportunity to see as little rotten compromises as possible between “what is” and “what should be”.

Marcin Chmielowski since 2012 is vice-president of the Poland-based Fundacja Wolności i Przedsiębiorczości (Freedom and Entrepreneurship Foundation), educational think-tank focused on promoting libertarian agenda. Marcin holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy and an M.A. in political science, and he has a postgraduate diploma in central banking. He is the author of one book and many papers concentrated on the theory and practice of libertarianism. Experienced in managing third sector institutions, Dr. Chmielowski is a liberty-oriented columnist, commentator, and screenwriter