Early Presidential Election Campaign Starts in Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 71

Petro Poroshenko (R) speaking to Vitaly Klichko (Source: European Pressphoto Agency)

On April 4, the Ukrainian Central Electoral Commission completed the registration of candidates for the country’s snap presidential election. It had been scheduled for May 25 by parliament in February, immediately after the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. Yet, the campaign has already attracted some violence as a number of registered candidates have come under attack from groups espousing opposing political views.

Twenty-three candidates have been registered to run for president, up from 18 in the regular election in 2010. However, no more than two or maybe three political heavyweights stand a chance of winning the race, according to recent opinion polls. These are people’s deputy and reputed oligarch Petro Poroshenko, former oligarch and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and another people’s deputy and rich businessman, Serhy Tyhypko, who was recently expelled from the formerly ruling Party of Regions (PRU) (http://www.unian.net/politics/904917-iz-partii-regionov-isklyuchili-tigipko-tsareva-i-boyko.html).

Another promising candidate, former world boxing champion Vitaly Klichko, bowed out of the race in favor of Poroshenko at the 11th hour (http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2014/03/29/7020706/). Less popular are Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko, PRU candidate and former Kharkiv Region governor Mykhaylo Dobkin, far-right Freedom party leader Oleg Tyahnybok, populist Radical Party leader Oleg Lyashko, former defense minister Anatoly Hrytsenko, and Olga Bohomolets, a doctor who was prominent in the Maidan protests. Yanukovych, who fled to Russia, said he would not recognize the early election (http://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=1332751).

According to the first nationwide opinion poll conducted after Klichko’s withdrawal from the race, by Razumkov think tank on March 28–April 2, 28.2 percent of Ukrainians were ready to cast their ballots for Poroshenko, up from the 24.9 percent who preferred him in the poll conducted jointly by Socis, KMIS, Rating and Razumkov on March 14–19. Poroshenko is trailed by Tymoshenko with 13.0 percent, up from 8.2 percent in the March poll, so she apparently benefited from Klichko’s unexpected decision most of all (Klichko was second in the March 14–19 poll with 8.9 percent). Further down the list are Tyhypko with 6.1 percent (down from 7.3 percent in March), Bohomolets with 3.7 percent, Lyashko and Dobkin with 3.6 percent each, followed by Symonenko (3.2 percent), Hrytsenko (3.0 percent) and Tyahnybok (1.6 percent) (http://ukraine-elections.com.ua/socopros/vybory_prezidenta).

The clear favorite, Poroshenko, 48, is a Forbes-listed billionaire who owns several confectioneries and machine-building factories in Ukraine and abroad, as well as one of Ukraine’s most popular news TV channels, 5 Kanal. He is apparently backed by several other local oligarchs (http://news.liga.net/articles/politics/1155799-timoshenko_protiv_poroshenko_kreml_oligarkhi_polnomochiya.htm; http://ubr.ua/ukraine-and-world/power/praimeriz-oligarhov-na-kogo-postavili-vladelcy-telegrupp-288616). Poroshenko was one of the PRU’s founders in the early 2000s, after which he switched allegiances several times. He served as Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council under then-president Viktor Yushchenko, as foreign minister and then economy minister under Yanukovych, and he chaired the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) council in 2005–2012. Poroshenko’s popularity jumped after his active participation in the Maidan protests, which was meticulously covered by 5 Kanal.

Tymoshenko, 53, was one of the most influential oligarchs in the mid-1990s, trading in gas. When her influential ally, then–prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko, fell out of favor with the president at the time, Leonid Kuchma, she declared herself an opposition leader. Tymoshenko served as a deputy prime minister in 2000, then was briefly imprisoned, apparently on trumped-up charges. Yushchenko appointed her prime minister in 2005 for helping him win the controversial election in 2004, accompanied by Orange Revolution protests. The same year, both Tymoshenko and Poroshenko were sacked as bitter rivalries for influence opened up between them and Yuschenko, and began to split the ruling “Orange coalition.” Tymoshenko returned to the post of prime minister in 2007–2010. In 2011, again on trumped-up charges, she was imprisoned for seven years for abusing her office in preparing controversial gas contracts with Russia. Tymoshenko was freed last February.

Both Poroshenko and Tymoshenko are moderate pro-Western nationalists. Their supporters are concentrated mainly in the national-minded west and center of Ukraine, but Poroshenko is less unpopular in the Russian-speaking areas. By contrast, another Forbes-listed billionaire and liberal candidate Tyhypko, 54, a former NBU head (2002–2004) and former deputy prime minister (1997–1999 and 2010–2012), is more popular in the Russian-speaking east and south. While Tymoshenko came in second in the 2010 presidential election, losing to Yanukovych by a narrow margin, Tyhypko was third.

Yanukovych’s successor will be less powerful. After the Ukrainian parliament ousted Yanukovych, it also returned to force the 2004 constitution, which had been replaced in 2010 (http://www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2014/02/22/7015690/). According to this constitution, a majority in parliament rather than the president appoints the prime minister. Russia does not recognize either the return to the 2004 constitution or the May 25 election, and there are fears that it may try to disrupt the campaign (http://rus.ruvr.ru/news/2014_03_29/CHurkin-Majskie-vibori-na-Ukraine-lish-usugubjat-raskol-strani-7354/).

Both pro-Russian protesters and the Ukrainian far-right have been playing into Moscow’s hands of late, staging attacks against presidential candidates, thereby allowing the Russian media to discredit the post-Yanukovych government and the election. On April 8, people’s deputies from Freedom, which is part of the current ruling coalition, attacked Communist Party leader and presidential candidate Symonenko in parliament—ironically because he had said that Freedom party members’ aggressive behavior was inadvertently supporting Vladimir Putin’s efforts to split Ukraine. Whereas, on April 9–10, Tyhypko, Dobkin and Oleg Tsaryov, a pro-Russian candidate, were physically attacked by pro-Western and pro-Russian protesters alike on their campaign trips across Russian-speaking regions (http://www.telegraf.in.ua/politics/2014/04/11/itogi-nedeli-pasha-odnako-v-careva-i-tigipko-letyat-yayca-v-dobkina-okurki-kommunistka-lupit-svobodovca_10036436.html). Restoring order will clearly be a formidable task for the next president, and one no less difficult that trying to build relations with Russia from scratch after the annexation of Crimea.