The Ukrainian Presidential Elections in Times of Distrust

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After the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections we asked three authors to analyse the outcomes from different perspectives. Yevhen Hlibovytsky, Hanna Shelest and Sergej Sumlenny have a close look at the general outcomes, foreign and security policy related issues as well as sociological aspects. 

The General Political Aspects of the Elections

by Yevhen Hlibovytsky

The presidential elections in Ukraine brought the first round to a dramatic finale. The incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, managed to get into the second round, something that has not happened in Ukraine since the 1990s. But the biggest surprise was the landslide result of Volodymyr Zelensky, a stand-up comedian and actor, who, technically a political outsider, managed to secure 30% of the popular vote in Ukraine.

Newcomer Volodymyr Zelensky

Volodymyr Zelensky is a newcomer and it is difficult to say where exactly his political stances are. He has a cheerful group of supporters with strikingly different backgrounds. Part of his support comes from civil society activists, who are appalled at the way Petro Poroshenko is conducting his presidency. Some comes from nostalgic pro-Soviet voters, who do not see a capable candidate representing them. The paternalist rhetoric and Soviet-style jokes of Mr Zelensky and his inner circle have made him a viable candidate. His remaining support comes from young voters, predominantly those who feel that the entire political system is failing them. Zelensky has energised voters of different kinds and acts like a blank canvas upon which his voters project their expectations. He avoids speaking on policy issues. The prospect of victory for Mr Zelensky is creating a stressful uncertainty among many Ukrainians, who are not sure whether they will have to go back to the manual mode of keeping the government within a coherent corridor on major policy issues. And last but not least - Volodymyr Zelensky may have a political debt to pay to billionaire oligarch Igor Kolomoysky, who was the governor of Dnipro when war with Russia broke out. Igor Kolomoysky's media were behind Zelensky’s rise to where he is today. And as Kolomoysky is bitter at being the first of the oligarchs to be pushed out of the system, while others are still playing, Zelensky now comes as revenge against those who punished Kolomoysky.

Will Petro Poroshenko keep the lead?

Petro Poroshenko has narrowed his base in the second half of his presidency. In 2014, he started as a partner of civil society and a centrist integrator, but eventually moved closer to the traditionalist conservative platform and, while technically still reformist, he often turned against the motions he publicly supported. Poroshenko's role in the orthodox autocephaly may be historic, but he lost support beyond the conservative base and never gained complete trust there either, which was reflected in low voter turnout in areas where he previously performed well. During his term, Poroshenko relied on the multiple deals he struck with other oligarchs and his corrupt circles to be able to exercise his political power, to the extent that many of his supporters began to doubt his ability to continue on the reformist course should he win the presidential race. All is not lost for Poroshenko; he has a devout support base, but he clearly needs to win new supporters, and this will not be easy. A strong resentment of political authority runs in the political culture in Ukraine as the after-effect of many years of totalitarian and colonial repression, making the job significantly more difficult for any incumbent.

The other candidates

Yulia Tymoshenko has suffered probably the biggest political defeat of her career. Her connection with the younger generation of voters looks more superficial, demographics are bad for her traditional base in smaller towns. Once defeated in the presidential campaign, it is likely that she will become a loser in the parliamentary elections as well, unless she conveniently sides with the victor. She may become a partner of convenience for Zelensky, who has no grass roots representations and is more present online than offline.

Yuriy Boyko's good performance in the east is a reminder that one has to be national to win, so he and the hardline pro-Kremlin policy are on the melting iceberg as well.

The only nationalist candidate won less than 2% of the vote, clearly showing that the political preferences of Ukrainian society are much closer to the centre.

The vote had a few other interesting aspects. The candidates' supporters were more evenly spread across the country. Regional differences persist, but can hardly be described as gulfs. The biggest gap that these elections show are between the large and small cities, and it is only beginning to take shape.

Foreign and Security Policy Aspects

by Hanna Shelest

Although foreign and security policy are major responsibilities of the President of Ukraine, most of the candidates didn’t pay any significant attention to these areas during the presidential race. Apart from concentrating predominantly on criticising the incumbent President Poroshenko, the main discourse of the campaigns centred around anti-corruption issues, energy prices and economic and social development. The reason for this is that in terms of foreign policy and defence reform, President Poroshenko had evidence to prove his success - visa-free regime with the EU, EU Association Agreement, anti-Russian sanctions and massive support to the security sphere from NATO and other transatlantic partners. There was not much room for alternative propositions from other candidates. As a result, the only 'innovation' was a proposal of Mrs Tymoshenko for a so-called Budapest+ format for the Donbas settlement, instead of Normandy Four, where Germany and France participate. 

The second round will set the current President, Petro Poroshenko, against showman Volodymyr Zelensky. If the President is easy to analyse in terms of his views and plans in the foreign and security policy area, with clearly defined plans for EU and NATO integration, Zelensky is terra incognita. By the time of the elections, his foreign and security advisors had not been introduced, and in rare comments by him and his team, these two domains were almost entirely absent, especially defence. 

The main question raised was whether the foreign policy course will change if a new president takes up office. On the one hand, it should be borne in mind that just a month before the elections, the Parliament of Ukraine adopted changes to the country’s Constitution, including European integration and NATO membership as a strategic choice of the State. So this step is seen as a prevention mechanism against possible future surprises. 

For Poroshenko, the EU and NATO membership of Ukraine is a core strand of his foreign strategy. By implementing it, bringing all forces of the MFA, his administration, MoD and other agencies involved to reach this objective, he even sometimes allowed himself to take his eye off other important regions, such as China, for example. 

Ukraine's Western partners should not be naive enough to think that if Zelensky is inexperienced he will seek their advice and will be easier to work with. The problem is that without a clearly articulated personal position, he will be easier for various advisors to manipulate. The second problem is his current lack of understanding of what European and Euro-Atlantic integration mean, how much domestic daily work it involves, which institutions have already been hard at work in this sphere. His team's proposal to create an office for coordinating the European integration of Ukraine within the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine is a vivid example, because such an office was established more than a year ago, headed by the Vice Prime Minister at the time, and is among the most active and successful bodies within the Ukrainian government. 

Zelensky’s policy towards Russia is even less clear, as during the campaign his opinion changed from 'I will talk to the Russian President and ask him what he wants from Ukraine' (which earned him a lot of criticism inside the country, as Mr Putin’s intentions are well known) to 'I will meet with Putin only to ask how much he is prepared to pay for the reconstruction of the destroyed Donbas, once this region has been returned to Ukraine'. Neither the issues of Crimea, Donbas reintegration and IDPs, nor sanctions against Russia received any attention from Zelensky’s side during the first round of elections. 

As the only openly pro-Kremlin candidate, Mr. Boyko received only 11% support and didn’t get to the second round, so there is no point in expecting a dramatic shift in the current Ukrainian policy of deeper European and Euro-Atlantic integration. However, a win for Zelenskiy would slow down this process, at least for a while, as firstly, his attention may be concentrated on areas other than foreign policy, and secondly, he will need some time to learn what has already been done and how to proceed further. At the same time, should Poroshenko continue for a second term, it would be easier for Ukraine's EU and NATO partners to push for more reforms under agreements already signed, and to have a predictable partner whose pro-European position is beyond doubt. 

Sociological Aspects

by Sergej Sumlenny

Volodymyr Zelensky has managed to gain broad support from very different social groups in almost every region of Ukraine. What unites his supporters is disappointment in the ruling elites and a wish for rapid change. Still, there is no consensus as to what kind of change it should be. 

The support that Volodymyr Zelensky won during the first round of elections looks more than just impressive. Just three months ago, his rating was below 10% - and now he has received slightly over 30% of the votes. His support, moreover, is spread all over Ukraine. While the most pro-Zelensky regions are in the South and the East of Ukraine, where up to 45% of voters backed Zelensky, he has managed to win 20 out of 25 regions in Ukraine, winning over 20% of the votes in 23 of the 25. 

One of the most interesting changes in electoral dispersion is the creation of a new division, not between pro-West and pro-Russian voters (as often used to be the case in previous elections in Ukraine), but between people in differently secure economic situations. In the capital city of Kyiv, poll districts located near or around metro stations voted pro-Poroshenko and districts without proper transport connections – pro-Zelensky. With only three metro lines in a city of more than three million, apartments near a metro station in Kyiv are much more expensive, so the political division was clearly of an economic nature – at first in Ukraine, where political divisions have traditionally been mostly along regional or linguistic lines, but not economic ones. Effectively, a Russian-speaking Zelensky who barely speaks Ukrainian has managed to unite many disappointed or angry people all around Ukraine without a focus on ethnic, language or regional specifics. 
The 'Zelensky consensus' is an essential part of his election success. During the last three months, the candidate has deliberately avoided any specific statements. 'No promises – but no regrets' was one of Zelensky’s electoral campaign slogans, clearly stating his strength in allowing everybody to just imagine what they want a president to be, and invest Zelensky with this imaginary attitude. His TV show, where he mocks most politicians, as well as the TV series in which he plays a poor but honest history teacher who was elected president by mistake and started to fight corruption, helped him a lot in creating his image of an 'ordinary person like you and me'. In one of the episodes of his TV series, he starts a shooting in the parliament and kills every single deputy using two UZI machine guns – a pretty violent 90 seconds of broadcasting time that was later revealed as the protagonist’s dream. Zelensky’s current determination to avoid debates against Poroshenko at all costs (and to turn debates themselves into a very spectacular dispute about the format, venue and conditions of the debates) is for this very reason: Zelensky does not want to give clear statements that would put him into one political box or another and dramatically reduce the level of his support. Even candidate Trump in the U.S. had a far clearer political agenda: tax cuts, the wall, isolationism, readiness for trade wars. Regarding the candidate Zelensky, it is still not clear his politics could be even regarding Crimea and Donbas – and this is the question one might expect a Ukrainian politician to be able to answer.

Still, it is very important not to present Zelensky’s supporters as a homogeneous group or uneducated people. It is not the case that they all dislike the multiple positive goals of Poroshenko’s presidency: visa-free travel to Europe for Ukrainians, stabilisation of the Ukrainian currency, association with the EU, reform of the health-care system. Many of them would like to see more rapid and successful reforms, including the (almost failed) anti-corruption drive, reduction of bureaucracy, impartial investigation into the most dramatic criminal cases (including brutal killings of anti-corruption activists or the shooting on Maidan square during the Revolution of Dignity). The fact that the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who obviously stands behind Zelensky, is anything but a likely supporter of such reforms is probably not going to sway public opinion – too many people in Ukraine want to see rapid changes and the only way for them to make this clear to President Poroshenko is to vote for Volodymyr Zelensky. At the same time, it is not quite clear whether they will vote for Zelensky in the second round. It can happen that the fear of an unpredictable candidate could be greater than the desire to express their protest against Poroshenko for the second time in a row.