Ukraine will hold the second round of its presidential election on 21 April, with incumbent Petro Poroshenko facing off against Volodymyr Zelensky. Alexander Tabachnik writes that while most signs point to a victory for Zelensky, the country is unlikely to deviate from its pro-Western course regardless of the result. Despite a difficult socio-economic situation, ineffective institutions and pervasive corruption, the elections also demonstrate that Ukraine is undergoing several positive changes, such as democratisation, the formation of a civic society and nation building.

The first round of the Ukrainian presidential election, which took place on 31 March, brought very interesting results that, in fact, symbolise the changes which Ukrainian society is undergoing. Volodymyr Zelensky a comedian with no political experience or established party apparatus received more than 30 per cent of the votes, while the incumbent pro-Western president and billionaire Petro Poroshenko received only 16 per cent. At the same time, the pro-Western Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the leaders of the ‘Orange Revolution’ (2004-2005) and the former prime minister of Ukraine reached third place with about 13.5 per cent, while the pro-Russian candidate Yuriy Boyko received about 11.7 per cent of the votes. The rest of the candidates received far fewer votes.

However, it is particularly remarkable that Zelensky got more votes than his opponents in twenty regions out of twenty-five (in the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions which are controlled by the central Ukrainian government the elections were held, while in Crimea, which is under Russian control, no elections were held). Poroshenko got more votes than his opponents only in two regions in Western Ukraine, the Ternopol and Lviv regions. Tymoshenko only got more votes than her opponents in the Ivano Frankivsk region, also in the Western Ukraine (follow this link to see the interactive map prepared by the BBC). At the same time, the pro-Russian Boyko got more votes than his opponents in two regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, in Eastern Ukraine.

Moreover, a comparison between Zelensky and Poroshenko alone shows that Zelensky received more votes than Poroshenko in 22 regions, while Poroshenko received more votes than Zelensky only in 3 regions. It is especially noteworthy that Russian speaking Zelensky (Poroshenko and Tymoshenko prefer to speak publicly in Ukrainian, while Zelensky prefers Russian) received more votes than Poroshenko not only in the Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine, where a significant portion of the population speaks Russian as a mother tongue, but also in the Central and most Western regions of Ukraine which are overwhelmingly Ukrainian speaking and more nationalist. At the same time Zelensky defeated the pro-Russian candidate Boyko in the Southern and Eastern regions of Ukraine (with the exception of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions). Therefore, these presidential elections are important not simply for the general results, but also in terms of the distribution of support for a particular candidate in certain regions.

Petro Poroshenko at Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium on 14 April, Credit: spoilt.exile (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The results confirmed that Ukrainian society is undergoing a number of important changes. Firstly, the relatively high support for Zelensky and relatively low support for Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, who represent the old establishment, demonstrates the disillusionment of Ukrainian voters with the old elites. At the same time, the relatively low support for Boyko (and also for Oleksandr Vilkul who received only 4 per cent and who can be associated with pro-Russian candidates) demonstrates the decline of support for the pro-Russian sector of Ukrainian politics, which also could be associated with Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (both Boyko and Vilkul can be linked with the former Party of Regions).

To some extent, the support for Zelensky can be defined as protest voting, which can be explained by the very difficult socio-economic situation in Ukraine which is improving too slowly following the economic decline of 2014-2015 (the Euromaidan revolution, Russian seizure of Crimea and the war in the Eastern Ukraine following the Russian intervention). Currently, with a nominal income of $3,000 per capita, Ukraine is successfully competing with Moldova for the title of poorest country in Europe.

Furthermore, the population is exhausted by pervasive corruption and the very low efficacy of public administration and the generally bloated Ukrainian bureaucracy, which are perceived as the major factors undermining Ukrainian socio-economic development. Ukraine reached an unprecedented level of corruption under Yanukovych’s leadership. However, Poroshenko and Tymoshenko are perceived as the representatives of the elite groups who are unable to improve the situation and are themselves involved in the corruption. Thus, Zelensky (even if he is, as rumoured, associated with the Ukrainian billionaire Kolomoisky) is perceived as a figure independent from the ‘old’ elite groups, including those from Eastern Ukraine associated with the former Party of Regions, and thereby capable of undermining their monopoly on influence and power.

However, despite these difficulties, Ukraine has made gradual progress towards restricting the established corrupt systems which caused significant damage to Ukraine’s socio-economic development for more than 20 years. There have been positive reforms in the tax system, the banking and gas sectors, transparency of the governmental structures has gradually increased and the business environment is slowly improving. Also, a public administration reform which is intended to improve the deplorable administrative competence is on the way. Overall, Ukraine has undergone some positive changes in the last five years. However, they are slow and often subtle for the general population.

Secondly, the process and the results of the voting demonstrate that Ukraine is continuing the process of liberalisation and democratisation started by the Euromaidan revolution. The elections were recognised as free and legitimate by observers, Zelensky won the first round of the elections without established party apparatus behind him and with limited resources, while the incumbent president possessing significant administrative and financial resources did not try to exert any significant influence on the election process. Therefore, it can be argued that Ukraine is developing a civic society capable of influencing the political processes in the country and playing a crucial role in assisting the development of the rule of law.

Thirdly, the results of the first round demonstrated that Ukrainian society is gradually overcoming the explicit political division between the mostly Western oriented Western and Central Ukraine (more nationalist and Ukrainian speaking) and Russian oriented Eastern and Southern Ukraine (to a greater extent Russian speaking). In contrast to the previous elections, when voters chose, for example, between the pro-Western Ukrainian speaking Yushchenko and the pro-Russian and Russian speaking Yanukovych based on their ethno-cultural background and geographic location, in the current elections voters have chosen candidates mostly based on their programmes and personal qualities and to a lesser extent based on factors such as their mother tongue and place of origin. Therefore, this election campaign shows that Ukraine is undergoing a process of nation building, the formation of a Ukrainian nation in the civic meaning. This process may have crucial implications for Ukrainian political and socio-economic development.

The second round of the presidential election this Sunday will define the distribution of power inside Ukraine, but not Ukrainian foreign policy orientation. Zelensky is not characterised by a pro-Russian orientation. He clearly condemned the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the seizure of Crimea. Moreover, Ukraine is a semi-presidential republic with significant powers given to parliament which is dominated by an explicit pro-Western majority. Thus, apparently, Ukraine will continue on its pro-Western course.

Overall, in the second round of the presidential election Zelensky has a greater chance of winning the elections than Poroshenko. Poroshenko also has had a very high negative rating of about 40 per cent, while Zelensky sits at only about 10 per cent. Moreover, in the second round of the election, the supporters of Tymoshenko and Boyko will likely support Zelensky. However, Poroshenko is an experienced politician and any mistakes by Zelensky will be used against him. Also, in the second round, many voters may prefer some sort of stability under the leadership of the experienced and already known politician over the inexperienced and largely unpredictable young politician.

This presidential election shows that despite the very difficult socio-economic situation, ineffective institutions and pervasive corruption, Ukraine is also undergoing several positive changes, such as democratisation, the formation of a civic society and nation building. Ukraine also therefore demonstrates a process of gradual state building.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.


About the author

Alexander Tabachnik – Haifa University
Alexander Tabachnik is a PhD candidate at Haifa University’s School of Political Sciences. Alexander researches the post-Soviet sphere, ethnic nationalism and separatism, Russian domestic and foreign policy.

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