Ukraine’s Presidential Elections: New Cycle, Same Names

Election campaign leaflet with images of Yulia Tymoshenko and Petro Poroshenko.

BY MYKHAILO MINAKOV

After a complex campaign marked by occasional violence and voter anxiety over the economy and the war in the East, and replete with “kompromat” leaks and mounting suspicions, the actual voting and tabulation of the first round of votes for Ukraine’s next president passed in almost exemplary fashion. The OSCE/ODIHR mission, the EU, and NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly praised the quality of the first round of voting, mentioned some legal issues, and expressed hope that the second round would be up to the same standards as the first.

Results

As announced by Ukraine’s Central Electoral Commission (CEC), with more than 99 percent of votes counted, it appears that more than 62 percent of Ukrainians voters, or more than 18.6 million people, officially expressed their support for one of thirty-nine presidential candidates. This relatively high turnout is not unusual: after the Euromaidan in 2014, 59 percent of voters participated in the presidential elections. More than 67 percent had done so in 2010, and more than 70 percent on the eve of the Orange Revolution in 2004. Although pollsters had expected more than 80 percent of the electorate to actively participate in the first round of this year’s presidential elections, the gap between intended and actual participation is also par for the course.

On March 31, Ukrainians chose two politicians to compete for the post of president; a runoff will be necessary because neither achieved a majority. In one of the most surprising developments of the past few months, the businessman and actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy surged in the polls, ultimately receiving more than 30 percent of votes cast (almost 5.6 million ballots). President Petro Poroshenko, at 15.95 percent (3 million ballots), got just over half the votes of his principal competitor. The outcome of their struggle over the next three weeks will determine who will lead Ukraine for the next five years.

Yulia Tymoshenko, who was on roughly equal standing with Poroshenko in the most recent pre-election poll, fell back 2.5 percentage points from the incumbent in actual voting. Her failure to make a stronger showing in the polls owes in part to the unexpected popularity of Igor Smeshko, ex-chief of Ukraine’s security services. Smeshko received 6 percent of votes cast, taking approximately half from Tymoshenko and the other half from Anatolii Hrytsenko’s traditional electorate.

The Opposition Bloc, the remnant of the Party of Regions, which is supported mainly by traditional voters in the East, was divided between two candidates, Yurii Boyko and Oleksandr Vilkul. Together, Boyko (11.7 percent, or 2.2 million votes) and Vilkul (4.1 percent, or 782,000 votes) received approximately the same support as Petro Poroshenko did. Had their sponsors, Viktor Medvedchuk and Rinat Akhmetov, been able to avoid conflict, the former “regionnaires” might well have ended up in the second round. However, their divisiveness and competition led many eastern Ukraine voters to turn their sights toward Zelenskiy.

What to Expect in the Second Round

The final vote to determine Ukraine’s next president is scheduled for April 21. Judging from Petro Poroshenko’s initial reaction to national exit poll results after the March 31 vote, the next round of campaigning will be even more rancorous and personalized. For example, Poroshenko has called Zelenskiy “Kolomoysky’s puppet,” stressing the showman-candidate’s alleged connection to the famous oligarch. Zelenskiy lost no time in calling the president “Svynarchuk’s puppet,” referring to Poroshenko’s business partner, who has recently been accused of corrupt activities connected to military procurements. If the debate continues at this level, the campaign promises to be quite meaningless.

Zelenskiy has shown himself to be a unique candidate who managed to erase the curse of Ukraine’s electoral East-West divide. According to CEC data, Zelenskiy won in nineteen (out of twenty-five) oblasts and in Kyiv. Petro Poroshenko won in two western Ukraine oblasts, Tymoshenko in one oblast of the same region, and Yurii Boyko got majority support in the controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. But Zelenskiy achieved respectable to good results in all those communities and regions.

Being ideologically neutral and vague on policy matters, Zelenskiy seems to attract equally Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking voters, urban dwellers and small-town residents. Representative of a younger generation of Ukrainians, he won solid support from older audiences. It seems that different groups that had been marginalized in the reforms process invested in him their hopes and fears. All these factors coming together may give him the support needed to win the election.

On the other hand, Zelenskiy faces Petro Poroshenko, a savvy and mature politician who has publicly demonstrated his firm will to victory. His team has already started a new campaign, setting aside the patriotic and conservative slogans the candidate had leaned on heavily during the first round in favor of calls to “consolidate the pro-democracy candidates” around him. Poroshenko has also sought to reach out to Zelenskiy’s supporters, saying he has heard their grievances and complaints.

Yulia Tymoshenko initially disagreed with her defeat in the polls, calling it the result of manipulations by the incumbent, but refused to organize a Maidan protest, as some of her supporters had urged. She eventually conceded. Tymoshenko and the other former presidential candidates now have some tough decisions to make—specifically, who should get their support? Who is the more appropriate candidate, and how would allying with him influence their own chances to gain more seats in the Rada for their party?

But while the former candidates ponder their next moves, Zelenskiy and Poroshenko have lost no time in squaring off against each other. A victory for one or the other will define the future of Ukraine—territorially the largest and economically the poorest European country—and its political, economic, societal, and international trajectory for the next five years.

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