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Ukraine’s election shows democracy is thriving despite post-Maidan challenges

With the final round of the Ukrainian presidential elections just around the corner, voters will again take part in a democratic exercise that will strengthen their society.

April 19, 2019 - Stefan Jajecznyk - Articles and CommentaryUkraine elections 2019

Big ballot boxes ready for receiving votes in the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections on March 31, 2019, polling station 800143, Kyiv Photo: Tohaomg (cc) wikimedia.org

Ukrainians home and abroad flocked to the polls to cast their ballots on March 31st to choose the country’s next president. The results of the election, widely praised as free and fair by domestic and international monitors, left incumbent president Petro Poroshenko dangerously close to being eliminated. Though, with no candidate taking more than 50 per cent of the vote, a second-round run-off will be held in the coming weeks.

Nevertheless, Poroshenko fought off former darling of the Orange Revolution Yulia Tymoshenko – an ubiquitous figure in Ukrainian politics since the 2000s – whether in government, opposition or in prison.

While questions remain over the malign influence of oligarchs on Ukrainian politics in general, there are several positives to be taken from the elections – the first official poll since the Euromaidan revolution in 2013-14.

Similarly, the expectations of ordinary Ukrainians, that their elections be free and fair, is a large change for a population largely resigned to having their elections stolen or falsified for the majority of the country’s post-Soviet existence.

Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose populist platform struck a chord with voters young and old, won the day – bringing in just over 30 per cent of the initial ballots cast. Ukraine’s Central Election Commission officially declared that roughly 32 per cent – 5.7 million – backed Zelenskiy; with President Poroshenko receiving just shy of 16 per cent – over 3 million votes.

Interestingly, the Ukrainian diaspora – be it those actually voting, or sharing their opinions on social media – seem to be taking a divergent political path to those who remain in the country. Of the 55,000 Ukrainians who took part in the elections abroad, nearly 39 per cent favoured Poroshenko over Zelenskiy, who received 26 per cent of votes cast.

For those without a horse in the race, the campaign has been, and continues to be, utterly fascinating – often bordering on ridiculous. In the past week, for example, the two remaining candidates have exchanged a series of videos – initiated by a slick Zelenskiy production – on the topic of a debate between the two. As it stands, the pair are due to face-off in a Hunger Games-like event in Kyiv’s 70,000-seater Olympic Stadium before the next nationwide ballot.

Both recently participated in a televised drug and alcohol tests, with the pair giving blood, urine and hair samples in front of perplexed, if not mildly amused, journalists.

Populism

In a Western context, populism has become the latest buzzword describing waves of anti-establishment movements across the democratic world. From the election of Donald Trump, to Brexit and the various electoral successes of populists – Hungary and Italy for example; they have mostly presented right-wing nativist political platforms – exploiting wealth inequality to push an anti-immigrant agenda.

Ukraine’s brand of populism, – lead by Zelenskiy, appears to be breaking this mould. The main thrust of his campaign has been to play on a general dissatisfaction at the incumbent Poroshenko’s perceived failure to implement anti-corruption measures and bring about a satisfactory conclusion to the war with Russia.

Zelenskiy, despite his ties to oligarch and Poroshenko opponent – Igor Kolomoisky – is seen as a progressive figure by many – whose ire is directed at Ukraine’s oligarchs, rather than towards migrants like in many Western European countries.

For a nation often fairly criticised for a rise in extreme far-right street groups like the Azov National Militia and C14, it is certainly positive that large swathes of the nation back a candidate with Jewish ancestry. This is much unlike elsewhere on the continent where far-right parties enjoy considerable electoral success.

Faith in democracy

These latest elections have, by no means, been a given. Observers from Ukraine and across the world, have genuinely had no idea which way voters would go beyond usual opinion polling. Similarly, Ukrainians’ faith in a peaceful, and honest, transfer of power is certainly reassuring.

That Ukrainians wish to use their democratic rights to either air their grievances or reaffirm their support in the incumbent, rather than needing to violently overthrow a despotic ruler shows progress with which Western observers should, no doubt, be pleased with. It is now for Ukraine’s politicians to repay this faith in kind.

Enthusiastic political discussions can often be heard on the streets and in the bars and restaurants of Kyiv – notwithstanding Ukraine’s well-publicised social and political problems, democracy is thriving in the post-revolution era.

The New York-based Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, that had dozens of observers registered in the country, noted that there were “a few violations that were not of a systemic nature and did not affect the outcome of the election.” And that, in their reports, “short-term observers reported that 96 per cent of the polls performed their functions ‘good’ or ‘very good’.”

The group, who had representatives in most major Ukrainian cities said this “indicates a high level of productivity for any electoral process.” Declaring the election “met international standards, was free, fair and democratic, and reflected the will of the electorate.”

Where next?

With the presidential debate tipped to be the hottest ticket in Kyiv this month, there will certainly be plenty for the Ukrainian electorate to digest in the coming days. Zelenskiy will likely play on his youthfulness – using his skills as an experienced television producer to create more slick campaign ads.

Poroshenko, cutting a more stern figure than his opponent – the professional comedian, will use his position as commander-in-chief to project a strong image to an electorate well-aware of the country’s aggressive Eastern neighbour.

Nevertheless, Ukrainians head to the polls once more on April 21.

Stefan Jajecznyk is a graduate of the School of Slavonic and East-European Studies at University College London and has an MA in Journalism from the University of Salford. He is a freelance reporter with extensive experience working in the UK and across Europe.

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