Launch of electoral campaign in Ukraine signals beginning of tumultuous political year

October 2, 2018 Europe , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , POLITICS

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Aleksandr Gushchin



A busy summer for Ukrainian pollsters


August is usually a quiet month in Ukraine’s political life. This year has been quite different, however, proving to be rather stormy. This is hardly surprising, as the country has little more than six months to wait until it learns the name of its new (or re-elected) president, followed by active campaigning for seats in the Verkhovna Rada (the Supreme Council of Ukraine).


The presidential campaign started gradually, as evidenced by the serious summer activity of Ukrainian pollsters and the numerous important statements made by Ukrainian politicians during the holiday months. The active campaigning phase began in early September. Independence Day (August 24) marked a kind of symbolic crossing of the Rubicon, the beginning of a turbulent political year for Ukraine, which is going to be full of surprises.


The pool of potential presidential candidates is vast, with more than 40 people vying for the position of leader. However, only four or five of them actually stand a chance of winning the election. The rest are aiming at short-term benefits, but will still use their clout and links to major-league business as additional lever in support of more promising candidates. The latest opinion polls indicate that Yulia Tymoshenko leads the pack. A recent survey conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation in conjunction with the Razumkov Centre suggests that Tymoshenko, a former prime minister of Ukraine, would get 17.8 per cent of the votes should the election be held today. In fact, her popularity grew over the summer, up from 13.3 per cent in May. Anatoliy Hrytsenko, former minister of defence who currently leads the Civil Position party, ranks second with 8.4 per cent. Current President Petro Poroshenko is third with 7.9 per cent. The top three candidates are followed by: Vadim Rabinovych, the leader of the For Life party (6.7 per cent); opposition politician Yuriy Boyko (6.4 per cent); actor Volodymyr Zelensky (6.1 per cent); leader of the Radical Party Oleh Lyashko (5.8 per cent); and musician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk (5.6 per cent).


According to another survey conducted in late summer by the Institute of Sociology at the Dragomanov State Pedagogical University, Tymoshenko, who leads the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party, is supported by 15.7 per cent of those respondents who are planning to vote. Poroshenko enjoys the support of 12.3 per cent of those polled, followed by Hrytsenko with 8.3 per cent (who leads the polls in the western regions of Ukraine). Boyko, the leader of the Opposition Bloc, has 6.2 per cent, followed by Lyashko (leader of the Radical Party, with 5.6 per cent), Zelensky (5.4 per cent), Rabinovych (5.1 per cent) and Vakarchuk (4.7 per cent). Over 39 per cent of those polled are planning to vote.



Pre-Election Moods in the Country


This data in and of itself provides food for thought, especially given the political events that took place in Ukraine during the summer. One characteristic trait of the ongoing election campaign, according to sociologists, is the population’s increasing distrust of the political system as a whole, as well as in individual politicians. There is not a single political figure that currently enjoys the overwhelming trust of the people. This goes for both the outsiders and the front-runners in the electoral campaign.


What is more, Tymoshenko is currently the only candidate enjoying serious support in all regions of the country. The scale of this support varies, but Tymoshenko is among the campaign leaders in each and every region, as indirectly demonstrated by Batkivshchyna’s results in the local elections. The rankings of the other candidates are much more dependent on geography. Poroshenko enjoys rather modest popularity in the east; Hrytsenko is primarily popular in the west; and Rabinovych has the greatest number of supporters in the east and partially in the south of the country.


In fact, the notions of east and southeast are fairly blurred, and not just because of the loss of Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but also in the political sense. It is important to keep in mind the growing differences between the southern regions and the divide between the political preferences of the urban and rural residents in the south. There are also differences in the preferences of cities within the same regions, which are caused by their varying social structures and the unequal results of the recent reforms. The views of city mayors may have a strong influence on the outcome of elections. One example of such influence is the popular mayor of Kharkiv, whose position will largely influence Poroshenko’s results in the city.


Interestingly, the distances between the candidates’ popularity ratings are fairly small. This means that some of the candidates, those with rating of around 5 per cent, may theoretically find themselves in the second round, in which they could enlist the support of those who cast their votes for less successful candidates.


The current presidential candidates are veteran politicians, those who have already been in or around power structures before. The question is whether the 2013–14 revolution has resulted in any changes whatsoever with regard to the quality of politicians in Ukraine. Despite all talk of the creation of a civil society in the country, the generational change and the new principles, as well as the Euro-integration rhetoric and the subject of an “external threat,” Ukrainian society, which keeps electing politicians of the past – and the politicians themselves – have not changed much. As for the new faces, such as Mayor of Lviv Andrii Sadovyi and his Self-Reliance party, they have not yet gained enough nationwide political weight and continue to operate in a purely regional format.



The Current President’s Standing


Despite the fact that the current president a fair way behind the leader in the campaign and has long been losing popularity, his presidential campaign did not begin until late August and early September. There are several key aspects to Poroshenko’s position. First, his campaign is primarily based on slogans, battle cries and ideologemes that appeal to nationalist sentiments, stress the necessity of repealing the external aggression and highlight the importance and inevitability (through Poroshenko’s active participation) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Christian Church seceding from the Russian Patriarchate. All this fits into the Army, Language, Faith triad. In early September, Poroshenko intensified activity in this area dramatically; suffice it to mention his nonsensical initiative to amend the constitution in order to include the provisions on the country’s unswerving course towards joining the European Union and NATO.


Poroshenko continues to exploit the foreign agenda, but what is the essence of that agenda? One fairly successful achievement was the signing of an agreement on a visa-free regime with the European Union for Ukrainian citizens. As for the negative results, Ukraine’s relations with Hungary and Poland have soured significantly. Also, the Ukrainian leadership made the mistake (although obviously not through independent decision-making) of supporting Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Presidential Election. There is also the absence of any serious breakthroughs in foreign economic relations and the sharp increase in the country’s dependence on foreign loans. All these factors will be used by Poroshenko’s political opponents in the course of the presidential campaign.


Poroshenko’s problem is that his popularity varies geographically, although not as dramatically as the popularity of Rabinovych, who does not stand a chance in the west of the country. Sadovyi is in a similar situation: he is only doing well in Lviv. Still, if we compare the popularity ratings of these candidates with those of Tymoshenko, the latter is much more likely to gain serious support in the south-eastern regions in the second round. In this sense, having to run against Tymoshenko in the second round would be extremely unprofitable for Poroshenko, even if he managed to gain the support of all the notionally pro-Western voters.


Poroshenko’s messages to the electorate may be somewhat virtual in nature, but this does not mean that his situation is hopeless. Furthermore, polls indicate that his popularity increased in late summer, when he actively joined the campaign. Poroshenko garnered further support after delivering the Independence Day address and attending the City Day celebrations in Vinnytsia, a city he knows very well.


Poroshenko has achieved success in some areas. For example, the decision by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, to send his personal envoys to Ukraine certainly dealt a blow to the Russian Orthodox Church and its representatives in the country. Some local churches may still be leaning towards the Russian Orthodox Church, but this may nevertheless be considered a tactical victory for Poroshenko. However, it is not yet clear how much popularity the president may gain from these developments against the background of a very difficult social situation, the upcoming increase in gas prices and the general concern about the problems of economic survival and the ongoing war. Nationalist voters, which, according to different estimates, account for more than a third of the entire electorate, may indeed lean towards Poroshenko. Another difficulty concerns Poroshenko’s relations with Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, which have improved somewhat of late, but remain complicated in the face of the coming gas price increase and the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).


Much will depend on the level foreign support for Poroshenko’s candidacy. It is difficult to talk at this point in time about any unambiguous signals from the United States to the effect that Washington will back Poroshenko, and it is actually possible that the U.S. political elites are simply not in a position to render any consolidated support to him. However, Poroshenko’s praise of the late Senator John McCain, and his continued talk about the United States being a reliable defender and a source of support, indirectly indicate that he maintains contacts with at least some elements of the U.S. political system, and that he will do everything in his power to expand and strengthen this interaction. On the other hand, Washington may decide to not support any of the candidates officially, being fully aware of the fact that no candidate representing the south-eastern regions will have a real chance of winning the election.


Another factor that could play into Poroshenko’s hands is that he has the opportunity to demonstrate initiative and promote himself. The presidential administration has several TV channels for this, and, in general, the powers that be are always able to use the media to their ends. However, Poroshenko no longer has a monopoly on the media: 5 Kanal and Pryamyi Kanal are far from the most popular TV channels in Ukraine. And now that Andriy Portnov has become the manager of NewsOne and Viktor Medvedchuk has gained control over 112 Ukraine, there are even more questions to reckon with. Nevertheless, Poroshenko does have enough leverage when it comes to the media, and there are a number of high-profile steps that he could make which, in addition to amending the Constitution, could be attributed to the possible withdrawal of Ukraine from the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.


Poroshenko may also use the support of local authorities and city mayors, who have benefited from the decentralization reforms. In fact, some of these figures have already declared their support for the current president. However, given the specific features of Ukrainian political life and the difficulty in choosing which candidate to bet on when the campaign leaders are racing neck to neck, it is highly possible that many local politicians will be playing a double or even triple game. The situation is aggravated by the fact that Poroshenko is a rival of most Ukrainian oligarchs, with the exception of Rinat Akhmetov and Victor Pinchuk. The latter would certainly not be happy if Tymoshenko is elected president, but he is unlikely to stake it all on his own candidate, Vakarchuk. The singer-songwriter is unlikely to stand in the presidential election at all, but his positive image and verbal support could help Poroshenko.


The president’s options when it comes to the use of force are also limited, despite the solid basis secured by the law on reintegration. Much depends on Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov, who effectively created a system within the system and is an opponent of the President, although he may not be interested in strengthening Tymoshenko’s positions.


In general, Poroshenko’s current position does not allow us to say with confidence that he will find himself in the second round. In order to win the election, Poroshenko and his team need, at the very least, for a single candidate representing the southeast to stand against the current president in the second round, having previously conquered Tymoshenko and Hrytsenko.


This scenario appears unlikely, but it is too early to state that Poroshenko has no chance of winning the election. What could certainly help him is a worsening of the situation in Donbass with the West’s tacit consent. This would increase the demand for Poroshenko’s electoral ideology, but would simultaneously broaden the civil divide in Ukraine. Such a development is fraught with new risks for Ukrainian society, but it can indeed increase Poroshenko’s popularity. In this context, the assassination of separatist leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko and the subsequent announcement of the date of election in the Donetsk People’s Republic might be used as a pretext for the presidential team to resort to reciprocal unilateral steps, such as, at the very least, a temporary deviation (until after the election) from the Minsk agreements, which are hardly being observed as it is.



Tymoshenko’s Last Attempt?


Poroshenko’s most serious rival is Tymoshenko, whose popularity exceeds that of the other candidates by 5–8 per cent. Tymoshenko’s supporters mainly live in central Ukraine, in small and medium-sized towns and villages. She is less popular in the west and the east of the country, but even there her ratings are far from disastrous. Tymoshenko’s popularity grew this summer, mainly because she was the first to begin campaigning with the launch of the New Course programme, her stated support for the idea of a parliamentary republic led by a chancellor and her calls for a social contract to be signed.


Some Ukrainian political analysts have even suggested that Tymoshenko started her campaign too early, but the current popularity ratings indicate the opposite: it is very important for a candidate to begin campaigning as the unconditional leader of the race. Tymoshenko certainly benefits from her image as a fighter against the current corrupt government, her party’s developed grassroots structure and her personal charisma. Nevertheless, there are quite a lot of factors that may prevent her from winning the election. To begin with, Tymoshenko has a high negative rating: a significant number of voters have a persistently negative attitude towards her and would not vote for her under any circumstances. A number of Ukrainian oligarchs also oppose her candidacy, and they are not likely to make a coordinated choice in the current campaign. Despite the fact that Ihor Kolomoyskyi, Pinchuk and Akhmetov do support Tymoshenko, they are not happy about the prospects of her becoming the next president.


In the people’s minds, Tymoshenko is firmly associated with the corruption schemes she was a party to back when she worked with Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko. Many of these schemes could now be used as compromising materials against her. In addition, there are a number of problems facing Tymoshenko in terms of her campaign. She will have to fight on several fronts at once, promoting the fight against the external threat, paying attention to the nationalist electorate and constantly mentioning social and economic issues. Her New Course allowed her to emerge from her fairly narrow and habitual niche of social populism for a while: she was not speaking to ordinary rural residents and low-income residents of small and medium-sized cities, but to the elite of Ukrainian society. However, she will soon have to withdraw to her traditional niche again as Poroshenko strives to establish his leadership in the ideological and strategic field.


In the current situation, Tymoshenko’s chances of making it into the second round appear to be rather high, although not entirely guaranteed. However, much will depend on who she will be standing against. The probability of Tymoshenko winning the election is quite high, because Lyashko, Sadovyi and Vakarchuk can hardly be viewed as serious candidates. Lyashko is using Akhmetov’s support and media resources to capture votes from Tymoshenko in central Ukraine, and will most likely be used as a bargaining chip in order to steal voters from the leader of the race. Sadovyi is very much a regional political leader, and his Self-Reliance party is suffering from serious internal problems. Vakarchuk, who is being backed by Pinchuk, has not yet announced his intention to stand, and probably never will. The probability of these three winning the election is extremely small. As for Hrytsenko, Rabinovych and the candidates representing the Opposition Bloc, they are much more serious rivals.



Hrytsenko: A Potential Enlightened Dictator


Hrytsenko is a rather mysterious figure in Ukrainian politics, not because little is known about his, but in terms of his potential. On the one hand, he is a former minister of defence, albeit without any combat experience; he studied in the United States; and he meets society’s demand for a strong leader – somewhat rustic but fair, who would keep true to a pro-Western course while ensuring order and the anti-Russian consolidation of the nationalist electorate. On the other hand, Hrytsenko, unlike Lyashko, does not behave like a downright hillbilly. His current level of popularity is quite high, he actually can expect to make it to the second round and compete against Poroshenko and a notional south-eastern candidate. However, despite the possible support from some part of the U.S. establishment, Hrytsenko’s campaign raises a number of questions. He always sounds boring on TV, his words very obviously lack what it takes to be a successful candidate, and his political structure is not developed enough on the ground. In addition, Hrytsenko has apparently been unable to agree terms with either Sadovyi or Vakarchuk, which is very important for him to do prior to the first round of the election. In other words, the probability of Hrytsenko winning is currently rather small. In addition, it is entirely possible that Poroshenko will convince Hrytsenko to withdraw before the first round and hand his voters over to the current president.



The Southeast: Hopes for a Second Round and Alliances


An interesting situation is unfolding in south-eastern Ukraine. The For Life party Vadym Rabinovych has enlisted the support of Viktor Medvedchuk, former Head of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine under Leonid Kuchma. Medvedchuk has a controversial reputation owing to his open pro-Russian views. This news caused repercussions in Ukraine. Medvedchuk had preferred to stay away from the media spotlight ever since his time in the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (united), and since his involvement, from 2014, in the sensitive operations to exchange prisoners of war as part of the Minsk agreements, using broad relations in Russia.


Now Medvedchuk has reactivated his old ties with the For Life party and, thanks to the help from his somewhat forgotten movement Ukrainian Choice, he has become an effective curator and patron of For Life, whose presidential candidate is still Rabinovych, who is a controversial figure himself. It is noteworthy that Medvedchuk began helping For Life after Yevhen Murayev, another important figure in the party whose relations with Rabinovych are quite tense, lost his influence. Now, especially after control over NewsOne has been handed over to Portnov, Murayev has definitely lost some of his political weight within For Life and may eventually launch his own project in time for the parliamentary election. Medvedchuk, for his part, has dramatically increased his control of the media – his interviews with 112 Ukraine, and The Independent are proof of this. Medvedchuk further made the headlines in connection with the scandal involving a biopic about the dissident Vasyl Stus, who died in a Soviet prison. Medvedchuk was Stus’s lawyer at the trial, and was later accused of not having done enough to defend his client. Despite this, Medvedchuk remains one of the most respected lawyers in Ukraine.


It is obvious that Medvedchuk is eyeing not only the presidential election, but also the parliamentary polls. It is also known that he suggested that the Opposition Bloc, which consists of several opposing groups (there are disagreements between Akhmetov, Dmytro Firtash and Serhiy Lyovochkin), nominate a single presidential candidate, but on his terms. Medvedchuk’s opposition bloc Ne Tak! (Not So!), which existed in 2005–06, eventually failed, and many today doubt his potential as a public politician.


It is also important that the Opposition Bloc has no single candidate today to offer the public. Boyko has the highest rating among the party functionaries, and he still has a chance to make it to the second round. The main problem of the Opposition Bloc is that it is too blurred: there is no single strong leader, while people in the southeast of the country needs a political and moral leader who would not be overly associated with the oligarchy.


It is clear that in the current situation a candidate representing the southeast will be unable to win the election. However, Medvedchuk is capable of ensuring the victory of a relatively acceptable candidate, securing himself a good starting position ahead of the parliamentary election and eventually establishing himself in the future parliament or government. The question is who Medvedchuk is going to support. He might benefit more from Tymoshenko’s victory, but for a candidate whose voters are mostly anti-Russian, Tymoshenko will probably lose if she associates herself with Medvedchuk. Besides, Poroshenko could use this association against Tymoshenko. Nevertheless, Tymoshenko would certainly benefit from finding herself pitted in the second round against Rabinovych if the latter is nominated as the single candidate in the southeast. It should be noted that the Ukrainian oligarchy is wary of Tymoshenko, which is why Poroshenko may still win the second round if he stands against her. It is also clear that Tymoshenko is more inclined to cooperate with the European Union than the United States, and the possibility cannot be ruled out that influential circles in the United States have compromising evidence against the former prime minister.


The political infighting in Ukraine is currently quite fierce. Occasionally it results in temporary alliances being formed and the situation can change quickly. All this is taking place against the backdrop of the deterioration of the situation in Donbass and the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian agenda is once again coming to the fore, and the extremely uncomfortable pre-election position of the current president may prompt him, in the coming months, to escalate the situation – both as part of the presidential campaign and in Ukraine’s relations with Russia.





This article was originally published by the RIAC and is reproduced with their kind permission





Aleksandr Gushchin

PhD in History, Associate Professor, Department of Post-Soviet Countries, Russian State University for the Humanities, RIAC expert.

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