Why Poroshenko cannot win a second term
Is history repeating itself in Ukraine? After popular mass protests, a president comes to power promising reforms and European integration but does not provide the political will to fundamentally change the kleptocratic coalition of clans that rule the country. The president maintains the criminal old guard in power and corrupt oligarchic system in place. The public becomes increasingly angry that no “bandits” are being sent to jail.
After a few years the political system begins to stagnate. The presidents’ ratings begin to decline. Familiar leaders such as Yulia Tymoshenko and less familiar ones begin to become more popular. Instead of listening to public opinion and criticism, the president withdraws further into himself, takes no advice and surrounds himself with sycophants. The president is stymied by an inability to listen and his deep sense of arrogance and narcissism. In this respect, Viktor Yushchenko and Petro Poroshenko after the Orange Revolution and Revolution of Dignity respectively are similar. But, their similarities end there.
Yushchenko was president in far better domestic and international circumstances than today. Until 2008 the economy was growing, foreign investment was flowing into Ukraine and Russia was just beginning to turn to the nationalist right. At the same time, the Party of Regions remained a formidable force and won a first place plurality in the 2006 and 2007 parliamentary elections. Viktor Yanukovych was elected president (with Yushchenko’s help!) in 2010 ushering in a counter-revolution, mass protests and Russian military aggression.
Poroshenko inherited a bankrupted country and faced an aggressive Russia which occupies Crimea and wages hybrid, information and cyber-warfare in Donbas and Ukraine. The government is forced to increase spending on national security and new foreign investment is practically non-existent.
The similarity then returns
Under Yushchenko and Poroshenko internal stagnation from the middle of their presidential terms leads to Ukraine fatigue among the Ukrainian public and abroad. Under Yushchenko the real possibility of gaining a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) in 2006 was lost because Yushchenko sent Poroshenko and Yuriy Yekhanurov to negotiate a grand coalition with the Party of Regions to block Tymoshenko’s return as prime minister. Following that there was the growth of European opposition to NATO and EU enlargement into the former Soviet Union which still exists today. In 2009 the EU launched the Eastern Partnership as integration without membership (or as it has been dubbed as “enlargement-light”).
Under Poroshenko, the international climate initially was more favourably inclined towards Ukraine. The West imposed sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and aggression in Donbas. At the same time, the West continued with the pretence of waiting to see if the Minsk Accords would be fulfilled and during this indefinite waiting period opposed the sending of arms to Ukraine. President Barack Obama was the first US president to not visit Ukraine.
Poroshenko’s lack of support for the rule of law and his unwillingness to take on the oligarchs and corruption has impacted his popularity in Ukraine and his standing in the West. This is far more dangerous than under Yushchenko at a time when President Donald Trump could follow through on his election promise to drop sanctions against Russia and recognise Ukraine, Georgia and the post-Soviet space as Russia’s sphere of influence. The ending of US sanctions would mobilise Russophile countries in the EU to lobby for the EU to follow suit in the next six-month cycle.
Public opinion polls show that President Poroshenko’s ratings have plummeted since 2014. Today, Tymoshenko is in the lead and Poroshenko is competing for second place with Opposition Bloc leader Yuriy Boyko. These trends will continue until the 2019 presidential elections. History will inevitably repeat itself in the next presidential elections resembling those held in 2010 with Tymoshenko facing either Poroshenko or Boyko in the second round.
It remains unclear if Poroshenko will enter the second round or follow the path of Yushchenko in 2010, when he was knocked out in the first round after he received a paltry five per cent and fifth place. If history were to repeat itself, Poroshenko would follow Yushchenko in blaming Ukrainian citizens for not understanding him.
Clearly, Poroshenko would prefer to face Boyko rather than Tymoshenko. Facing Boyko, Poroshenko would seek to repeat Leonid Kuchma’s strategy in the 1999 elections when he received a high number of negative votes against Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko. Just as Kuchma and Symonenko did a deal in 1999 (through Donetsk Governor Yanukovych who was already financing the Communists) so could Poroshenko and Boyko who have good relations. Poroshenko’s relationship with the gas lobby was cemented in their infamous Vienna meeting in March 2014.
Unlike in 2010, however, Tymoshenko would likely be able to defeat Poroshenko or Boyko in the second round of the 2019 elections. In 2014, Poroshenko was able to fool the Ukrainian public into believing he was a “new face” who was not tainted by the failures of the opposition leaders when he had been involved in politics since the late 1990s and was a founder of the Party of Regions. Boyko could not repeat the election victory of Yanukovych who although leading the powerful machine – the Party of Regions – only managed to win by a three per cent margin. Yanukovych’s thievery, murders and treason and Putin’s military aggression have severely undermined the pro-Russian camp in Ukraine.
Polls about the popularity of political parties show similar trends with Batkivshchina (Tymoshenko’s party) in the lead followed by the Poroshenko Bloc and the Opposition Bloc competing for second place. In Ukraine there were only ever two real political parties – the Party of Regions and Batkivshchina – and the former has disintegrated. The Poroshenko and Opposition Blocs are not political parties but marriages of convenience, while two of the four other political forces (the Radical Party, and For Life) who would enter parliament if elections were held today are oligarchic election projects.
Ukrainian history is again repeating itself. Presidents Yushchenko and Poroshenko have both failed to live up to the expectations of the Orange and EuroMaidan revolutionaries. Most disgraceful is that nobody has gone to jail after both revolutions and the oligarchic kleptocracy remains unchanged. With his popularity plummeting Poroshenko will either face Tymoshenko in the second round of the upcoming presidential elections or end up like Yushchenko who was eviscerated in round one.
Taras Kuzio is a Senior Fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta and author of the forthcoming Russia’s War Against Ukraine: Nationalism, Revolution and Crime.