Ukraine Pre -Election Update

by Tammy Lynch

On October 19, Ukraine’s presidential election campaign will officially begin, in advance of the first round of elections on January 17.

The campaign is set to take place during Ukraine’s worst economic crisis since the mid-1990s, amid an atmosphere of cynicism and increasing apathy. Nevertheless, a recent poll suggests that a majority of Ukrainians plan to vote in the election.

The Kyiv-based Research and Branding Group found 60% of those polled said they were likely to vote, while 23% may vote. In 2004, the Central Election Commission recorded an approximate 75% turnout in the first-round of the election. However, given questions raised by monitors about the entire election process in 2004, it is likely that this figure is inflated.

The bad news for the current leadership is that they continue to trail in the polls behind nominal opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych. Mr. Yanukovych will forever be known as the man who was named president during the 2004 fraudulent election, but saw his “victory” overturned by massive street protests and the country’s Supreme Court. There is every possibility that he could also become known as Ukraine’s next president.

This month’s Research and Branding poll gives Yanukovych 30.2% support, with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko garnering 18.5% and upstart Arseniy Yantsenyuk earning 8.9%. President Viktor Yushchenko barely rates on the chart. The President – blamed for not fulfilling most reforms demanded during the 2004 protests that led to his election – is supported by just 3.1%.

The poll shows a slight lengthening of Yanukovych’s lead over Tymoshenko. In an August poll by the same company, Yanukovych was supported by 26% of those asked, while Tymoshenko earned 16.5%. Yatsenyuk at that time could count on 12.5%.

Yanukovych appears to have benefited from the continuing economic crisis, a number of unproven corruption charges from opponents against Tymoshenko, and Yanukovych’s loud but financially untenable demands to raise pensions and minimum wages.

In response, Tymoshenko, who is known as a highly effective personal campaigner, is pushing her Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko hard, with her most important allies focusing on the election issue. It is possible that she is spurred by the knowledge that her bloc is dangerously close to splintering, held loosely together only by her personal power and prestige. The Russia-tilting recently reported a back-door conversation with a Party of Regions (Yanukovych) deputy, suggesting that if Tymoshenko loses the presidency, they have assurances of the defection of a large number of her current allies.

All is not rosy for Yanukovych, however. ProUA also reported that support for him personally – and of more importance, financially – is weak within his own party. He also is an inferior campaigner to Tymoshenko, although he has improved in recent years. And there is trepidation within Yanukovych’s Party of Regions over past polling numbers for Tymoshenko that proved to be up to 10 points less than actual results.

The biggest loser since August clearly is Arseniy Yatsenyuk, however, whose campaign staff, advertisements and message have been confused and muddled. While it is too soon to count out the former parliamentary speaker, all signs point to a two-horse race heading into the January poll. Should a second round be necessary,a prospect which is almost guaranteed, it will likely take place in early to mid February.