The Ukrainian presidential elections: An equation with three variables

Sergiy Gerasymchuk and Olexia Basarab commenting on forthcoming elections in Ukraine for CEPI

While the presidential elections in Ukraine are planned for May 25, the names of the leading candidates were known in advance. They are Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko. This situation would not  be unusual, if not for the third variable: the possibility that the elections will face disruption.

Party backgrounds

Petro Poroshenko hopes received a significant bump when, at the assembly of the UDAR Party, its leader Vitaliy Klychko sacrificed his own participation in the presidential elections in favor of Poroshenko. Klychko decided to limit himself to participation in Kyiv’s mayor elelection. UDAR will share its network of party branches with the Poroshenko campaign for the election. At the same time Yulia Tymoshenko has to rely on her own political force Batkivshchyna. It was significantly demoralized and weakened in the time of Tymoshenko’s imprisonment when many activists went over to the Party of the Regions. Besides, Batkivshchyna incorporated new people: it merged with the parties Front of Changes and Reforms and Order. Therefore both candidates will be relying on party networks over which they have limited control. However, while UDAR is loyal to Poroshenko the level of Batkivchchyna’s loyalty to Tymoshenko will depend on her relations with Yatseniuk and will be dependent on Yatseniuk’s desire to play his own game.

Strong and weak points of the campaigns

Another distinction of this campaign is the fact that the pro-governmental candidate, Tymoshenko, will not obtain the privileges that administrative resources can provide (since she stays under intense public attention) and, on the other hand, she will not seek it since she feels much more comfortable in the protest niche. Tymoshenko has gained the image of a person with the motto “Power for any price” and this image causes panic in her opponents but it also intimidates her allies. The strong side of Tymoshenko is her ability to feel the mood of the majority and manipulate it. For example in the current campaign she already shaped some key-messages: fighting oligarchs and fighting the Russian occupation of Crimea. Tymoshenko’s rather brave move was the call to abstain from costly electoral campaigns and standard advertizing of candidates. Well-known both in Ukraine and on the world level, she suggested concentrating on personal debates with other candidates. Poroshenko, on the one hand, attempts to support his image of being a constructive politician. On the other hand, he needs to rely on traditional advertizing. Another option for him is a field campaign,  but his experience is poorer than Tymoshenko’s. Besides,  Poroshenko is already being blamed for his allegedly close ties with the group of Firtash and Lyovochkin. In this regard Tymoshenko’s declared war on the oligarchs will be perceived by the electorate as a war with Poroshenko as their protégé.

For whom will the candidates hunt?

Since under the current circumstances differentiation between pro-Eastern and pro-Western candidate will not work, we may expect some sort of ideological competition. Tymoshenko will stake her campaign on her most devoted electorate – mostly the older generation with low income. Therefore, she will develop her campaign as a sort of leftist candidate with an emphasis on social aspects. She will compete for the left electorate disappointed in the Communist Party. Indeed, Tymoshenko’s strong rhetoric, her appeals to the image of mother-protector can give benefits to her campaign. However, she has to combine this campaign with the liberal reforms implemented by prime-minister Yatseniuk who represents Batkivchchyna. Tymoshenko may be trapped: her social slogans will be accompanied by unpopular governmental measures and she may be accused of insincerity.

Some symptoms of cognitive dissonance will also be noticed in Poroshenko’s campaign. On the one hand since he expects the votes of Klychko’s electorate he will have to design his campaign as a liberal democrat. However, election turnout will be high, as usual, in distant villages and towns in depressed regions where social promises mean more than appeals to tighten the belt. Poroshenko has to reach these regions as well. By now it is still not  clear what image Poroshenko will try to project to socially vulnerable voters. If he failes to get the tone correct, after the elections Poroshenko will have to face all the charms of Tymoshenko’s revenge, Klychko’s disappointment and Yatseniuk’s false condolences.

Noone is expected to win in the first round, so the second round gives an opportunity to compete for the votes of those who were in favor of alternative candidates. The shortlisted candidates will have to choose whether they should turn to the electorate of the South East – some sort of political orphans who will loose their familiar Party of the Regions candidates in the first round,  or to take the radical votes of Western and Central Ukraine. Keeping in mind the political intuition of Tymoshenko one might assume that she will try to preserve the support of the mobilized passionate West. Poroshenko in his turn will have to position himself as a compromise seeker who is looking for dialogue with the supporters of the Party of the Regions e.g. those who were voting in 2010 for Tigipko. However there is still a question: who will become the choice of Yanukovych’s former electorate? And which of them would prefer abstention to voting for a “pro-Western” candidate? These choices will depend on the latest developments and the skills of the candidates’ political headquarters.

A new option for Ukraine: Disruption of elections

Both candidates support intensification of cooperation with the EU and strengthening the security of Ukraine. In this context, none of the key candidates are interested in disrupting the elections. Suggestions ofcoordination of Tymoshenko’s and Poroshenko’s gameplan with Putin are most likely the work of spin-doctors (especially when security society is spreading rumours about both team’s attempts in backstage negotiations with Moscow on crisis solution). However, the probability of the elections being disrupted is high, primarily because of the impossibility of adequately responding to the aggression in the East without imposing a state of emergency. However, the failure of the elections could lead to a direct threat of civil war with foreign involvement, and thus – a risk of the country’s collapse. Because of the position of the Party of the Regions and the Communist Party, the Ukrainian parliament failed to adopt amendments, necessary to legalize the electoral process during an emergency state. Previously, there was no major problems in voting for the bills, necessary to adapt to the situation of occupied Crimea. This can be explained by their interest in the disruption of election, which could happen in two ways.  One is implementation of a national emergency state under current legislation, whereit is illegal to carry out any elections. The other is carrying out elections in the condition of external aggression where parts of Eastern Ukraine may not be able to vote. A partial implementation of the electoral process will have severe after-effects. Such a scenario could be used by Russia to justify its support of separatism since it will provide grounds for speculation that the elected president does not represent the whole nation. Most probably Moscow can suggest a compromise – intervention under international mandate, and if international structures reject such a plan, Russia most probably will try to use regional instruments e.g. Tashkent treaty or will proclaim its mission as a peacekeeping one referring to Kosovo precedent.

In summary, current circumstance have made the course of the election extremely unpredictable: now there are two key candidates but neither has a chance to win in the first round, thus the campaign in the period between the first and the second round will be decisive and until it is launched the intrigue will continue – but all this could be moot should the Russian policy of destabilizing Ukraine succeed and the elections be partially restricted in terms of geography or even not take place at all.

Sergiy Gerasymchuk is International Programs Director at Strategic and Security Studies Group, a Ukrainian think-tank. He graduated from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy ( Political Science, 2004), and until 2009 worked for governmental think-tanks (National Institute for Strategic Studies, Institute of National Security) and as a staff member of the Verkhovna Rada Secretariat.

Olexia Basarab is Research Director at the Strategic and Security Studies Group. She graduated from the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy (M.A. in Political Science, 1999) and from the University of Denver, Colorado (M.A. in Global Studies, 2002).

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