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Is the lesser evil still evil? How Poroshenko will run for re-election

The next presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine, which will take place in spring and autumn 2019 respectively, are likely to be the most brutal and emotional in the country’s history. Both the stakes and the level of popular discontent are higher than ever.

December 4, 2018 - Oleksandra Iwaniuk - AnalysisHot Topics

Poroshenko election poster from 2014. Photo: Ben Sutherland (CC) www.flickr.com

Highly disappointed voters are keen to punish the current political elite for failing to live up to the promises of the Maidan. Discontent is only intensified by the ongoing war in Donbas. The level of distrust in all the candidates is off the charts. For the first time, there is no compromise candidate capable of commanding, say, 40 per cent of popular support, while around 20 per cent of voters have not picked sides yet. Growing populism and poor socio-economic conditions might significantly increase the scope for manipulation, with even outright fraud not to be ruled out. At the same time, candidates’ rhetoric focuses on Ukraine’s European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations, reinforcing parliament’s powers, pursuing de-oligarchisation and the fight against corruption.

The current president, Petro Poroshenko, has the most to lose, which will make him fiercely fight for a second term despite his current woeful ratings (seven per cent). No less determined is the political heavyweight Yulia Tymoshenko. Although she is currently taking the lead in the polls with around 14 per cent support, she could lose to the less discredited candidates in a second-round run-off. For the first time in the history of the country, no candidate enjoys more than 14 per cent popularity, while 20 per cent of voters have not picked sides yet, feeling lost and being less motivated to go to the polls. Under the prevailing circumstances, the crucial question is: who will make it to the second round? Whatever happens, the outcome of the presidential elections will significantly influence the composition of the next coalition and thus the political course of the country, which raises the stakes even higher.  

Clash of the titans

Curious voters are keen to punish the current political elite for profiting from corruption instead of fighting it, as well as for Poroshenko’s general failure to meet his election promises, such as: ending the war; changing the electoral system from plurality voting to proportional representation, which would trigger the development of a party system; creating fair courts; distancing himself from the oligarchs; or strengthening parliament instead of its manual guidance from the presidential administration. Yet Petro Poroshenko is likely to fight for a second term to the last drop of his blood with no scruples about using administrative resources or even outright fraud if required. Why? Because if he loses, Poroshenko’s financial and even personal security may be questioned. Should Poroshenko lose the election, there are strong chances that parliament would start playing the decisive role in the political system, rather than the president, as is the case now.

Due to the high level of personification of Ukrainian politics and the tradition of “autocracy through pacting” between politicians and oligarchs, the current pyramid of power does not correspond to the changed post-Maidan constitution, which was supposed to reinforce parliament to the detriment of the president, providing the former with a decisive role in the political system. Instead, the strong president keeps putting leverages on other institutions with the help of informal practices and micromanagement for intervening into both major and minor political and business developments in the country. Despite the great number of new faces in parliament after 2014, Poroshenko has been manually directing its work.

Media push

Highly intolerant of criticism, Poroshenko is dead set on winning his second term despite tremendous challenges and the prevailing wisdom. Due to the fact that according the recent studies, conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology at the beginning of 2018, 86 per cent of the Ukrainian population watches television, Poroshenko has been persistently increasing his influence on the media market. In addition to the 5 Kanal (Fifth Channel), which remains in his ownership, he is grabbing new media assets, taking control over the TV channel “Tonis”, turning it into “Priamy” through figureheads. As 76.25 per cent of the television market is divided between the four largest media groups, owned by the oligarchs, since 2015, Poroshenko has been unsuccessfully trying to buy out some TV channels from other Ukrainian oligarchs. Where he has succeeded, on the other hand, is in persuading the owners of the top channels to stop criticising the president in the news. This suggests that there has been some kind of non-aggression pact between the president and the oligarchs.

Pursuing the strategy of presenting himself as the lesser evil among the other candidates, the president’s spin doctors are trying to flood the electoral process with blackmail materials, damaging information on every candidate and using a rhetoric of demonisation of his rivals. More importantly, the president has shown that he is not above using administrative resources: he has been changing the governors of the regions to make them use their powers to influence the results of future elections in his favour.

Having not officially started his electoral campaign yet, Poroshenko has put up billboards all over the country saying “Army! Language! Faith!” His biggest recent success has been a historic split from the Russian Orthodox Church which had seemed almost impossible not long ago. Poroshenko also seems determined to push through a controversial bill aimed at re-enforcing the position of the Ukrainian language. He has promised to finish the modernisation of the army. An important pillar of Poroshenko’s future campaigning will be foreign policy. He speaks of enshrining Ukraine’s European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations in the constitution. He is also trumpeting Ukraine’s achievements during his tenure: signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union; visa liberalisation; delivery of American-made anti-tank missile systems to Ukraine; prevention of default thanks to successful co-operation with the IMF; prolongation of sanctions against Russia by the West as a result of Ukraine’s diplomacy; scrapping the friendship treaty with Russia; and Naftohaz’s victory over Gazprom at the Arbitration Tribunal in Stockholm. When it comes to domestic issues, one of the most important achievements is putting in place the decentralisation reforms; ending dependence on gas supplies from Russia, and progress in energy sector reforms.

Trade-off alternative

In many regards, Poroshenko is acting more and more in the tradition of Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych when it comes to covering up corrupt practices; the manual guidance of parliament; cutting deals with oligarchs, using administrative resources and muzzling the media. Yet he nevertheless appears to be the best compromise candidate for as the most compromised figure for most of the stakeholders so far. Pacts with other oligarchs are never reliable, as they are well used to having their eggs in different baskets and being always ready to turn the tables. But at the moment there is nobody else who could be a more convenient figure for them than the current president.

Poroshenko’s chances are reinforced by the fact that there is no united candidate from the opposition. While Yulia Tymoshenko seems too risky, populistic and unpredictable for the most of the oligarchs, as well as for the western partners, Poroshenko has already done his best to arrange things with different sides. Not only has he made a deal with the oligarchs (except for Ihor Kolomoyskyi), but he is actively co-operating with former Party of Regions politicians, who vote for the necessary bills in the parliament and benefit from preferences in different sectors of the economy. Even for Russia, Poroshenko might seem as a compromise candidate as he might continue co-operation with the former members of the Party of Regions who now find themselves in the “Opposition Bloc”, in the faction “Vidrodzhennia”, as well as in the “Opposition Platform – For Life”. It is no secret that Poroshenko allows some Russian and pro-Russian businessmen and oligarchs to do business and engage in politics in Ukraine. As well, western partners prefer Poroshenko to Tymoshenko, who is criticising the demands of the IMF and promoting populistic solutions for the economy.

However, it looks as though Poroshenko would lose if he found himself in a run-off against Tymoshenko, a political heavyweight who is no less determined to win the election, as she will probably never enjoy higher support than she does at the moment. Having lost comprehensively to Poroshenko in the presidential elections in 2014, she has managed to remobilise her base via populistic rhetoric and harsh criticism of the government. Tymoshenko has started campaigning in June by traveling to different regions, organising and moderating numerous forums and conferences with representatives of civil society and opinion leaders, which gave her certain breakaway from all the other candidates. Her specialty is holding public discussions and expert forums with civic activists, experts, young leaders, opinion makers and everyone who is interested in the development of the country.

Contrary to Poroshenko’s arrogant attitude towards political advisers and opinion leaders, within an inch of open confrontation with civic activists and independent journalists, Tymoshenko is trying to show her openness to new ideas and attempts to engage as many opinion makers as possible into the process of creating “a new path for the country”. Not only has she come up with the idea of granting NGOs the right to propose their own legislative initiatives, but she proposed to set up the National Assembly of Self-Government, analogous to an upper house of parliament, composed of the heads of associations and opinion leaders. Generally, her political programme entitled “New Path” provides for: a parliamentary system of government with a chancellor instead of a president at the top; the extension of a moratorium on privatising the land by oligarchs and foreigners; the questioning of the ongoing decentralisation reforms; and the demilitarisation of the occupied territories. Yet Tymoshenko’s trump card remains her ability to play on the disappointment of the voters who want to punish Poroshenko. They are voters who would never have voted for Tymoshenko under other circumstances, but will do so if that’s what it takes to prevent Poroshenko from being re-elected. 

That is one reason why Tymoshenko has so far been the front-runner in the presidential election. The latest polls put her into the second round against Anatoliy Hrytsenko, the least compromised candidate so far. Despite some suspicions of links with oligarchs, he has never been caught red-handed due to his modest lifestyle and generally being under-the-radar. Nor has he been a serious contender against the existing ruling elite in the two previous elections he has contested, due mainly to the lack of financial and media support, as well as a lack of affiliation to any oligarchic group. Partially because of Hrytsenko’s declared anti-oligarchic principles and partly because of his predisposition to an authoritarian management style, he has been always away from the process of deal-making between the political elite and oligarchic groups and from the oligarchs’ point of view, appears as an inconvenient and politically unreliable candidate. Popular support for Hrytsenko has been gradually growing, but he still lacks charisma, alliances, loyal partners, efficient party networks throughout the country (especially in the centre and east of Ukraine), contacts with local elites, and most importantly, money and media support. As a result, voters hold affection for Hrytsenko, but do not really believe he could win – something that might discourage many of them from casting their vote “in vain”.

Game-changers’ entrance?

Not only are the upcoming elections going to be the most brutal and emotional but also the most unpredictable as there are a few candidates who might significantly influence the outcome of the elections in case they decide to run for office. One of them is the popular singer and activist Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. Vakarchuk is hinting heavily at a possible run for president. If he runs it could be a game-changer.

Another celebrity who is expected to announce his running for presidency in the nearest future is Volodymyr Zelenskyi, who has been intriguing the public already for a while by registering the party “Sluga Narodu” (The Servant of the People), which refers to the eponymous comedy series in which he plays a fictional president. Thus is he playing upon his possible participation in the elections in a very popular comedy show, run on one of the top channels 1+1.

Taking into account the fact that the owner of the channel Kolomoyskyi is the only oligarch who is in conflict with Poroshenko and who might prefer Yulia Tymoshenko to win, Zelenskyi’s running for presidency looks very much like Kolomoyskyi’s bargaining chip in deal-making with Poroshenko. Due to the fact that Zelenskyi attracts the votes of the most disappointed voters, his participation in the elections will not work in Poroshenko’s favour. That is why holding back on the decision allows Kolomoyskyi to ratchet up his negotiation potential. On top of that Zelenskyi’s support has been growing so fast that recently a poll even found him ahead of Poroshenko, coming second after Yulia Tymoshenko.

Apart from active preparation for the parliamentary elections, the former members of the Party of Regions are actively preparing for the presidential elections. Not only the “Opposition Bloc” finds itself on the list of the most popular parties to enter parliament the next year, but is willing to nominate a “promising” candidate who would get relatively high support and make it to the second-round runoff. Until recently, there had been a project of an alliance between the Opposition Bloc and For Life (a former wing of the Opposition Bloc, which split at a certain point) and the nomination of a quite popular Yuriy Boiko (around seven per cent of popular support) as the united candidate. However, after a few rounds of arduous negotiations between the stakeholders, the project failed, causing a further split in the Opposition Bloc. Eventually, Boiko joined and co-founded Opposition Platform – For Life, which nominated him for the presidency and got expelled from the Opposition Bloc in league with one of the co-founders and ideologists of the party Serhiy Liovochkin.

Overall, this further split means that from now on, there will be two strong groups, inheriting the capital of the Party of Regions: the group, run by Rinat Akhmetov, which embraces what is left from the “Opposition Bloc”, and the group around “Opposition Platform – For Life”, significantly influenced by a pro-Russian politician Victor Medvedchuk, who draws the members of the “Opposition Bloc” over to his side and is primed for getting great influence by mobilizing the electorate from the east and south of the country.

There are very unpredictable and critically important both presidential and parliamentary elections before us. There is no knowing who is going to win, especially if/when new candidates join the battle and change the political setup. However, knowing that the stakes are very high, especially for the two main rivals, Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, it is most likely that one of them will be the winner. Particularly, things can change in favour of Poroshenko in light of recent developments in the Kerch strait, which might significantly change the political agenda of the country and contribute to gaining public support and consolidation around the current president, given the strained military threat. 

While Poroshenko has been doing his best to convince the oligarchs, businessmen, western partners and local elites in his candidacy and looking for possible ways to use his media, economic and administrative resources in order to influence the campaign, Tymoshenko has been insistently winning public support, focusing on opinion leaders, members of the public and actively using populistic rhetoric and harsh criticism of the ruling elite. According to the polls, she is far ahead so far, which is however blighted by the high level of antirust and does not exclude that things can change at any moment. 

Oleksandra Iwaniuk is a PhD candidate at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University specialising in elites’ studies and alumna of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and the College of Europe. Her dissertation focuses on social practices of parliamentarian elites in Ukraine.

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