Lotto elections in Ukraine

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

Like everyone else, the West has been surprised by the success in the polls of a newcomer to the electoral Ukrainian scene – the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky. According to polls, Zelensky is going to lead with about a third of votes in the 31 March election – the favourite among 39 presidential candidates. Next is expected to be incumbent President Petro Poroshenko (17.1%), opposition Fatherland party leader Yulia Tymoshenko (12.5%) and the co-chairman of the Opposition Platform – For Life bloc Yuri Boyko (10,4%). Four other candidates could pass the 5% hurdle.

On the second tour, Zelensky is given a likely win over both Tymoshenko and Poroshenko, who are neck to neck for obtaining the second place in a run-off. In event they should face each other in the runoff, Tymoshenko would beat Poroshenko. But 23,4% of the respondents are still undecided; 9,3% have said they will not vote; and an important part of the population will not be allowed to vote due to the situation in the Donbass and the legal situation of thousands hundreds of internal or external refugees.

Confronted to the Ukrainian political chaos and nofulfillment of the second Maidan’s promises, the easy comment is that democracy is more complex than autocracy and that the uncertainty of the electoral issue reflects the existence of real political competition in Ukraine – the counter example being of course illiberal Putinesque Russia. Far from all Ukrainians would buy that. They are living in poverty with no hopes of quick amelioration as the new aides needed by Kiev to escape default are conditioned on socially costly reforms. There exists a short majority supporting integration with EU and NATO, but also an important minority deploring the break-down of relations with Russia and the constant political bashing of Russia.

Up to now, the campaign has been more declarative than explicative. President Poroshenko seems to have been campaigning since his first election, but he managed to win a spectacular jump in voters’ intentions (they were in single digit a couple of months ago). Tymoshenko demonstrates her survivor’s instincts, but has a lot of skeletons in her cupboard. Zelensky is a typical example of what happens when political parties are personal fiefdoms, discredited and shacked by scandals. In those conditions, a TV well known face can be more inspiring for voters despite untested political skills.

In the background of all those maneouvers, the real actors are the Ukrainian oligarchs whose loyalty is difficult to predict as they tend to join the winning side in good time. Their medias can make or unmake a candidacy, and each member of the trio is vulnerable, especially with accusations of corruption and accusations of readiness to “betray national independence”.

Finally, there is a great fear of violence in a country awashed with guns and ammunition, and paramilitary groups with fighting experience and their own agendas. The campaign has already been punctuated by attacks on persons and buildings; the runoff and that the period between the first and the second ballot will be full of threats. Most pundits, journalists, analysts and opposition politicians say that the presidential election of 2019 may become the dirtiest in Ukrainian history. According to them, the authorities are preparing massive falsification and are already active to buy votes across the country. Newspapers are full of well documented stories. The president clan can also encourage violence to scare voters, taking profit of the “degree of political and protest sentiment” in Ukraine mentioned by National Police chief Serhiy Knyazyev when he announced that “over 100,000 policemen, as well as personnel of the National Guard and other agencies, will be deployed to maintain public order during the election”.

The only backing Poroshenko can count on for sure is that of the West who has no alternative under its sleeve. The strongest support has been coming, openly, from Washington since Maidan2. In the EU, despite irritation in private, there is no question of letting down a man on whom so much money and political support have been poured despite criticism for continued corruption and lack of reforms.

As the rating of Poroshenko has trailed, one has seen a multiplication of reports and articles explaining why and how the West has to support Poroshenko. In many aspects, the situation recalls the 1996 re-election of Boris Yeltsin who won despite having an abyssal popular support ahead of the campaign. He won thanks to the oligarchs who provided money and media coverage attacking rivals, plus fraudulous methods now largely documented by the actors themselves. He also benefited from a solid support of the West, which closed its eyes on irregularities and provided the campaign with teams of “elections’ strategists” hidden in a central Moscow hotel from the Russian public. In 1996, Russian liberals and the West swallowed Yeltsin’s slogan “it is me or the return of the communists”. Today, they are ready to swallow Poroshenko’s “it me or a turn for Ukraine from Western to Russian orientation”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *