Ukraine votes: The incumbent, the populist, or the comedian?

Why We Wrote This

Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution brought hope and enthusiasm to Kiev, but now much of that energy has sapped away. Sunday’s presidential election has a chance to reinvigorate Ukrainian reform.

Emilio Morenatti/AP
Pedestrians walk past a billboard featuring Petro Poroshenko, president of Ukraine and candidate for 2019 elections, in central Kiev, Ukraine, on March 26. The banner reads 'Many candidates, one president.'

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Five years after the Maidan Revolution wrenched Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit, its promises remain largely unfulfilled. Sunday’s presidential election will shed some new light on the way forward for Ukraine.

Two of the three leading candidates are familiar faces: incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Mr. Poroshenko bears the brunt of popular disillusionment with the past five years, but has positioned himself as the candidate who will stay the revolution’s pro-Europe course. Ms. Tymoshenko is running on a platform of almost unalloyed populism, promising to roll back price increases and make popular living standards her main priority.

The most popular candidate is also the most unique: Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an actor who once played the Ukrainian president on TV. Besides portraying an upstanding, honest fighter against corruption, his main appeal appears to be his complete lack of real-world political experience.

“Zelenskiy is not a politician, and voters support him because they want new faces in Ukrainian politics,” says Alexander Okhrimenko, president of the Ukrainian Analytical Center. “Many people want changes and hate the old politicians. We shall just have to watch how this all turns out.”

Ukraine’s presidential election, set for this Sunday, looks to almost everyone like a chaotic 39-way horse race. The campaign so far has featured plenty of allegations of skulduggery, including fraud, bribery and, of course, Russian meddling.

But despite its almost madcap complexity, the sheer diversity of the 39 candidates – representing different regions, interests, and ideologies – is a strong indication that genuine political competition is alive in Ukraine five years after the Maidan Revolution wrenched the country out of Russia’s orbit. Yet despite some success in efforts to bring European-style reform and democracy, the revolution’s promises remain largely unfulfilled.

Things will become a bit clearer next week. Barring a majority winner, which polls indicate is unlikely, the two candidates who receive the largest plurality of votes will head into a decisive April 21 second round. There are currently three front-runners, and which make it into that final round will determine the tone of debate over Ukraine's way forward.

In every case, that conversation will be tough – and the struggle for voters intense – in a country where surveys show most people have run out of patience with the status quo and virtually all familiar politicians.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose most famous role is his TV portrayal of a schoolteacher who becomes president, is leading the polls heading into the first round of Ukraine's presidential elections on March 31.

“Nothing has changed in this country since the Maidan,” says Pavel Movchan, a former deputy of the Rada, Ukraine’s unicameral parliament. “For 90 percent of Ukrainians, life has become worse. None of the three main candidates expresses the hopes of the Ukrainian people. So, things will remain the same.”

The front-runners

Ukraine’s economy is growing (albeit slowly), inflation has been tamed, and the financial sector stabilized after many dodgy banks were shut down. But per capita income, as a percentage of gross domestic product, remains well below the level of five years ago. Millions of Ukrainians have left the country – as many as 5 million heading west, and about 2 million moving to Russia. That makes election predictions difficult, as does the effective removal of about 5 million former Ukrainian voters who are now located in the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula and the rebel-held republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Some Ukrainian economists express cautious optimism for the country’s future. Most add, though, that progress will depend on serious efforts to fight the country’s rampaging corruption, carry out effective judicial reforms, and obtain international financing to manage the country’s huge debts.

According to the latest polls, the leading candidate is Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an actor who once played the Ukrainian president in a hit TV show and whose main campaign theme is the same as the show’s name: “Servant of the People.” Besides playing an upstanding, honest fighter against corruption on TV, his main appeal to Ukrainian voters appears to be his complete lack of real-world political experience. But he is also a Russian speaker from the restive eastern Ukraine who has said his top priority is to end the 5-year-old war that has killed at least 13,000 people, even if it means “negotiating with the devil himself.”

Running far behind is the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, who bears the brunt of popular disillusionment with the past five years, as well as enjoying the advantages of office. He’s exploited the latter by doling out pension increases, cash subsidies to help the poor pay skyrocketing utility bills, and bonuses for large families.

He has positioned himself as the candidate who will stay the pro-Europe course initiated by the Maidan Revolution, maintain the tough austerity program demanded by the International Monetary Fund, and hold off Russian aggression. He’s also championed the creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church that would be free from any links with Russia.

His slogan “Army! Language! Faith!” is heavy on patriotism, but also appeals to those who continue to hope that Ukraine will ultimately find a safe harbor in Europe.

Close behind Mr. Poroshenko, in most polls, is the familiar figure of Yulia Tymoshenko, a fiery former prime minister who lost her bid for the presidency in 2010 to the subsequently deposed Viktor Yanukovych.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko speaks during a press conference in Kiev, Ukraine, on March 7.

Ms. Tymoshenko is running on a platform of almost unalloyed populism, promising to end most of Ukraine’s obligations to the IMF, roll back price increases, and make popular living standards her main priority. Her revolutionary record and her tempestuous rhetoric still seem to draw crowds, though many experts say her star is fading. But while she talks a fierce, patriotic anti-Russian line, many experts recall that it was Ms. Tymoshenko who, as prime minister in 2009, negotiated a 10-year gas contract with Vladimir Putin that was very much in the Kremlin’s favor.

“Tymoshenko as president would greatly increase the chances of Ukraine defaulting on its international debt. All her ideas contradict the IMF conditions for Ukraine,” says Alexander Parashiy, an expert with Concorde Capital, a leading Kiev brokerage. “Nobody can predict this, but it seems likely that Zelenskiy and Poroshenko will go to the second round.”

An easing of hostility toward Russia?

Among the first-round candidates, there are several who espouse a more pro-Russian point of view. That should, theoretically, have some traction in Ukraine, since Russia remains Ukraine’s biggest single trading partner despite all the mutual sanctions and acrimony of the past five years.

Moreover, Ukrainian attitudes toward Russia are actually improving, with more than half of Ukrainians saying they feel more positively than negatively toward Russia in a recent poll.

“The desire for peace is very strong,” says Volodymyr Paniotto, director of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, Ukraine’s leading pollster. “The closer you get to the border, the more concerned people are over the conflict. For them it is the No. 1 issue.”

But the pro-Russian candidates are divided, and they have little access to Ukrainian media. Mr. Zelenskiy, despite his image of innocence, appears to have the backing of a powerful east Ukrainian oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, whose fortunes have been badly battered in showdowns with Mr. Poroshenko’s government.

“Nobody knows who will win,” says Alexander Okhrimenko, president of the Kiev-based Ukrainian Analytical Center. “Poroshenko has considerable resources to spend, and he is using them. Tymoshenko is aggressive, and voters like her, but her support is constant, not growing. Zelenskiy is not a politician, and voters support him because they want new faces in Ukrainian politics. Many people want changes and hate the old politicians. We shall just have to watch how this all turns out.”

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