Focus: Ukraine program targets youth vote via town hall meetings
by Khristina Lew
Ukrainian Congress Committee of America
LUHANSK, Ukraine - Two thousand young people packed an athletic hall in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk on March 7 to meet with five representatives of political parties and blocs at a town hall meeting organized by the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America's Focus: Ukraine program. The Luhansk gathering was the third in a series of town hall meetings scheduled for central, eastern and southern Ukraine.
The one-hour meeting was held in the Lehkoatletyka Manezh gym prior to a rock-the-vote-type music festival organized by the Chervona Ruta Music Festival production company. The music festival featured 17 bands and solo artists who were laureates of the 1997 Chervona Ruta Festival in the rock, pop, rap, hip-hop and folk categories, such as Avtentychne Zhyttia (Authentic Life), Katya Chili and So.
Political parties and blocs participating in the Luhansk meeting included the National Front, the Social-Liberal Union bloc, Rukh, the Reform and Order Party, and the Spiritual, Economic and Social Progress of Ukraine Party.
The public meetings are choreographed to appeal to Ukraine's youngest voters and do not follow a traditional town hall format. While representatives of political parties and blocs are given an opportunity to discuss their political platforms and answer the audience's questions, the actual meetings evoke a game show atmosphere. At the beginning of each meeting, members of the audience receive colorful "Voter's Rights" brochures and cards, which they fill out during the course of the meeting giving their names, seat numbers and a questions to the party or bloc representative.
The masters of ceremonies for both the meetings and the music festivals, Sashko Polozhynskii and Serhii Kharynovych, then invite the party representatives on stage. The representatives arrive disguised, wearing identical pairs of sunglasses, in order to encourage the audience to figure out who they are and what party they represent as they introduce themselves to the audience by describing their party in three words.
As the cards with questions make their way up onto the stage, the masters of ceremonies give each party representative a concert poster and ask them to quickly sketch their vision for the future of Ukraine. Typically, representatives draw flowers, the sun, their party logos, etc. These drawings are then autographed and presented to the young people who ask the best questions.
During the 30-minute question-and-answer component of the town hall meeting, each party representative takes his or her turn at responding to questions, which range from the light-hearted - "How many states are in America?" and "Do you like to dance?" - to the serious - "Will there be order in our country, and what is needed to achieve this?" and "Is it more important to be popular or to have people trust you?" In the spirit of the meeting, on two occasions, party representatives danced on stage.
The young people who ask the best questions are invited on stage and presented with the concert posters. One young person with the best question, as determined by audience applause, is presented with a grand prize, a Philips audio cassette player. Following the presentation of the grand prize, the party representatives remove their sunglasses and introduce themselves to the audience.
"We are amazed at how readily Ukraine's youth is willing to participate in a political discourse, given that they come primarily to listen to contemporary music," said Tamara Gallo, Focus: Ukraine project manager. "Not only are their questions insightful, but they literally run down the aisles to deliver them to the masters of ceremonies. We can only hope that our town hall meetings will encourage them to participate this actively in the March 29 parliamentary elections."
Of Ukraine's youth, only 38 percent stated that they will "absolutely vote," according to a poll conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation in mid-February.
The first town hall meeting, which was held in Sumy on February 25 at the Shepkin Theater, attracted 1,000 young people and representatives of seven political parties and blocs: the Party of Regional Rebirth in Ukraine, the European Choice of Ukraine bloc, the Social-Liberal Union bloc, Rukh, the National Democratic Party, the For Truth, For the People, For Ukraine bloc, and the Reform and Order Party.
The second town hall meeting, held in the smaller Ltava Hall in Poltava on February 27, attracted 700 young people and eight representatives of political parties and blocs: the Labor Party and Liberal Party Together bloc, the Ukrainian National Assembly, the Forward Ukraine bloc, the National Front, the Social-Liberal Union bloc, Rukh, the Christian Democratic Party of Ukraine, and the Reform and Order Party.
The remaining four town hall meetings were scheduled to take place in Kherson on March 12, Mykolaiv on March 15, Odesa on March 17 and Kyiv on March 27. Focus: Ukraine personnel have invited all 30 registered political parties and blocs to participate. Only the Communist Party of Ukraine and the Green Party of Ukraine have declined outright, citing their own programs aimed at attracting the youth vote.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, March 15, 1998, No. 11, Vol. LXVI
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