May’s presidential elections in Ukraine – the same old faces

After the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych on February 22, 2014, which came as a result of the three-month revolution and violent clashes between protesters and police forces, Ukraine’s Parliament scheduled early presidential elections for May 25, 2014. However, the future of these elections is uncertain.

The situation in the east and south of Ukraine remains very unstable. Important administrative buildings, such as city councils, police headquarters, and security service headquarters have been seized by armed men in a number of towns in Donetsk region, including Donetsk, Slaviansk, Kramatorsk, Yenakievo, and Makeevka. Obviously, Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to replicate the Crimean scenario in the eastern Ukraine, to some extent by playing on pro-Russian sentiments of the local population, but to a larger extent by using Russia’s special forces and agents who are deliberately destabilizing the situation there. Any further escalation of the situation in the east and south of Ukraine may lead to the imposition of a state of emergency in those regions which will make elections impossible.

Voting by the inhabitants of the annexed Crimea, who still have Ukrainian passports, is also under threat since it is impossible to organize a voting process in occupied territory. The Mejlis (the highest executive body of the Crimean Tatars) has suggested giving Crimean Tatars an opportunity to vote in the neighboring Kherson region, but no decision has been taken yet.

But let us assume that despite all the ongoing unrest the elections will still be held as scheduled. What results can we expect and what will be their impact? As of now, it looks like these elections will not significantly change the existing political and economic system in the country, and therefore, will not satisfy the expectations of the people who stood three months on the Maidan for the sake of changing the system, and not just the leaders.

There are 23 candidates registered at the moment. According to the most recent opinion polls, the frontrunners are an oligarch, Petro Poroshenko, who owns the large chocolate company “Roshen” and the 5th TV channel, with 28% in current polls, and Yulia Tymoshenko, ex-premier of Ukraine and loser of the 2010 presidential election runoff to Viktor Yanukovych, who is polling at 13%.

The Party of Regions is represented by three candidates – Mykhail Dobkin, former mayor of Kharkiv, with 3.6%, former Central Bank head and estranged former Yanukovych ally Serhiy Tyhypko with 6.1% and Oleg Tsarev (rating is unknown).Dobkin is the only one official candidate from the Party of Regions, while Tyhypko and Tsarev will run as independent candidates. While Tsarev and Dobkin are close to the ex-president Viktor Yanukovych in their political views, Tyhypko is more moderate and has more potential to win votes in the central Ukraine.

There is also a pool of the so-called “Maidan candidates” who actively participated in the revolution’s events. It includes the leader of the right-wing party “Praviy Sector” (“Right Sector”) Dmytro Yarosh, Olga Bogomolets – a doctor who saved many lives on Maidan, leader of the Radical party, Oleg Liashko, and leader of the party “Grazhdanskaya Pozitsiya” (“Civic Position”), former defense minister Anatoliy Grytsenko. All of them have much lower ratings than the frontrunners: Yarosh – 1.2%, Bogomolets – 3.7%, Liashko – 3.7%, and Grytsenko – 3%.

It is worth noting that these ratings were published on April 9, 2014, when the presidential campaign had only just begun. But it looks unlikely that any of the candidates from Maidan will be able to overcome the huge gap separating them from the frontrunners. It is very probable that either Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, or Poroshenko and Tyhypko, will make it to the run-off.

And this is tragic. The “revolution of virtue,” as it is now commonly called in Ukraine, aimed not only at ousting Yanukovych, but also at the complete reloading of the political system in Ukraine, at bringing new faces into power. It has lasted three months, required immense sacrifice from people, and led to the deaths of 100 protesters, and the injury of over 1,000 more. And what do we see as the result? All the three frontrunners are very affluent people who have been involved in Ukrainian politics for a very long time.They merit closer inspection.

Petro Poroshenko, despite claiming in his political advertising “We will live in a new way,” has been present in the Ukrainian politics since 1998. He was a member of the notorious SDPU(o) party which supported the authoritarian Ukraine’s leader Kuchma from 1998 to 2001; in 2001 he was one of the founders of the Party of Regions, which later brought forward Viktor Yanukovych. He later became opposition presidential candidate and Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko’s ally. After the 2004 Orange Revolution’s victory, he was appointed as Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council. In September 2005, he had to resign due to a corruption scandal. He was also an economy minister in Mykola Azarov’s government during Yanukovych’s presidency (March-November 2012).

Poroshenko is also the 7th richest man in Ukraine (according to Forbes) and owner of the large confectionary “Roshen” and a number other companies, nicknamed “the chocolate king.” He owns the independent 5th TV channel too. It is not clear how a politician who served authoritarian regimes in Ukraine – and prospered under them – can pretend to be a “single candidate from the democratic forces,” as now he presents himself in the political campaign.His distinct advantages are an unambiguous pro-European stand and political experience from having served in different positions, including foreign minister and economy minister, as well as his managerial experience from running several companies. But it is also quite evident that he will not break the existing oligarchic system, as he is an oligarch himself. He is well integrated into this system.

It was a big disappointment for many when world-famous heavyweight boxer and leader of his own Udar party(“punch” or “hit”) Vitaliy Klitschko, who was much more of a “new face” in Ukrainian politics, withdrew his candidacy in favour of Poroshenko. He regularly appeared on Maidan during all three months of the revolution, spoke regularly to the people, dared to go the scenes of violent clashes and to make his own negotiations with Yanukovych. Thus, many revolution’s participants favoured Klitschko (despite his lack of experience). He was also a candidate who could unite the East and West of Ukraine, as he is a Russian speaker and never emphasized such sensitive issues as language and history.Allegedly, he made his decision to withdraw under pressure from the oligarch Dmytro Firtash, owner of the company “Rosukrenergo” and the ex-head of Yanukovych’s administration, Serhiy Levochkin, who were spotted together with Klitschko and Poroshenko in a Vienna hotel a couple of days before this announcement. Since 2012, there have been persistent rumors that Klitschko’s party has been funded by Firtash, an arch-rival of Tymoshenko as well as opponent to Yanukovych’s “Family.” Firtash would do everything to prevent Tymoshenko from becoming president, remembering how in 2009 she removed his company from the gas market, depriving him of millions in profits. But there still was a hope that if Klitschko became president he would pursue an independent policy – which is less likely with Poroshenko.

Now voters have to face a choice between “old” Poroshenko and Tymoshenko in the run-off, or Poroshenko and Tyhypko, which is even worse.

Yulia Tymoshenko was the charismatic heroine of the Orange revolution, but afterwards showed herself to be a very ineffective prime-minister in 2005 and again from 2007 to 2010. She was also involved in clandestine negotiations with Yanukovych about the creation of a grand coalition in Ukraine, though she publically denied any talks with him and his party.During her time in office, in 2009, Tymoshenko also concluded very unfavorable and non-transparent gas contracts with Putin which have seriously undermined Ukraine’s economy. Fortunately, many Ukrainians remember her legacy very well and hesitate to vote for her.

However, Tymoshenko’s close allies are now de facto ruling Ukraine – namely, her “right hand” Oleksandr Turchinov is a parliamentary speaker and the acting president, while another member of her party, Arseniy Yatseniuk, is the current prime-minister. One more representative of Batkivshyna, (“Fatherland”), Sergey Pashinskiy, is acting head of the presidential administration. Taking into account her low rating and proximity to power at the moment, Tymoshenko may be very interested in postponing or cancelling the forthcoming elections as she will more time to improve her rating, or, if elections do not take place, politicians from her team will remain in power. Allegedly, she is doing everything to ensure that elections do not take place in May, so she indirectly benefits from the further escalation of the situation in eastern and southern Ukraine.Experts also point out that her electoral headquarters has not become fully operational, though in the past she has been unstinting in electoral campaign spending and activity.

With regard to Serhiy Tyhypko, it suffices to say that he was campaign manager for Yanukovych in 2004, vice-prime minister in Azarov’s government since 2010, and deputy head of the Party of Regions since 2012. With this pedigree, he can hardly be an acceptable candidate for those voters who supported the revolution.

From today’s vantage point, one must conclude the likely winner of the presidential election will be Petro Poroshenko, if the elections take place.A postponement or cancellation of the elections will play into hands of Yulia Tymoshenko. While Poroshenko would definitely pursue the goal of Ukraine’s European integration, it is unlikely that he would strongly fight corruption or change the existing oligarchic economic system. Given the EU member states’ pronounced reluctance to expand further, it is Ukraine that must abandon and replace rule through high-level corruption if it is to become a credible applicant for membership.

For those who expected that the revolution would bring radical, fundamental changes, these elections will probably be a disappointment. This could have been reversed if there were a united Maidan candidate – in this case such candidate could have made it to the run-off. But given strong differences between existing “Maidan candidates”, this is highly unlikely. Also he/she would face a really hard task of pursuing voters from east and south to vote for him/her in the run-off, as around 70-80% of residents in those regions did not support Maidan. Klitschko was the one who could have made a bridge between these opposed regions due to his brilliant sport record and relatively “clean image.” He has already squandered this opportunity.

The likely victory of Poroshenko may signify the second betrayal of the revolution’s ideals in less than a decade. Ukraine wasted its chance for fundamental reforms in 2005. It may do so again, because one of the main demands of Maidan – the complete reloading of the political system – would not be fulfilled, and oligarchs would then maintain their tight grip on Ukrainian politics.

So this new stage in Ukraine’s history will bring new challenges.As the proverb says, “A revolution has a beginning, but does not have an end.” In case either Poroshenko or Tymoshenko becomes the new president, both the parliament and the civil society will need to perform strong watchdog and monitoring roles with the aim of gradually eradicating corruption and the oligarchs’ domination of Ukraine’s economy and political life. The parliament will have to adopt important anti-corruption laws, and civil society should closely monitor the observation of these laws and prevent politicians from possible misuse of power. It is also crucially important that early parliamentary elections, based on an open proportional system, be held. The parliament acquired more powers on 21 February when legislators voted to revert back to the 2004 Constitution, which stripped the president of some of his powers. Bringing “new faces” at least to the parliament will make it more likely that the revolution’s goals will be achieved.

If these steps are not taken, Ukrainians may very soon face a disappointment worse than that after the successful, but squandered, Orange Revolution.