Can Tyhypko Spoil Tymoshenko’s First-Round Party?

By Tammy Lynch

On Wednesday, the Associated Press distributed an interesting article, which appeared in numerous papers including the New York Times.

Orange Leaders Face Shutout in Ukraine Election,” the article said, quoting a new poll by the Russian VTsIOM polling agency regarding the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election to be held this Sunday. The poll, conducted from Jan 3-10, found that former central bank head Serhiy Tyhypko had moved slightly ahead of Prime Minster Yulia Tymoshenko into second place, with 14.4% versus 13.9%, respectively. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 4%. First place remains solidly within the grasp of former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych (30.5%).

If true, and if these percentages prove to be accurate during the election, Tyhypko, not Tymoshenko, would meet Yanukovych in the second round on February 7. It would be a stunning development; a Yanukovych-Tymoshenko second round has been viewed for months as a virtual certainty by observers and political leaders alike.

There is no doubting that Tyhypko has experienced a popularity surge since November. A survey of polls from September to December shows Tihipko’s rating increasing from 1.6% in September to 5.7% at the end of November, according to the FOM-Ukraine agency, and from 3.6% in October to 7.4% in mid-December, according to the Research & Branding Group. The Kyiv International Institute of Sociology also found Tihipko’s rating at around 7% in a poll ending on December 24. Given Tyhypko’s trajectory there is a possibility that his rating jumped from around 7% to 14% in just several weeks. But that possibility is very, very slim. (A table containing the FOM-Ukraine and Research & Branding Group polls is found here.

What is certain is that the VTsIOM polling agency is fully owned and run by the Russian government, after a forcible takeover of the formerly independent firm in 2003 by the Russian Property Ministry. Given Russia’s past use of polls to influence elections or declare winners (who weren’t), this poll is naturally suspect. It could be free of any manipulations, and the numbers for Yanukovych and Tymoshenko do appear in the ballpark of other polls. But alternatively, could this mean that Russia has a new favorite in the race – or at least another viable option?

Unlike in 2005, Russia has generally avoided direct public involvement in this election. However, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s repeated agreements with Tymoshenko to forestall any gas crisis could be viewed as tacit support, and his praise of Tymoshenko has also been frequent. Nevertheless, despite rumors of a falling-out, Yanukovych is still able to claim Moscow’s ear, and portrays himself as best able to work with Russia. Neither Putin nor President Dmitry Medvedev has made an obvious choice.

So as Ukrainians head to cast their votes, this new poll generates interesting questions. If the numbers are realistic and do show a Tihipko upset in the making, the result would drip irony in two important ways:

First, many originally accused the former banker of entering the race as nothing more than a “technical” candidate on behalf of Prime Minister Tymoshenko. Apparently not.

And finally, in 2004, Tyhypko was widely believed to be the best, most credible candidate to challenge then-opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko for the presidency on behalf of then-President Leonid Kuchma. For reasons still not understood, he was overlooked in favor of Yanukovych. Yushchenko then won, following the “orange revolution” protests.

It seems everyone will be watching the first-round results a bit more closely than originally planned.

Tammy can be reached on twitter @TammyLynch. For Ukraine election news on twitter, follow @UkraineElect and @Internews. Also, use #elect_ua for all election-related tweets in any language, and view them on