Ukraine is halfway through a presidential election: The first round took place on March 31, and the run-off is coming up on April 21. At the annual Kyiv Security Forum and in other conversations in Kyiv last week, I had the opportunity to catch up on the latest developments in Ukraine, and came away with five key observations.
Ukraine again scores a democratic election
Ukraine pulled off the March 31 election with no major hitch. Voting and ballot-counting proceeded smoothly. The Central Election Commission’s vote tallies corresponded with exit poll results and a non-governmental parallel count. The International Election Observer Mission (IEOM) released a preliminary assessment that noted some problems but termed the election competitive, reported that candidates campaigned freely, and said that the electorate had a broad choice.
The fact that Ukraine held a free, competitive presidential election should come as no surprise. The previous four presidential votes—the third round of the 2004 election (after the Supreme Court ordered a rerun of the run-off following the Orange Revolution), the general and run-off rounds of the 2010 election, and the 2014 election after the Maidan Revolution—all earned free, fair, and competitive assessments. Another indicator of a free and fair election: While he made it to the run-off, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko came in a distant second.
Sadly, Ukraine’s democratic experience remains a relative rarity in the post-Soviet space. Showing no sense of irony, Russian media cherry-picked criticisms from the IEOM’s assessment to disparage the overall election, yet that election contrasted markedly with the Russian presidential election in 2018. Indeed, in early March, few Ukrainians could say with certainty which two candidates would make it to the run-off; most Russians could have said with certainty who would win their 2018 presidential election as early as 2013.
Barring a miracle, it will be President Zelensky
TV comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won the first round, capturing 30.24 percent of the popular vote to Poroshenko’s 15.95 percent. Pre-election polls projected a Zelensky win (the question was who would face him in the run-off). His rise since announcing his candidacy in late December is striking. Six or eight months ago, pundits projected a run-off between Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, who came in third.
Poroshenko received more bad news on April 11, with the release of the first polls regarding the run-off. One showed Zelensky ahead 51 percent to 21 percent, with an even bigger lead of 61 percent to 24 percent among those likely to vote. A second poll of those likely to vote gave Zelensky a yet wider margin: 71 percent to 24 percent. Those numbers pose a daunting challenge for the incumbent, who appears competitive only in western Ukraine.
Poroshenko deserves credit for overseeing some impressive reforms, and he has had to cope with a low-intensity war with Russia. Reforms, however, slowed after 2016. Voters felt that Poroshenko had not done enough to fight corruption or challenge the outsized political and economic influence of the country’s oligarchs. He also suffered from an under-performing economy. The electorate wanted change.
It is difficult to see how Poroshenko can turn things around in the short time before Sunday’s run-off, though a few still believe he has a chance. They argue the electorate emotionally cast a protest vote but now must ask who really should lead the country: Poroshenko or a political neophyte.
The president’s campaign has gone negative, seeking to portray the run-off as a choice between Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin. That appears to be having little impact. On the evening of April 11, the president crashed a TV talk show on a pro-Zelensky network and had a brief, bitter telephone exchange with his rival. The episode carried a whiff of desperation. Poroshenko says he wants to debate Zelensky, but the two cannot agree on details. Zelensky did not show up at Poroshenko’s proposed debate on April 14, and the president says he will not turn up at Zelensky’s proposed venue on April 19.
Who is Zelensky?
Ukrainians and Western diplomats are trying to figure out what a Zelensky presidency would mean. One senior Ukrainian official’s comment—the comedian “is talented and smart, but how will he govern if he wins?”—reflects the views of many.
On television, Zelensky plays a common man thrust unexpectedly into the presidency, where he wages war against the ills that trouble Ukraine. The show is called Sluha Narodu (Servant of the People). During the campaign, Zelensky gave few interviews, held no campaign rallies, and did not lay out positions in any detail, instead letting his television persona define his image.
Zelensky has described in generalities a readiness to negotiate with Putin but with the goal of recovering all Russian-occupied territories; support for joining the European Union and NATO; and a desire to end corruption and fully liberalize the economy. His supporters—who include several noted reformers—describe a Russia-wary, pro-Western candidate who will put fighting corruption at the top of his agenda. Some suggest Zelensky would take a hard line with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its conditions. That could prove tricky. Ukraine needs financing, and no bank matches IMF rates.
Other Ukrainians hold a darker view of a Zelensky presidency. They express concern about his links to Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch who owns the network that broadcasts Sluha Narodu. Kolomoisky now resides in Israel after his bank, the largest in Ukraine, was taken over by Ukraine’s central bank following charges of financial improprieties. Critics question Zelensky’s lack of political experience, his ability to deal with Putin, and his commitment to a pro-Western course.
Zelensky reportedly this week will name key members of his team, including the foreign and defense ministers, chief of the general staff, head of the Security Service of Ukraine and procurator general. That could provide indications as to his planned direction.
A debate would provide Zelensky the venue to further define his prospective presidency and allow the country’s voters an opportunity to compare and contrast the positions of the run-off candidates. But a debate likely is not in the cards. Zelensky easily bested his opponents in the first round by avoiding specifics; why change a winning strategy now?
The Russians—the dog that didn’t bark?
Many expected the Russians, who used force to seize and illegally annex Crimea in 2014 and then fostered a simmering conflict in the eastern region of Donbas, to interfere in Ukraine’s election. They undoubtedly did—but with little apparent effect.
Ukrainian officials say Russian hackers had probed the Central Election Commission’s systems but without success. One noted that the Russians seemed more focused on general destabilization of the country rather than the election.
The Kremlin has made clear it wants Poroshenko to be a one-term president. Beyond that, however, Russian officials have taken care not to endorse a particular candidate, perhaps understanding that a “Russian favorite” tag would not prove helpful. Yuriy Boyko, head of the Opposition Bloc—the closest thing in Ukraine to a pro-Russian party—visited Moscow on the eve of the election and returned with a plan to obtain cheaper gas. That might have helped him in the eastern part of the country, from where most of his votes came. He did better than expected but still finished fourth.
The fact that part of Donbas remains occupied by Russian and Russian proxy forces severely hampers the election prospects for someone such as Boyko. The population there, which historically has favored close relations with Russia, could not vote. Nor could the population of Crimea, the only part of Ukraine in which ethnic Russians constitute a majority.
It’s not over until it’s over
Ukrainians will know their next president late on April 21, though the official vote may take a week to report. The winner will be inaugurated no later than 30 days after the Central Election Commission announces the official result. But another national ballot looms on October 27: the Rada (parliament) elections.
The majority coalition that emerges after the new Rada is seated will select the prime minister. Zelensky, if he becomes president, will need to build his political party—named, not coincidentally, Sluha Narodu—to secure a large bloc in the Rada. That matters, as executive power in Ukraine is bifurcated, with the prime minister choosing most of the cabinet. Other parties could see defections from their ranks if Sluha Narodu builds steam, but speculation has already begun about the kind of opposition might emerge.
Some see a possibility that Zelensky might try to force snap elections in order to translate a big win on April 21 into a quick Rada win for Sluha Narodu. However, that does not appear legally possible. The Rada cannot be dismissed within six months of the end of its term. That clock starts ticking in late May, and procedural rules would not allow a newly inaugurated president time to call an early election before the six-month period began.
Politics in Ukraine have never been easy or straightforward, and they have at several points taken radical turns. The country may be entering one such period now. How Zelensky—assuming he wins on Sunday—takes on presidential responsibilities and manages the complex politics that follow will matter greatly for Ukraine’s ability to continue its reform path, deepen integration with Europe, secure peace, and regain occupied territories…all despite Russian efforts to return it to Moscow’s orbit.