Ukrainians can look forward to virtually an entire year of intensive electioneering in 2019 as the country holds presidential and parliamentary elections. Ukraine will elect a new leader in spring, with the first round of voting in the presidential election scheduled for 31 March and a second round runoff, if required, set for 21 April. A parliamentary vote will then take place at the end of October. This means Ukrainians face an unrelenting cacophony of campaign noise lasting from the first weeks of January until the start of November.
The stakes could hardly be higher. The coming election cycle will likely determine the fate of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution and confirm whether the country’s bid to escape the Kremlin orbit is to prove successful.
Presidential and parliamentary votes held in the post-revolutionary environment of 2014 resulted in resounding victories for pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian political forces. A repeat of this performance in 2019 would seal Ukraine’s historic westwards turn and cement the biggest change to the geopolitical map of Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Russia will be counting on a repeat of 2010, when Kremlin-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych won the presidential vote and reversed the pro-Western course adopted following Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. However, there is far less chance of Russia securing any election success on this occasion.
Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war against Ukraine has proven disastrous for Russian influence in the country and the coming elections are expected to underline this fact once again. The Russian occupation of Crimea along with parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions has effectively disenfranchised millions of Ukrainians who formerly served as the electoral base of the country’s pro-Russian political parties. Indeed, Yanukovych’s 2010 presidential election victory relied heavily on the overwhelming support he enjoyed in these three regions of Ukraine.
Throughout the rest of Ukraine, Putin’s war has made Russia so toxic that even the most previously vocal supporters of the Kremlin now find themselves forced to cloak their advocacy in the language of pragmatism and compromise. Once guaranteed between 30% and 40% of any Ukrainian national vote, today’s pro-Russian parties would consider anything over 10% to be an encouraging result.
The Russian retreat from Ukrainian politics has not enabled a new generation to emerge. On the contrary, the political forces contesting Ukraine’s presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019 will be all too familiar to voters. The two presidential frontrunners, incumbent Petro Poroshenko and current favorite Yulia Tymoshenko, both began their political careers in the 1990s. Indeed, the current popularity of comedian Volodymyr Zelensky and rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk in presidential opinion polls suggests an electorate so desperate for change that it is prepared to entertain almost any alternatives.
Novelty presidential candidates are a symptom of Ukraine’s imperfect democracy, but they should not distract from the main event. The battle between Tymoshenko and Poroshenko will set the political tone for the entire year and beyond. If Poroshenko is able to hold on for a second presidential term, this will leave him well placed to secure a strong result in the following parliamentary vote. However, a Tymoshenko win in the spring presidential ballot would transform the entire Ukrainian political landscape and pave the way for a potential landslide victory in autumn’s parliamentary election.
Tymoshenko is a formidable opponent for President Poroshenko. She is probably the most skilled politician in the country and a powerful orator who has intimidated the biggest beasts of Ukrainian politics for over two decades.
Her 2019 presidential campaign is her third – she lost to Yanukovych in a second round runoff in 2010 and fell at the first hurdle against Poroshenko in 2014. Most pundits agree that the coming vote represents by far her best chance - and likely her last.
The Tymoshenko campaign has attracted criticism over populism (including a pledge to breach the country’s IMF commitments by halving household gas bills) and has faced widespread innuendo regarding her alleged readiness to strike deals with Russia. Extensive positive coverage of the Tymoshenko campaign on Ukraine’s most Kremlin-friendly TV channels has served to reinforce perceptions that she is Moscow’s preferred candidate, but Tymoshenko herself has publicly remained an outspoken critic of Russian aggression and continues to back Ukrainian membership of both NATO and the European Union.
President Poroshenko will seek to counter Tymoshenko’s populist appeal by promoting the achievements of his first term in office. At first glance, there appears little to brag about. However, given the dire situation of the country when he took office in spring 2014 and the poor performances of previous Ukrainian presidents, his record is not without relative merit.
Poroshenko’s election campaign rests on the three pillars of army, religion and language. Of the three, the strengthening of the army is perhaps the greatest single success of Poroshenko’s presidency. In spring 2014 when Russian launched its hybrid invasion of eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian army was a shambles with only around 6,000 combat-ready troops. Today, it is a battle-hardened and often well-equipped fighting force numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
Poroshenko can also point to the advent of visa-free EU travel and the recent establishment of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church as key achievements. He has managed to maintain international support for Ukraine throughout his presidency, signing an Association Agreement with the EU back in 2014 and recently securing renewed financial backing from the IMF and World Bank thanks to positive assessments of the modest reform progress he has overseen.
The current Ukrainian head of state has also been relatively successful on the international stage. His diplomatic efforts have helped sustain sanctions against Moscow despite relentless Russian efforts to undermine fragile European unity over the issue of Kremlin aggression in Ukraine.
Crucially, Poroshenko has failed to achieve a definitive break with the institutionalized corruption that helped spark both of Ukraine’s two post-Soviet revolutions. Despite enjoying an overwhelming mandate for change in 2014, he is widely blamed for allowing the old system of oligarchic clan rule to reassert itself, and has repeatedly fallen short of anti-corruption expectations at crucial moments throughout his presidency. Nevertheless, he helped the country avoid complete economic collapse in the dark days of 2014 and has instead overseen three years of modest GDP growth.
For many Poroshenko supporters, the coming presidential vote is therefore a question of better the devil you know. The incumbent may not inspire passionate support, but for a significant portion of the electorate, he remains the least worst option.
Much will now depend on the readiness of Ukrainians to gamble on a Tymoshenko presidency. Will they play safe and back the imperfect incumbent, or will they bet on a candidate who has dominated the Ukrainian political landscape since the turn of the millennium without ever quite living up to her billing as nation savior?
The unpredictability of the race is an indication that Ukrainian democracy is alive and well, and we are likely to be kept guessing right up until the results of a second round runoff are confirmed in late April. The outcome will determine the country’s political trajectory for the coming years, while also shaping the geopolitical climate for the entire region.