The strange second round of Ukraine’s presidential election

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

The campaign for the second round of Ukrainian presidential elections was much the same that for the first round: petty and dirty, with public trolling, giving samples for medical tests under cameras, endless provocations and promising not so much a better future as an Armaggedon in case voters will choose the wrong candidate.

The discussions about a public debate between the two presidential candidates summerise the general climate. They lasted up to the last days of the campaign for the second round and, on 18 April, the day before it was due to be held, it was rumoured that it could be cancelled altogether.

The idea of a public debate, proposed by Zelensky, had appeared as a bonus in Poroshenko’s campaign as he has more experience and saw the public debate as a way to demonstrate that his rival was just an actor without a text. As the campaign was described as a boxing match that Poroshenko would win by knock out, the choice of the Olympic stadium was further turning politics into a show.

The candidates’ working groups finally agreed on a date for the debate (on 19 April), but not on its format. Zelensky’s team has proposed a single stage for both candidates and the moderator; and 30% of places in the stands for Zelensky supporters, 30% for Poroshenko supporters, and the rest for all comers. Poroshenko’s team wanted two separate stages for the candidates; and half the places for the president’;s supporters, half for Zelensky’;s, and no access for anybody else for security reason.

This was coming after a first “debate” when the president, uninvited and unexpected, forced his way into the studio of pro-Zelensky 1 + 1 TV channel during an interview of his rival in order to “speak the truth” to the nation and counter the lies of Zelensky. The result was extraordinary, with the two men shouting at each other up to the point that there were inaudible. Zelensky was especially bad, having been taken by surprise and unable to regain the upper hand. But basically, it led many, including Yulia Tymoshenko, to accuse them of lowering the status of the presidency to its lowest and calling for dignity during the campaign.

Of course, the results of the first round changed the approach to the second. But not as much than could have been expected, especially in the case of Poroshenko who had concentrated his efforts to defeat Tymoshenko in the first round hoping to confront the amateur Zelensky in the second. His team was convinced that, after having voted with their hearts in the first round, electors would then vote with their brain on the second.

The logic would have Poroshenko targeting people who voted for other candidates in the first round, young people who massively voted for Zelensky and voters in the southern and central regions who deserted him. Instead of that, he decided to continue to address his electoral basis in the West.

More importantly, he continued to campaign against President Putin more than against his rival. The main electoral poster shows the two men face to face, with Poroshenko in a higher position to present the image of a winner on the shorter Russian president, with the text “21 April. A decisive choice. Zelensky was described as a Trojan horse of the Kremlin and his victory as risking two equal perils: or he will surrender the country to Putin or his victory will lead to a revolt of the military becoming guerilla fighters, leading to a civil war that will give an excuse for Putin to send its troops. In both cases, Ukraine will stop to exist as an independent country. In a further step, the electors who voted for Zelensky were described not only as traitors, but also as idiots. By contrast, voters for Poroshenko were patriots. This approach led to division inside Poroshenko’s campaign team, attested by numerous interviews, between those who decided to hammer further the same first tour’s slogans and those who wanted to attract new voters by projecting the image of a more consensual president. For them, to label a third of Ukrainians as traitors or idiots was hardly a winning formula.

As the last week of campaign was unfolding, Poroshenko tried to change the scenario, but it was late. He had admitted past mistakes, but the remedies he announced were looking much as the projects he unfolded 5 years ago and not everyone is convinced at all that the responsibility lies on the war with Russia. Moreover, his commander-in-chief posture coming on top of extravagant declarations from the SBU and the procurator about Russian military plans could work with a part of the electorate, but ignores polls showing that a majority of Ukrainians want peace in dignity, and a better life. For them,

Poroshenko’s first round slogan, Army! Language! Faith! Decentralisation! Tomos! Visa-free travel!,is divisive. Zelensky was more sober, but not much better inspired. While he had the opportunity to campaign from the position of winner, he tried to limit public exposure and escapes risk entering hostile territory. He was of course aware that his success on the first round was a protest vote. But his team’s conclusion was that many who had voted for others in the first round would vote for him or abstain, insuring him a victory albeit with a smaller margin than in the first round. He was very weak in countering one of the main arguments against him – his links with the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, the owner of the TV channel diffusing the show that made him a celebrity. In a country where the president is himself an oligarch, and where the corruption blossoms because the borders between business and politics have been blurred, he found nothing sharper than to deny links with Kolomoisly – who is a former ally of Poroshenko, turned into an adversary after what looks more like a rivalry between oligarchs than in a political matter. Contrary to Poroshenko, he is a man of the media and led a “modern” campaign based on social medias, reaching directly to the people, targeting young people and inhabitants of the southern and central regions who voted for other candidates in the first round. His team has been enlarged and looked with interest on the first dissociations of officials and oligarchs from Poroshenko. It knows that, in the country’s system, political affiliations matter less that the capacity to join the winning camp.

At the same time, Poroshenko’;s allies began to say that they did not rule out a possibility of defeat. The motto of the presidential administration being that the president will never falsify the election results or gum up the process in courts because it is better to lose than to win in a questionable manner. And because he fears getting his image de-legitimatised more than he fears losing. Poroshenko also let know that he will stay in politics.

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