Up Front

Ukrainian Elections – It’s Yuliya vs Victor

Steven Pifer

Ukrainian voters went to the polls on January 17 to choose their next president. As foreshadowed by the past year of public opinion surveys, Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko will face Regions Party leader Victor Yanukovych in a February 7 run-off.

Yanukovych polled 35.4 percent to Tymoshenko’s 25 percent, with the rest of the vote scattered among 16 other candidates. Under Ukraine’s election laws, a candidate must take 50 percent to win outright. Turnout was nearly 67 percent, terrific by American standards but low for Ukraine. That’s understandable given the frustration with President Victor Yushchenko and the governments that have run the country since the 2004 Orange Revolution.

The election process won plaudits. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission reported the election was “of high quality” and “met most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments.” This is the fourth consecutive national ballot conducted in Ukraine that has earned high democratic marks, and Ukraine is the only post-Soviet state to merit a “fully free” rating from Freedom House – something to bear in mind when commentators suggest the end of the Orange Revolution.

Ukraine now faces a three-week campaign leading to the run-off on February 7. Three questions will determine whether Yanukovych or Tymoshenko wins the presidency.

First, Yanukovych has been consistent as a politician. Ukrainian voters know what they will get if he becomes president. They are less certain about Tymoshenko. As president, would she be the populist of 2005 or the more conservative and prudent leader of 2009? How she answers that question could prove critical to her presidential hopes.

Second, Tymoshenko is a more focused, energetic and driven campaigner than Yanukovych, and the election is now a one-on-one fight. Her team is confident thatshe will chip away at Yanukovych’s first round victory margin, but will her drive and energy suffice to close the ten-point lead that Yanukovych scored on January 17?

Third, who will the also-rans endorse and to whom will their voters turn in the run-off? Serhiy Tyhypko ran a surprisingly strong campaign to win 13 percent, and Arseniy Yatseniuk won nearly seven percent. Both are playing coy for now, but the Tymoshenko and Yanukovych camps are already reaching out with promises of prime ministerships and other political offers.

And what about Yushchenko? He placed fifth as voters held him primarily responsible for not doing more to build on the promise of the Orange Revolution. He deserves credit for his democratic instincts. Yanukovych’s return to political prominence after being cast aside following the Orange Revolution reflects the democratic space that Yushchenko created. But his overall record was one of too many missed opportunities and too few achievements.

Most of Yushchenko’s voters will likely go to Tymoshenko in the run-off. It will be interesting to see where Yushchenko’s own vote goes. His campaign appeared aimed less at winning reelection than at tearing down Tymoshenko. Will he endorse Yanukovych, his opponent in 2004, over his former ally? That would provide a truly ironic footnote to the history of the Orange Revolution.

Finally, what happened to the enterprising candidate who changed his name to Protivsikh? That translates in Ukrainian as “against all.” While perhaps appreciating the humor, Ukrainian voters took their votes seriously. Mr. Protivsikh wound up with a fifteenth place finish, trailing well behind the “Proti Vsikh” against all category in eighth.

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