Ukraine in Limbo
On March 31st, 35 million people voted for the next Ukrainian president in the first round of the election. The incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, who was elected in 2014 after the Maiden Revolution, come in second with 16% of the vote. Ahead of him is Volodyrmyr (Vladimir) Zelensky, a television actor with little political experience who won 30% of the vote. Due to the fact that neither candidate won over 50% of the vote, they face a second-round runoff on April 21. Although both candidates are running on an anti-Russia platform, the volatility of the elections as well as the raw emotions of the populace threaten to fuel greater uncertainty in the region.
Despite some similarities in their platforms, the candidates display several differences in character. For instance, Zelensky is an actor, director, screenwriter, and comic from a popular Ukrainian TV show, “Servant of the People,” depicting the miraculous election of a schoolteacher as the president of Ukraine. As with candidates in Italy and the United States, Zelenksy’s celebrity status was key to launching his political career and capitalizing on the energy of the people who are frustrated with the status quo. While Zelensky came from a similar comedic background to populists, particularly Donald Trump and Beppe Grillo, his message has been relatively centrist. Ever reliant on his fan base from the TV show and the lack of faith in the central government, Zelensky has focused his campaign more on criticizing the incumbents than formulating policy positions of his own.
His lack of policy positions, coupled with his lack of political experience along with the support of Ihor Kolomisky, one of the richest men in Ukraine, has led to concerns from many. Pundits believe his leadership will not command a strong enough response to the Russian threat and will fail to halt the rampant corruption operating at the highest levels of Ukrainian society. Furthermore, Zelensky support has been reliant on young, pro-Russian separatists, according to Rating Group, a NGO monitoring the election, which has further worried those who believe he will seek to reconcile with Russia despite his official anti-Russian stance. This is amplified by his lack of concern for election interference, especially through the population fluent in Russian, which could allow for Russia to make a difference in the election. However, domestic issues might prove to be a more critical factor in the elections than Russian interference.
Zelensky’s support is driven by the lack of trust that Ukrainians have in their government, which stands at 9% - the lowest in the world.
Despite the 2013 revolt against corruption and elitism, the promises made then have not been delivered, and Ukraine is seen as #120 in the world’s most corrupt governments as opposed to #130 in 2015 after the Maiden Revolution, a paltry improvement, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index.
Furthermore, more than 3.2 million Ukrainian adults have had to seek work abroad due to the lack of opportunities in Ukraine, while approximately 60% of Ukrainians live below the poverty line – far below the standard of the European Union. Furthermore, the Ukrainian economy has only recently reached the point that it was in 2006, showing the damage that has been wrought by years of warfare and corruption.
These realities have thus served to undermine the incumbent candidate and therefore strengthen Zelensky.
Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent, won a mere 17% of the vote in the first round of voting. He was elected after the Maiden Revolution in 2014 and pledged to end corruption in the Ukraine and remove Russian influences from the national government. Nicknamed “The Chocolate King” due to his confectionary business, Poroshenko has a wealth of experience in the Ukrainian government. For instance, he served as the foreign minister during Viktor Yushchenko’s administration as well as being a member of Ukraine’s lower house, the Verkhovna Rada, for the Social Democrat Party. During the Orange Revolution, he played a critical role in preventing Yanukovych from claiming victory in the fraudulent 2004 elections. After that, he was a national security advisor for the short-lived Viktor Yushchenkocoalitionbefore landing a job with Yanukovych’s new regime in 2009-10 as the minister of economic development. Since his election as president, Poroshenko focused on enhancing the Ukrainian national identity and bringing Ukraine closer to Western institutions like NATO and the European Union. This push has had remarkable success as public support for the EU, and, more importantly, what it represents as a mode for progress, is now at its highest levels.
Poroshenko also pushed for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to become independent of the Russian Church – a severance of a union that had existed for centuries. For the anti-Russian elements of Ukrainian society, all of these moves were seen as crucial to creating a truly independent Ukraine; free of Russian influence.
Poroshenko’s stronger anti-Russian stance could further increase support for his candidacy given the continued struggle in the eastern region of Donbas as well as the annexation of Crimea. The seizure of Donbas in 2014 by separatists as well as the annexation of Crimea by Russia five years ago fuel anti-Russian sentiment, while stoking fears of further military annexation. This has been confirmed in a recent poll by Gallup, which shows that Russia remains at the forefront of many Ukrainians minds, with 80% disapproving of the Russian leadership, while the support for the West and EU stands at 48%.
Poroshenko is further strengthened by several developments in the economy that could prove dividends. For instance, the reform of the financial sector has allowed for the sector to grow at a rate of 3.3%. Additionally, the state gas holding company Naftogaz underwent a transformation that has allowed it to net a profit of $1.5 billion in 2017, while the electronic procurement system Prozorro has made critical cuts to make it more efficient and thus save the country $2.76 billion over the past five years.
The cultural diversity of Ukraine could prove to be a key aspect of the elections. Given the plurality of identities in Ukraine and lack of power in the central government, social cohesion has been weak in Ukraine. Given this, in 2017, the Ukrainian government passed a law that banned the use of minority languages in schools past the fifth grade in order to strengthen the Ukrainian national identity. This move, while applauded by the Western oriented elements of Ukrainian society, could serve to further enrage the pro-separatist forces who believe that the modern Ukrainian state no longer accepts them. This will be a topic that will require delicacy in order to make reconciliation between the various groups possible, which for many pundits seems impossible if the political novice Zelensky became president.
As the second-round runoffs loom, the campaign antics have increased. Zelensky recently challenged Poroshenko to numerous drug tests and a live debate hosted in the soccer stadium so as to maximize the number of people who can view the debate live. Poroshenko agreed to both demands. The debate will serve as the time to determine whether Zelensky’s TV persona can develop real, articulated policies or if his lack of experience will cripple the remainder of his campaign. Though he has promised to release his full policy proposals before the April 21strunoff, the lack of information has created a sense of curiosity about whether or not this comic actually has a plan.