Ukraine goes to the polls tonight in the first round of its presidential election. In the (very likely) event that no candidate wins a majority of the vote, the top two candidates will contest a second round in three weeks time, on 21 April.
President Petro Poroshenko, in office since 2014, is running for re-election against a crowded field of 38 opponents. For all Ukraine’s problems, the fact that Poroshenko is no certainty to win is a tribute to its status as a democracy, and contrasts sharply with its neighbors Russia and Belarus.
But Ukrainian democracy has had far from a smooth run. Twice – in the “Orange Revolution” of 2004 and the “Euromaidan Revolution” of 2014 – a pro-Russian president has been forced from office as a result of popular protests. The latter case resulted in armed Russian intervention, leading to the loss of Crimea and a continuing secessionist conflict in the Donbass.
While Russian president Vladimir Putin thereby acquired some new territory, his strategy has completely failed to secure his larger goal of ensuring Ukraine’s friendship.
The key underlying fact about Ukrainian politics is the division between the north-western half of the country, Ukrainian-speaking and oriented towards Europe, and the south-eastern half, Russian-speaking and oriented more towards Moscow. Prior to 2014, Ukrainian elections were typically fought out between candidates from either side of that divide.
But since Putin’s intervention, no candidate can hope for victory by being pro-Russian; instead, the aim is appeal to Russian-speakers who have been alienated by Poroshenko’s marginalisation of their language, while also standing up for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
One obvious candidate for that role is former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a strong pro-European who has also shown considerable flexibility on the Russian question. Tymoshenko lost the presidency narrowly in 2010, and much more heavily to Poroshenko in 2014; until the end of last year she held a clear lead in the opinion polls.
Since then, however, she has fallen to third place, due to a modest revival in Poroshenko’s fortunes and a much steeper rise for another candidate, actor Volodymyr Zelensky. His party, Servant of the People, is named after a highly popular TV series in which he plays – of course – the president of Ukraine.
Zelensky is a Russian-speaker from the south-east, but his policies are strongly pro-European and (like his TV character) he particularly stresses the need to fight corruption. Poroschenko’s government has made some progress on that score, but since the president is himself one of the country’s richest oligarchs it’s understandable that voters are looking for a fresh face.
Unless the polls are badly wrong, Zelensky will lead in the first round and contest the runoff against either Poroshenko or Tymoshenko. Second-round polls show him beating either of them comfortably, although such hypotheticals need to be taken with a large grain of salt. The three week interval will give considerable scope for deal making.
Other candidates in the mix include Yuriy Boyko, a former deputy prime minister, who represents the old pro-Russian opposition, and Anatoly Hrytsenko, from the liberal Civic Position, who placed fourth in 2014; each is tracking around 10%.
It’s also important to remember that the Ukrainian system is only semi-presidential: as in France and Romania, the president depends on having a parliamentary majority to be able to implement his program. So parliamentary elections, to follow in October, will do a lot to determine how the president’s term will play out.
For more on the election, there are very good commentaries by John Besemeres at Inside Story (who is pro-Poroshenko) and Vijai Maheshwari at Politico (who is more pro-Zelensky). Results should start to appear tomorrow morning, Australian time, but Ukraine is a big country, so don’t expect too much too quickly.