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What might disrupt the presidential election in Ukraine?

Just days before the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election scheduled for Sunday March 31st, the preferences of voters seem to be further consolidating.

March 29, 2019 - Ruslan Kermach - Articles and CommentaryUkraine elections 2019

Ukrainian presidential election, 2004 polling station in Dnipropetrovsk Photo: M. A. Cholewicz (cc) wikimedia.org

Although surveys in Ukraine are often considered with scepticism, some clear trends might be identified with their help. For example, the recent public opinion poll conducted jointly by three reputable opinion polling agencies (KIIS, Razumkov Centre and Rating group) clearly showed the leadership in the ratings of candidate/comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy who is supported by some 27,7 per cent of voters (hereinafter: per cent of voters who are planning to attend election and decided upon their choice). At the same time Zelenskiy is followed by two other candidates – former prime minister and current head of Batkivshchyna party Yulia Tymoshenko (16.6 per cent) and incumbent president Petro Poroshenko (16.4 per cent). The most recent opinion poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) pointed out to an even higher electoral ascendancy of candidate Zelenskiy over his main rivals – with some 32.1 per cent of support.

Even if some experts still have doubts about the high scores, the recent polling gives some cautious reasons to assume that Zelenskiy will manage to get into the second round of election. At least 76 per cent per cent of his supporters, according to the Rating group survey, said that they will “definitely” vote in the election and another 12 per cent said they would most likely do so, which might be sufficient to outperform key contenders. In short, there is a high probability that Zelenskiy will become the winner of the first round of election in Ukraine.

The more important question is who might come in second in the runoff and respectively continues the bid for presidency in the second round? The latest polling results demonstrate that the margin between two main bidders for the second place – Tymoshenko and Poroshenko – is extremely small and within the statistical margin of error. It is precisely this lack of clarity about the candidate who will most likely get into the second round of the presidential election that carries the potential risk of an outbreak of political conflict shortly after the initial voting on March 31st.

In the case of a narrow margin between Tymoshenko and Poroshenko, both may question the outcome and the entire electoral process. In the previous election campaign, the candidates and authorities accused each other – mostly without relevant evidence – of using dirty campaigning tricks, manipulation and vote buying. This, coupled with the many instances of dirty and manipulative methods (like building so-called electoral grids) as well as abandoning video surveillance at the polling stations this year, could provide a good reason to blame opponents of the unfair game and question the results of the vote. The experience of the fraudulent presidential elections between Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko from 2004, which ignited the Orange Revolution, might be a good reminder for that.

Should one of the third-place candidates (either Tymoshenko or Poroshenko) question the election as a whole, a political crisis could be imminent. One might expect that the defeated candidate will appeal directly to the public to protest. This, in turn, could – in the worst case scenario – lead to violence and jeopardise the proper conduct of the second round of voting.

In case of a possible defeat in the first ballot, Tymoshenko could quickly present herself as a victim of political intrigue. As an opposition candidate and a prominent critic of the current government, the former prime minister could make allegations against Poroshenko for having won with such a narrow electoral victory through voter fraud. By doing so, she might resort to her political party apparatus that would be able to mobilise people to protest.

Secondly, Tymoshenko does not have the administrative resources that Poroshenko has (through the appointment of regional governors, impact on the government and the allocation of budgetary resources etc.), again giving her strong arguments to criticise Poroshenko and making her position more vulnerable in the eyes of the general public in Ukraine.

In addition, public mistrust of Tymoshenko is much lower today than in the case of Poroshenko. The current head of state is leading the polls of distrust among Ukrainians: some 69 per cent say that they do not trust him. Among those intending to vote in the upcoming election, every second one (49.6 percent) will under no circumstances vote for Poroshenko. Tymoshenko’s anti-rating is just under 30 per cent. Thus, the upcoming election for many voters (every second one) might become a kind of referendum on the incumbent president.
Therefore, if defeated, candidate Tymoshenko should have no major problems in mobilising and uniting Ukrainians personally dissatisfied with the current government and Poroshenko himself, including leaders of other opposition political forces and representatives of financial and industrial corporations who might be ready to support the long-term political protest.

However, it cannot be completely ruled out that in the event of his defeat in the first ballot, Poroshenko will also resort to extraordinary means of impacting the electoral process and thus avoiding a loss of power. The most likely means for Poroshenko could be a legal attempt to doubt the election result. The judiciary is still politically influenced despite reform efforts and there is a potential risk that the results can be cancelled under certain pretexts. Significantly more drastic would be the cancellation of the elections because of Russia’s hypothetical intervention in the electoral process in Ukraine. This could serve the authorities or Poroshenko as an excuse to doubt the outcome of the elections or even cancel.

Although such a scenario cannot be absolutely ruled out, it is unlikely that the Ukrainian society would be ready to accept it. On the contrary, given the low level of public confidence in the state institutions and the president himself, such measures could trigger an even more acute political crisis than the event of Tymoshenko’s possible defeat in the first round.

In the end, a peaceful outcome of the election will not depend only on who wins in the first round, but to a large extent on the distance between the second- and third-place candidates – the smaller the margin between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko in the first round, the higher the risk of political conflict. In the worst case, this could even lead to the disruption of the entire process itself.

Ruslan Kermach is a freelance political analyst and an associate expert at the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation (DIF) in Kyiv, Ukraine

This article was first published in German by ukraineverstehen.de which is a project of Zentrum Liberale Moderne

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