85-year old voter casts her vote. Photo: Michael Forster Rothbart, OSCE.

Election Presidential Elections in Ukraine: Political Unification in the Midst of Rebellion

Clearly, even in this extraordinary election, as so often happens, the voters assessed alternatives rationally rather than emotionally. Peace and prosperity come first. Yet this election was more a test of personal confidence than of specific issues.

Published on balticworlds.com on July 5, 2014

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The Ukrainian presidential election of May 25 took place in extraordinary circumstances. Starting out as student protests and gradually growing into a popular uprising supported by millions against the regime, the “Euromaidan” movement had ousted the sitting president Viktor Ianukovych a few months earlier. Fleeing Kiev on February 22, Mr. Ianukovych left the country to be governed by an interim president and an interim government that were not recognized in the eastern regions of Donbas and Kharkiv. Headed by the fairly young and European-minded Arseniy Iatseniuk, the government was immediately faced with tremendous challenges as Russia’s aggressive conquest of Crimea in early March brought tension to new heights. The violence that broke out shortly thereafter in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk provinces – the region known as the Donets Basin or Donbas – might well be called a small-scale civil war, and has kept the situation in Ukraine severely unstable. A disastrous economic situation added further to the government’s headaches and to its vulnerability in the current gas price negotiations with Russia. The fact that elections were held under such dire circumstances demonstrates the steadfast will of the government to bring Ukraine forward on an unswerving European path.

The presidential election resulted in a majority in the first round for Petro Poroshenko, who was sworn in on Saturday, June 8, at a ceremony in the Ukrainian national parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. Mr. Poroshenko had gained 54.7 percent of the vote, a clear victory which has been considered important to bridge tension in the country. Mr. Poroshenko is a successful entrepreneur and oligarch who has run the Ukrainian confectionery group Roshen since the mid-1990s. Although oligarchs, who represent the close intertwining of money and political power in Ukraine, have been blamed for many of the country’s ills, Mr. Poroshenko’s reputation is not too tarnished. The Roshen factories have been said to treat the men and women who work there fairly, paying salaries that are generally higher than average. Mr. Poroshenko chose to run as an independent candidate, but in the past he was a minister under both Viktor Iushchenko and Iuliia Tymoshenko. Clearly EU-friendly, on June 27 he fulfilled his promise to sign the Ukraine–EU Association Agreement, which paves the way for closer integration of Ukraine in the EU (alongside Georgia and Moldova). As a businessman, Mr. Poroshenko entertained good trade relations with Russia until recently, when Roshen was thrown out of the Russian market. Not surprisingly, support for Mr. Poroshenko is stronger in western and central Ukraine, where positive sentiment toward the EU prevails among voters. In contrast to both Mr. Iushchenko and Mr. Ianukovych, however, Mr. Poroshenko enjoys considerable support in other parts of Ukraine as well. This is important given that the Ukrainian political geography used to be completely polarized. In a presidential constitutional system, where the president is supposed to represent the entire country and not just parts of it, such a situation creates problems of legitimacy. Mr. Poroshenko is more of an all-Ukrainian president than his predecessors.

His closest rival for the presidency was the “princess” of the Orange Revolution of 2004, Iuliia Tymoshenko, who came in far behind with 12.8 percent of the vote. Today representing the party Bat’kivshchyna (Fatherland), Ms. Tymoshenko has a prominent biography in Ukrainian politics. A charismatic and shrewd political personality, she recreated herself early on from a dark-haired, hard-core businesswoman to an incarnation of “Mother Ukraine”, a vague allusion to a mythical Ukrainian past, with a golden braid and an innocent white dress. She rose to power in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution together with the other major personality of 2004, Viktor Iushchenko, whose face was severely disfigured by poisoning during the election campaign. Carrying the hopes and expectations of millions of Ukrainians, the two quickly ran into personal disputes. As the Orange infighting grew, it made decision-making more difficult, and urgent economic and institutional reforms were halted. Viktor Iushchenko’s Our Ukraine party and the Iuliia Tymoshenko Bloc appeared as rivals, paving the way for the growth of a third political force, the Donbas-based Party of Regions. Viktor Ianukovych’s victory in the 2010 presidential elections was the comeback of a man with a criminal past who had been defeated and accused of election fraud in 2004, but had rebuilt his position with the strong backing of the powerful Party of Regions. He defeated Iuliia Tymoshenko at the polls by campaigning on the issues of employment, welfare, and corruption, bringing an end to the unsuccessful rule of the “Orange Revolutionaries”.

Constitutional and institutional changes were quickly initiated in order to ensure Mr. Ianukovych’s reelection in 2015. The semi-presidential constitution that had been adopted in late 2004 was replaced by extended powers for the president and reduced influence for the parliament. Journalists, who had enjoyed growing freedom and security after the Orange Revolution, began to fear threats and harassment on the part of the regime once more. Iuliia Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, which removed a political rival from the scene, was a step too far, and made her – under her own skillful direction – an internationally known symbol of the Ianukovych government’s growing brutality. The European Union made its continued support of Ukraine contingent on her release. The rule of Viktor Ianukovych, who enriched himself, his family and his closest associates to an egregious extent[TC1] , proved catastrophic to the Ukrainian people. Their wrath and disappointment finally came to impeach him, and as he fled Kiev on February 22, Iuliia Tymoshenko was released and flown to the capital. From her wheelchair she spoke to the crowds assembled in the Maidan. Yet even at this emotional moment, many warned against her return to a leading political position. While one of the major qualities of the elected president Petro Poroshenko seems to be a deep-rooted pragmatism, Ms. Tymoshenko is a revolutionary with a more black-and-white – some say populist – mindset.

Twenty-one candidates ran in the presidential election. (In 2010, there were eighteen candidates.) Fifteen had been nominated by parties and seven were independents. Serhiy Tihipko and Mykhailo Dobkin, both associated with the Party of Regions and eastern Ukraine, were the two candidates besides the favorites, Mr. Poroshenko and Ms. Tymoshenko, who scored fairly well in preelection polls. Mr. Dobkin, a former governor of the eastern Kharkiv province and of Jewish origin, supported Mr. Ianukovych during the Maidan protests. He is in favor of a federalization of Ukraine, and of Ukrainian membership in the Eurasian Customs Union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Mr. Dobkin received 3.03 percent of the vote in 2014. Serhiy Tihipko is an oligarch who ran for president in 2010, representing the Strong Ukraine party. In 2004, he was in charge of the Ianukovych campaign and a “Kuchma man”. Strong Ukraine merged with the Party of Regions in 2012, but has been reestablished since Mr. Tihipko’s expulsion from the Party of Regions in April 2014. Mr. Tihipko is an economist, and today supports European integration. A few weeks before the election, polls predicted he would win about 17 percent of the vote, but he finished at 5.23 percent.

Two other candidates deserve to be mentioned. Oleh Tiahnybok, the leader of the Svoboda (“Freedom”) party, and Dmytro Iarosh, the leader of Pravyy Sektor (“Right Sector”), might have been expected to attract larger groups of voters than they did because of their role in the Euromaidan movement. Russian propaganda certainly pictured both these political forces as practically running Kiev in the months before the elections. In attempts to slander the Euromaidan revolution not only internationally but also in Russia, the Russian leadership has consistently talked about extremists, fascists, and neo-Nazis governing Ukraine. The nationalistic Svoboda party, founded in 1991, has its roots in western Ukraine and cherishes the legacy of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalits (OUN) and its leading figure Stepan Bandera. Before World War II, what is now western Ukraine was part of Poland, and earlier still, of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire. The OUN resisted the incorporation of these territories in the Soviet Union, and its military branch the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) opposed the Soviets by force. These are controversial parts of Ukrainian history, however, which touch upon sensitive issues of participation in the Nazi-organized Holocaust and the “ethnic cleansing” of Poles in the region. Svoboda rose to significant visibility during the Ianukovych presidency, probably as a reaction to the growing influence of “the East” through the Party of Regions. The party participated in the 2012 parliamentary elections and obtained 10.44 percent of the vote. Pravyy Sektor appeared as an independent force in the Euromaidan, where its members camped on the fifth floor of the now burnt-down Trade Unions Building. Dressed in combat gear, they elicited fear as well as respect, and articulated overtly their readiness to use force in the defense of Ukrainian interests and the Ukrainian people. Pravyy Sektor rapidly gained a reputation as extremists. Neither of the two candidates from the nationalist right wing did well in the elections, however: they each received around one percent of the vote, an indication that the electorate values pragmatism.

What issues were important to the voters? Concerns over the danger of civil war and the violence going on in the eastern parts of the country naturally loomed large over this election, particularly in southern and eastern Ukraine where men, women, and children have been suffering under a low-intensity war for at least two months. In answer to a survey by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), stopping “bandits” from fighting was mentioned as a high priority by almost 45 percent in these parts of the country. Twenty-three percent said that Kiev should continue its economic support to eastern industries. Even in southern and eastern Ukraine, regions that have been said in the media to be sensitive to the interim regime’s unfortunate legislation on language, only about 6 percent mentioned the official language as important. Clearly, even in this extraordinary election, as so often happens, the voters assessed alternatives rationally rather than emotionally. Peace and prosperity come first. Yet this election was more a test of personal confidence than of specific issues. While Iuliia Tymoshenko has become a symbol of human suffering and of the grave injustice of the Ianukovych regime, the voters’ confidence in her political ability to stabilize and unify the country was weak.

On May 25, mayors were elected in many parts of Ukraine. The election of the new mayor of Kiev may prove to be highly important for the future: he is Vitali Klitschko, a former boxing champion with long-term experience of residence in the West who leads the United Democratic Alliance for Reforms (UDAR). It is easy to surmise that he and President Poroshenko will be able to work together, since both of them were at the Euromaidan protests and have distinct European inclinations. Mr. Klitschko is politically inexperienced but, according to close collaborators, has great admiration for the former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili and the radical institutional reforms that have changed Georgia for the better. Representatives of UDAR are said to have paid several visits to Georgia to learn from that country’s experiences, and Mr. Klitschko and Mr. Saakashvili are close.

The May 25 election was important for several reasons. First, it was crucial that they took place at all. Elections demand a great deal of organization and strict implementation. Thousands of domestic and international observers who were present judged them sound and not fraudulent. Second, some of Russia’s verbal aggression has been aimed at the “illegitimate” Kiev regime, which it accuses of having seized power unconstitutionally. While it may be almost surprising that constitutional concerns are raised by a regime that is hardly known for respecting human rights, the integrity of the political opposition, or territorial borders, there was a need to install a president with a popular mandate as quickly as possible. Third, the election results were important in themselves since they clearly showed the hollowness of the arguments that Kiev and all of Ukraine were being run by fascists and Nazis. The poor showing of the leaders of Svoboda and Pravyy Sektor clearly demonstrate that, even though these political forces were visible and active in the Euromaidan movement, their leaders do not enjoy popular confidence. Moreover, the election results also showed that the Party of Regions, once a powerful political machine, has lost at least part of its grip on the voters: none of its candidates did particularly well.

The voter turnout has been estimated at about 50 percent. However, no elections were held in Crimea. In the Donbas region – Donetsk and Luhansk – only 426 out of 2430 (about 20 percent) of the polling stations were kept open, which means only a few percent of the voters in these provinces were able to exercise their right to vote. In the south and southeast, the turnout was low (30 to 35 percent), while in western Ukraine as many as 80 percent voted. It is highly likely that Serhiy Tihipko and Mykhailo Dobkin would have received more support had the Donbas electorate been able to participate in larger numbers.

Since this was a presidential election, persons were more in the center of attention than parties. Political parties in Ukraine, as in many parts of the former Soviet Union, are usually not programmatic but mainly person-centered and hierarchial structures. Built around leading figures, Bat’kivshchyna (led by Iuliia Tymoshenko and Arseniy Iatseniuk) and UDAR (led by Vitali Klitschko) are parties which will play a considerable role in the (we may hope) upcoming parliamentary elections in the autumn. By contrast, the nationalistic Svoboda is more ideologically driven, while the Party of Regions has been called a political machine. During the years since the Orange Revolution, the Party of Regions strengthened its clientelistic structure with its base in the Donbas. Clientelism as a political strategy rests on the exchange of votes for individual favors rather than charismatic personalities or ideology. Jobs, education, and “favors” in the form of tax exemptions or permits[TC2] could be resources traded for voting support. The Party of Regions has been successful in monopolizing the party market – in 2012 it swallowed the Strong Ukraine party, for example – and through the president and the parliament in Kiev, which was dominated by Party of Region representatives, it controlled the necessary state resources. Its unavoidable weakening as a consequence of Viktor Ianukovych’s impeachment and flight from the country stirs up the political mixture of eastern Ukraine considerably. People who voted for the Party of Regions and were able to count on individual favors and patronage are now left more or less in the cold. This may be a contributing factor in the uneasy situation in Donetsk and Luhansk, where people fear that Kiev will now stop central financial support to Soviet-era industries and mines that constitute the backbone of the eastern economy.

The presidential election of 2014 was the immediate result of the Euromaidan revolution. Originally scheduled for 2015, this election had been meant to secure a further five years of rule for the Ianukovych “clan”. As the events in the Maidan in central Kiev are now rapidly becoming a part of the collective memory of the young Ukrainian nation, research on the internal logic of the amazing mass mobilization is already starting to appear. Olga Onuch of Nuffield College, Oxford, set up a team of investigators admirably quickly in late November who monitored the Maidan until January. Thanks to her initiative, we now have unique data on the early composition of the revolution, even if there is some uncertainty to it. During this critical initial phase, the people showing up in the Maidan to participate, to volunteer, and to show support represented all age groups. Young, middle aged, and retired people were there, although for varying reasons. While the young tended to demonstrate for human rights and EU integration, middle aged participants emphasized a better economy and the right to live in a “normal” country. The old were there to speak out for a better future for their grandchildren, and “guarded” the revolution when the others had to go to work or take care of their children. After mid-January and the events that radicalized the Maidan, people started to come to Kiev from other parts of the country, including the eastern regions of Sumy, Odessa, Kharkiv, and even Donetsk. Women were present at the Maidan, but the men dominated. What seems to have mattered in this revolution were strong personal ties. Many described their decision to go to the Maidan as a decision to protest among their close family. Social media channeled information and to a certain extent helped to coordinate deliveries of food, wood, medical equipment, clothes, and books.

What about the future? The elected president Petro Poroshenko does not represent the new start that so many at the Maidan demanded. He is both economically and politically an integral part of Ukraine’s dire years of independence that led up to the present situation. However, at present he is probably the best alternative available. Ukrainian voters have not been blessed with an abundance of visionary and competent politicians. Parties are not organizations for creative thinking but dominated by conformism. For intellectual qualities, one must turn to think tanks. However, there is no reason to doubt Mr. Poroshenko’s genuine will to steer Ukraine towards a path of further economic deregulation and an increasingly business-friendly climate which, in the long run, could improve the economy. A formidable challenge ahead of him and the future government is the systemic corruption that characterizes politics, economics, administration, and even education in Ukraine. Recently, Petro Poroshenko appointed the former Georgian Economic Development Minister as a close advisor, pointing once more to the impact of Georgia’s institutional reforms on political leaders in Ukraine. This is indeed a promising sign. Through institutional “shock therapy” after Mikheil Saakashvili’s rise to power in 2003, Georgia managed to do the almost impossible: to curb corruption in the public sector, including education, to a considerable extent. The country rose from a shameful 124th place out of 133 in Transparency International’s ratings in 2003 to a prestigious 51st of 176 in 2012. Part of President Saakashvili’s toolkit was a small team of committed reformers in combination with rapid action. It remains to be seen whether something similar can be accomplished in Ukraine, a much larger and more divided country.

Furthermore, the new president has clearly declared that he wants to move Ukraine toward the West, and signed the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement on June 27. Needless to say, such a Ukrainian journey will continue to enrage Russia’s political leaders for a long time to come, and the Ukrainian governing circles must be prepared to handle that rage with dialogue and diplomacy – but with firm backing from the EU and the US. The parliamentary elections will probably show stronger support for Svoboda than the recent presidential election, which will further contribute to Russian tension. However, if the violence in eastern Ukraine comes to an end as Kiev makes clear its intention not to desert this region economically or otherwise, and if the Ukrainian economy shows even a modest upturn, much will have been won in the struggle to begin healing a country that deserves a future.

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    Baltic Worlds Election Coverage online is commenting on the elections taking place in the region.. The comments and analyses present the parties, the candidates and the main issues of the election, as well as analyze the implications of the results.

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