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The Semi-Secret Story of Servant of the People Party’s Election Victory
12 August, 2019
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Head of the Servant of the People party electoral headquarters Oleksandr Korniyenko (left) and party leader Dmytro Razumkov during a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine on May 27, 2019 EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
A group of 30 political technologists led by former business coach Artem Mykhaylyuk helped Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party get the largest faction in the history of the Ukrainian parliament. Who are they and what methods did they use? Hromadske explains.

Weapons against "feudal lords"

Servant of the People candidates won in 130 out of 199 districts. That’s a record for parliamentary elections. For comparison, in 2012, Party of Regions won in 114 districts, and in 2014, Petro Poroshenko Bloc won in 69. 

Even the leaders of the presidential party did not expect this result. On election day, party leader Dmytro Razumkov told Hromadske that he would consider victory in 70-80 majoritarian districts acceptable.

Razumkov’s cautiousness is understandable because the overwhelming majority of Servant of the People candidates did not have political experience and had to find funding for the election campaign themselves. In the districts they had to compete with experienced MPs from previous convocations. The Ze!Team called these rivals “feudal lords”.

To face-off with them a plan was developed. “We have a network of consultant technologists. This is a semi-secret story. No one knows who they are. We can’t ‘expose’ them,” head of the party's electoral headquarters Oleksandr Korniyenko told Hromadske a week before the election.

READ MORE: Second Wave: What Does Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party Promise to Ukraine?

According to him, the technologists were assigned to regions and they advised majoritarian candidates: they taught them how to speak to voters, selected members of election commissions, and sometimes they themselves headed the candidate’s election headquarters.

Korniyenko came up with a name for them: commissars. “This is somewhat old school terminology, it comes from the Soviet era,” he explained.

University Friends

Korniyenko thought up the term ‘commissars’ with his university friend, Mikhaylyuk, at the start of the election campaign. 

In the early 2000s, they both studied at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. Both participated in student self-government and after university earned money as business trainers. Mikhaylyuk, first and foremost, is known as the creator and head of the Helsi.me service, which helps Ukrainians find a doctor.

In addition to their main jobs, the friends worked as consultants in the elections, although never higher than at a local campaign level. Korniyenko joined Zelenskyy’s team during the presidential elections, coordinating the work of Ze!Team volunteers. During the parliamentary elections, Zelenskyy entrusted him to run the Servant of the People party headquarters.

Korniyenko then encouraged Mikhaylyuk to join the campaign.

“We understood that most of the single-member constituency candidates never had anything to do with elections. They needed some kind of methodological help, advice, tips. My task was to form a team that could help them,” said Mikhaylyuk.

READ MORE: Businessmen, Volunteers and Kolomoisky’s People Within Servant of the People

That’s how a group of technologists appeared at the Servants of the People party headquarters. It consisted of Mikhaylyuk and two of his colleagues, whom he wouldn’t name. There were 25 ‘commissars’ under their command. They were assigned to certain regions and, according to Mikhaylyuk, had four functions: to tell candidates what needs to be done, what shouldn’t be done, how it’s done and to give feedback. 

Korniyenko and Mikhaylyuk would not disclose the names of the ‘commissars’, explaining that the latter don’t want publicity.

“These are Ukrainian specialists that work on, let’s say, different election campaigns. And they volunteered to help,” said Korniyenko.

Creator and head of the Helsi.me service Artem Mykhaylyuk, Kyiv, November 15, 2017. Photo: Helsi.me

Control and Advice

Oleksandr Gingizov was a ‘commissar’ in the Luhansk region. Like the rest of his colleagues, he had prior political experience but at a regional level.

Gingizov, who hails from the northern Ukrainian town of Zhytomyr, was previously a member of the Batkivshchyna party and in 2012 ran for regional council as a representative of Vitali Klitschko’s Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform ("UDAR") party. In 2015, he headed the regional branch of the Right Sector. But in this year’s parliamentary elections he could not use former acquaintances to his advantage because he was sent to the Donbas.

“Basically, we asked people to go to areas where they never worked. It stopped some. We wanted to protect ourselves as much as possible from any other influences and connections,” Mikhaylyuk explained. 

Gingizov was the only ‘commissar’ who agreed to speak with Hromadske. 

“I was a representative of the central headquarters in the region. I monitored everything so that it was in compliance with the law, both on our side and on our opponent’s side  as much as possible,” he said.

He doesn’t go into details, only recalling that one of his tasks was to propose “how to solve this or that issue, given its specifics.” 

Gingizov cannot boast a successful result – Servant of the People only won in one of the six constituencies in the Luhansk region.

In the Odesa region, it won 11 constituencies. Given the local specifics, three separate campaigns were conducted here: in the slightly urbanized northern districts, districts in the city of Odesa, and Bessarabia. 

Therefore, two ‘commissars’ worked in the Odesa region. According to Vitaliy Druganovskiy, the Chernivtsi region headquarters leader, they first planned to appoint one ‘commissars’ to several regions.

Andrey Prokopenko, head of Odesa’s regional headquarters, says that he developed and managed the general strategy of the campaign in the region, and the ‘commissars’ worked with the single-member constituency candidates. 

“They cruised around candidate headquarters. Today they’d go to one, tomorrow to another. They were also engaged in special projects. For example, they solved the question of how to campaign in the Bulgarian villages in the south of the region in order to take into account their specific characteristics,” said Prokopenko.

So, for example, a ‘commissar’ advised a candidate to get the opinion leaders of the Bulgarian community involved and prepare special booklets.

The coordination of work between regional headquarters and ‘commissars’ differed from region to region. In Odesa, the partnership was equal since Prokopenko himself is an experienced political technologist. 

In the northern Sumy region, where the headquarters leader did not have much experience in election campaigns, the ‘commissar’ had the control.

According to Mikhaylyuk’s estimates, only 20 out of 199 candidates rejected the ‘commissars'’ help or barely listened to them.

Future Servant of the People MPs themselves don’t give away much about the work of the technologists.

Dmytro Kostyuk, who won in the 65th constituency in the Zhytomyr region, notes that the key task of the ‘commissar’ in his area was to ensure that the candidates themselves did not commit wrongdoings. 

“So that everything was transparent in terms of financing, that candidates had no obligations to anyone, etc. That’s my interpretation of this person’s mission, I don’t know how it was in other regions,” said Kostyuk.

Oleksandr Gingizov during a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 20, 2018. Photo: Ratinsky Vyacheslav/UNIAN

Counterattack of the Clones

One Mikhaylyuk’s tasks was to fight the ‘clones’ (technical candidates who take away votes from the main rival by having a similar name and surname).

Servant of the People estimated that ‘clones’ were put up against them in 54 out of 199 districts – there were 80 of them in all and they collected 200,000 votes. That’s more than former Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko’s Civil Position party got in the elections. 

Mikhaylyuk is convinced that the ‘clones’ could have gotten a much larger result. He says they fought them with counter-technology: “Find a real candidate from Servant of the People”. Furthermore, at the headquarters, they made videos and leaflets urging people to vote for the party on two ballots (party lists and constituency).

The universal advice that the technology group gave absolutely all constituency candidates was that at the beginning of the campaign all candidates from the region should hold a joint press conference. After all, if this is done in the regional center immediately after candidate names are announced, then there is no need to make special efforts to gather media.

“This is not mega-technology, this is a series of tips. And in different regions they did it differently. In Odesa, candidates came to the press conference by bicycle. This didn’t affect the press conference itself, but it gave them an opportunity to shoot a beautiful video and upload it online, where it was actively distributed. In Mykolaiv, a press conference was held on the pier,” Mikhaylyuk recalls.

Finding a non-standard way of personifying universal advise from the headquarters was one of the main tasks for the ‘commissars’.

Another piece of advice was to challenge competitors to a debate. That was also viewed as a way of getting media coverage. 

The digital team run by Mykhailo Fedorov (pictured) helped and advised candidates on what to do on social networks. Photo: Bohdan Kutiepov/Hromadske

Criteria for Success

How much did the technology group and the ‘commissars’ contribute to the success of Servant of the People in constituencies?

“It was the synergy of different groups. And you can’t determine the contribution of each. There are candidates who came and said: thanks to the fact that your consultant invested a lot of time in me, I won,” said Mikhaylyuk. 

He said in addition to the technology group, a group of lawyers also worked in the central headquarters, so the candidates had the opportunity to call and get legal advice. The digital team run by Mykhailo Fedorov helped and advised candidates on what to do on social networks, while a media group led by Tatyana Tsyba advised on how to develop a line of communication with the press.

How much did the 'commissars’' services cost Servant of the People? Korniyenko assures that they worked as volunteers.

“It was a calling for people. A person was involved in local elections and led one constituency. Here, he was responsible for a region. The next time he takes part in the elections as a political consultant, he will have a higher position,” said Mikhaylyuk. 

He adds that the ‘commissars’ worked a little over a month, so for the sake of future prospects they could afford to help the Servant of the People party on a volunteer basis.

As a result, consultants who agreed to work in the technology group and as ‘commissars’ really did gain unique experience.

The Servants of the People party campaign was unique in that political consultants did not have to figure out how to bribe voters or wage a dirty campaign against a competitor. Instead, they needed to ensure that candidates remained as clean as possible. In fact, in order to win, they just had to avoid discrediting themselves during the campaign. 

In the wake of the election, Korniyenko and Mikhaylyuk may find themselves on different paths. The former got into parliament as number seven on the party list, while the latter remained on the margin – he was number 142 on the list. 

READ MORE: Zelenskyy’s Head Digital Marketer on Their Winning Election Campaign

/By Maxim Kamenev, Sashko Shevchenko and Vasyl Pekhno

/Translated by Natalie Vikhrov