- Ukraine will hold presidential elections on 31 March for the first time since the start of the 2014 conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the east.
- Despite trailing in the polls, President Petro Poroshenko is likely to win a second term, though he will probably face anti-establishment comedian and political novice Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a run-off election.
- The election outcome is likely to be disputed, increasing the likelihood of protests in the coming weeks.
The 31 March elections are expected to be followed by a run off on 21 April, as none of the candidates seem likely to get 51 percent of the vote in the first round. Of the three frontrunners, President Petro Poroshenko and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy are expected to advance to the second round.
The vote comes at a crucial time given the ongoing conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. High levels of corruption and a lack of progress in political reforms have emerged as key issues in the elections.
The president’s challengers have focused their campaigns on the slow pace of promised reforms, such as the establishment of independent anti-corruption courts. Poroshenko has also faced growing criticism over a number of corruption scandals involving his allies. During the campaign, Poroshenko has emphasised major achievements such as visa-free travel to EU and adopted a patriotic discourse focusing on the army, language and faith to capitalise on tensions linked to the ongoing conflict in the east.
Poroshenko’s main advantages
Despite the lack of serious progress on reforms, Ukrainians likely see Poroshenko as the strongest option compared to his main challengers. The general perception is that he is the most capable candidate in dealing with Russia. Zelenskiy lacks a clear policy on Russia while Tymoshenko is believed to be open for more concessions when negotiating with Moscow. As the incumbent, Poroshenko has also benefitted from access to administrative resources such as state spending to support his re-election efforts.
Poroshenko may also benefit from Russia’s efforts to undermine his campaign. Russian disinformation has focused exclusively on Poroshenko, indicating Moscow sees him as less open to compromise with the Kremlin than his main rivals. In recent campaign rallies, Poroshenko has sought to capitalise on strong anti-Russian sentiment by characterising the elections as a choice between himself and Vladimir Putin. Poroshenko’s tough stance on Russia is likely to appeal to nationalist sentiment among voters, who may be otherwise disappointed with the pace of reform under his administration.
Western support for continuity
Key Western institutions have signalled their support for Poroshenko amid concerns over policies favoured by his main rivals. Zelenskiy and Tymoshenko are seen as populists who support unclear or potentially damaging policies. For example, Tymoshenko has regularly criticised Poroshenko over the peace agreements with Russia but she has failed to come up with her own proposals to end the conflict in the east. Zelenskiy’s position on the deal remains unclear.
Although Western financial institutions such as the IMF are unhappy with the pace of domestic reforms, they will want to avoid Zelenskiy or Tymoshenko reversing the recent gains.
On the same day that Poroshenko approved constitutional changes backing Ukrainian membership of EU and NATO, European Council President Donald Tusk praised Ukraine’s reforms and anti-corruption measures. The statement was seen as signalling a desire for continuity amid concerns over populist policies championed by other leading candidates, including on pensions, healthcare and utility prices.
Poroshenko’s main challengers
Despite leading in the polls, Zelenskiy is unlikely to win. His supporters are mostly young voters who are the least likely to turn out. A majority of voters are also unlikely to support an inexperienced candidate amid the ongoing conflict with Russia.
Although he has presented himself as a new face in Ukrainian politics, Zelenskiy is linked to Ihor Kolomoyskiy, one of the wealthiest men in the country and a rival of Poroshenko. The government nationalised PrivatBank, the country’s largest commercial bank and Kolomyskiy’s main asset in December 2016. Kolomoyskiy has publicly acknowledged his support for Zelenskiy, which might damage the comedian’s chances. Although Zelenskiy has denied being beholden to Kolomoyskiy, he owes his rising popularity to a TV show aired on a channel owned by the oligarch.
Zelenskiy’s rise in the polls has damaged the chances of Yulia Tymoshenko, the main opposition candidate. Since her 2014 loss to Poroshenko in the first round of the presidential elections, Tymoshenko has sought to highlight his perceived failure to implement reforms. However, she has struggled to mobilise support around her own agenda. Tymoshenko has also faced criticism for the 2009 gas deal she negotiated with Russia, which resulted in Ukraine paying some of highest energy prices in Europe.
Disputed outcome, protests likely
The outcome of the elections is likely to be disputed. Zelenskiy’s campaign has already warned it would initiate legal action against Poroshenko and the election commission if the comedian fails to advance to the second round of the polls. Political protests are common and large-scale political uprisings have resulted in two revolutions since 2004. Given the heightened political tensions, the election results are highly likely to trigger protests. Large-scale political uprisings have resulted in two revolutions since 2004, underscoring the destabilising potential of renewed civil unrest.
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