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The Political Stakes of the Ukrainian Presidential Election

Noria Research

The Power Shift in Kiev

Shortly after taking office, the new central authorities faced the problem of separatism in Crimea and the East and South of Ukraine. In this context, the issues of the election are no longer quite the same as the prevailing issues prior to the flight of President Yanukovych; which were focused on foreign policy issues (the agreement of association with the Ukraine, the relationship with Russia), but are now mostly domestic since the Maidan revolution (the fight against corruption, the end of financial privileges, lustration, an end to police violence, the rule of law and democracy…)

The main challenge that will face the new President will be the territorial integrity of mainland Ukraine, and of the country as a whole, with many candidates including in their manifestos a return of Crimea to the Ukraine. The issue has been evolving rapidly ever since late February, with the self-determination referendum in the eastern regions of Ukraine (Donetsk and Lugansk) of the 11th May casting doubts on the ballot itself.

The decision to hold an early Presidential election was made on the 22nd February when the Ukrainian Parliament declared that having left his post, Viktor Yanukovych was no longer fulfilling his duties, and voted for the resignation of the fleeing President by 328 votes of a total of 450.

The next day, Oleksandr Tourtchinovdu of the Batkivchtchina party (Fatherland), MP, right hand man of Yulia Tymoshenko , former head of the Security Service of Ukraine and former Deputy Prime Minister (2007-2010), was elected President of the Parliament; he became Head of State and then interim President. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, chairman of the parliamentary group, the Batkivchtchina party is elected Prime Minister on February 27th with 371 votes. The government meanwhile achieves a smaller majority (296 votes).

The president is elected in a similar way to the French system: a five year term by direct universal suffrage and a majority vote in two rounds. The election was originally scheduled for March 2015, five years after the election of Viktor Yanukovych in February 2010. According to the agreement on February 21st between the president and the opposition in the presence of Foreign Ministers from France, Germany and Poland, it should be held before December 2014, but this agreement was difficult to implement due to the flight of the President and the killing of civilians at Maidan.

The powers of the new president will be reduced compared to those held by Viktor Yanukovych. The Constitution of Ukraine adopted in 1996 has experienced many changes. A review, carried out in 2004 during the Orange Revolution, curtailed the president’s powers. This revision was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in October 2010, a few months after the election of Viktor Yanukovych, which led to a sharp concentration of Presidential powers. After the agreement of the 21st February, Parliament voted, with a law, a return to the constitution of 2004. The law passed by 386 deputies by an accelerated procedure, was not however signed by President Yanukovych who is on the run.

It was finally signed by the interim President and will enter into force on March the 2nd. According to the 2004 Constitution, the President has no power to appoint the Prime Minister, who returned to Parliament; returns to him only the power to appoint the ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs. This way the powers of the President are reduced in favour of the Prime Minister. Discussions are underway for a new constitutional amendment that would reduce even further the President’s powers, which would then be the subject of further political negotiations after the election.

The legitimacy of the new President

The closing of some of the polling stations raises the question of legitimacy in this election. The Central Election Commission has stated that electoral law does not specify a minimum number of polling stations for an election to be considered valid. After the referendum of May 11th whose legality is contested and which led to the self- proclamation of independence of the people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, separatists have called for the withdrawal of the Ukrainian army in their regions, and some of them have requested the intervention of the regions concerned some of them the intervention of the Russian army. They made it clear that the election would not be held in their regions, significant because of their demographic weight (more than 5 million voters out of a total of 36 million).

On the 17th of May the Central Election Commission asked in a statement addressed to the central authorities to take urgent measures to ensure the smooth conduct of the election in the eastern regions. According to the Commission, several districts could not hold the election on account of the threat of danger to their commissioners. Electoral commission buildings have already suffered from armed attacked. On May the 12th, the President of the Association of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine indicated that about two-thirds of polling stations in Lugansk and Donetsk were unable to meet. In these areas, the electoral campaign was practically nonexistent. If the situation remains the same, the elections could not take place in 2-3 % of polling stations, or 5% if the situation deteriorated. Nearly two million or more voters could be affected.

On May 16 , Parliament adopted amendments to the law on presidential elections to allow monitoring of electoral commissions and the transportation of documents by security forces. However, the implementation of these measures is doubtful given the difficulties encountered by anti-terrorist operations since April the 13th by central authorities who are unable to gain control of some of the Eastern territories and their administrations.

Additionally, voter turnout will most probably be high, but with significant regional differences relative to the insecurity in the country and the state of political competition. According to a survey carried out between the 6th and the 8th of May, just over 84 % of voters are planning to participate in the elections. For West Ukraine, this figure rises to 95.2 %, to 90.7% in central Ukraine, 84% in the South and 66.4% in the East ( Kharkiv, Lugansk and Dnepropetrovsk). However, in the Donbass alone, which includes Donetsk, these figures could be much lower due to the number of swing voters and to the security conditions.

In these context, the higher the number of polling stations, as the participating electorate grows, the greater the legitimacy of the new president who could then be considered as the representative of all Ukrainians. If the elections is likely to be considered as legally valid, its legitimacy could still be challenged in the same way as the change of power in Kiev. Indeed, it is this question that the separatist forces have used in order to grow. 

The state of the political landscape

The main opposition leaders at the time of the Maidan demonstrations have been distanced from the election. Apart from a multitude of non-politically affiliated civic actors who largely dominated Maidan, mobilization also included representatives of the three political parties of the parliamentary opposition: Arseniy Yatsenyuk (The Batkivchtchina party), Oleg Tiakhnibok (The Freedom Party) Vitali Klitschko and (Oudar party). The Batkivchtchina party won 24.54 % of the vote in the parliamentary elections of 2012[mfn]Those results only includes half of the deputies (225/450), elected in proportional system, the remaining half being chosen by first-past-the-post voting.[/mfn], and returned 88 deputies[mfn]The number of members of deputies is the one registered by each parliamentary group at the start of the legislature (December the 12th, 2012).[/mfn]; Oudar 13.96%, 41 deputies; The Freedom Party, 10.44 % of the vote, with high scores in Galicia (38% in the Lviv region), and 35 members.

These three opposition leaders who decided to talk and negotiate with President Yanukovych have often been criticized and booed by Maidan protesters, in parallel with the increase of State violence. Maidan is a movement that distrusts political elites in general, and accuses them of participating in a political system based on corruption and personal enrichment. Of the three opposition leaders, two are not official candidates and the third has no chance of winning the election. Arseniy Yatsenyuk who became Prime Minister and, once Tymoshenko was realeased, could not entertain the idea of running for president, even though he may remain influential. Vitali Klitschko was for a time a favorite because of his more recent entry into politics, withdrew in favor of Petro Poroshenko ( voting intentions in his favour ranged between 10 and 15%); he will run for mayor of Kiev for which the polls showed he has a real chance of success. As for Oleg Tiakhnibok, a candidate of the Freedom Party, he is currently credited with 2-3% in the polls.

The Central Election Commission has now registered 23 candidates. Four of them have withdrawn from the race, two after May the 2nd and therefore their names, among a total of 21, still feature on the ballots. However, this apparent competitiveness is unbalanced.

The favourite of the polls is Piotr Poroshenko, with close to 35%. Poroshenko is an independent businessman, an MP who has not participated in negotiations with the former president and who is committed to the revolutionary movement. He sometimes acts as an interface between protesters and security forces, an argument he puts forward in his campaign video. He is the founder of Ukrprominvest group and has interests in banking, transport and media. It is the largest producer of confectionery in Ukraine (the company Roshen in particular); and as such, is nicknamed the “king of chocolate.” His fortune amounts to $ 1.3 billion according to Forbes magazine, which makes him one of the ten richest men in the country. Poroshenko owns the television channel Kanal 5, which has played an important role during the events of Maidan as it did during the Orange Revolution in 2004.

Poroshenko has been an MP since 1998 and has changed his political leanings several times. After the Orange Revolution, he became President of the National Council of Defence and Security for a few months followed by Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Central Bank (2007-2009). During Tymoshenko’s government, he served as Foreign Minister for a few months (2009-2010) and became Minister of Economic Development and Trade under the presidency of Yanukovych in 2012 before leaving this post once elected as an independent MP. In the summer of 2013, his company Roshen was prevented from exporting its products to Russia, supposedly for hygiene reasons. These trade tensions, nicknamed “the chocolate wars” took place while Ukraine was preparing to sign the agreement of association with the European Union.

Despite his former government functions, Poroshenko seems to be a relatively consensual figure, in the same way that Yushchenko was in 2004. He is considered a good manager and his political legitimacy comes from his actions during Maidan. He is in favour of greater integration of Ukraine into the European Union and adopts a firm stance against Russia. He has also announced that Ukraine could be energy independent in two years. His campaign is relatively active: meetings, posters, television. His popularity is more important in the West than the Centre or the South. In the East, it is still very low, like that of most of the candidates. However, his political career and wealth do raise questions regarding the Maidan manifesto. He is criticised in particular for having agreements with the oligarchs and wealthy business men of the country. He has however announced his intention to create a transparent business environment and fight corruption; he cooperated with questions from the Tchesno Association (Honesty) which defends transparency and questioned him about his campaign accounting. He has also said he would sell his businesses if he were to become President, with the exception of the TV channel Kanal 5. One can also see that Poroshenko has already been conducting himself as a chief of state, meeting with many other Presidents, including the French President François Hollande in early March.

Despite having similar political positions, Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister (January-September 2005 and 2007-2010), is the main opponent of Poroshenko. Last released from prison, where she was held since February 2011, she was selected as a Batkivchtchina party candidate currently dominating government. In the polls, she is credited with more than 10% of intended votes. Extremely combative, accusing her opponent of privileged relationships with Russia and the oligarchs, Tymoshenko however appears as a political figure of the past in the eyes of a majority of Ukrainians. Her previous political responsibilities and her association with the political team that emerged in the wake of the Orange Revolution. As such, she represents even less than Poroshenko, a political rebirth.

Discussions between the two candidates were held, with an intention that Tymoshenko would withdraw, allowing Poroshenko to win in the first round and thus providing immediate legitimacy for the greatly weakened central government. But Tymoshenko has indicated that she will not cancel her candidacy. On May 15,  Poroshenko’s  campaign manager called on the candidates credited with a few percent to withdraw to allow an election in one round. Nevertheless, according to a poll conducted by GFK Ukraine on the 10th-14th of May and published on the 16th, the gap in voting intentions for the two main candidates has tightened to a little more than 10 points ( 28.1% for Poroshenko,17.9% for Tymoshenko) which would suggest a second round.

If the political landscape is unbalanced, it is because the two main candidates defend similar political positions regarding the future of the Ukraine, both in terms of internal and external policy. This was not the case in previous elections where the leading candidates defended distinct political programs.

This imbalance is a result of the weakening of the Party of Regions, having suffered many defections of elected officials at the national and at the local level and led a conflictual Congress on March 29th, decided to support the candidature of Mikhailo Dobkine, credited with about 4% of the vote. Due to events at Maidan and revelations about personal enrichment of the Yanukovych family, the Party of Regions has lost credibility and is not finding it easy to rebuild itself around the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov whose position regarding separatists is regularly criticized as ambiguous. Without openly supporting the separatists, Mr. Dobkine, former governor of Kharkiv, stands out as an opponent of the new authorities in Kiev questioning their legitimacy and condemning the anti-terrorist operation. Three other candidates come initially are from the Party of Regions but have been expelled since early April: Oleg Tsariov, who withdrew in order to join the separatists, Yuriy Boyko, former deputy prime minister, Sergei Tikhipko, MP, former President of the Central Bank (2002-2004) and several times a Minister who became an opposition favourite, currently in power with between 4 and 10% of the vote. (He obtained 13.06% of votes in the 2010 presidential election). All these candidates ask that the Russian language becomes the second state language .

Regarding the Nationalist Party’s Pravy Sektor candidate Dmitro Iaroch (Right Sector), much talked about in the media and in particular in the Russian media, he holds no government office at the moment and is credited with about 1% of voting intentions.


In view of the particularly violent events that have been on going in the country for several months the presidential election is the most unbalanced in terms of political competition and the most more divided in terms of ideological positions since that of 1991. Separatism appears as the main element of uncertainty around the election and more generally on the State that will represent the new Ukrainian president.

In addition, the elected president will in all likelihood be a “pro-Western” President, in any event “pro-European” , and risks being regarded as a representative of only a part of Ukraine. This was the case in previous presidential elections. But the lack of a balanced political representation in the current situation and particularly in the context of the forthcoming political calendar, namely the setting of a new government and the 2017 parliamentary elections, which might be anticipated. Recomposition of the party system is a key element to this regard. The representation of pro-Russians and/or the Eastern regions in the national political debate appears to be a critical issue given that, even when in difficulty, they have never ceased to weigh in politics since independence. In 2014, their weakness has never been greater. Which also explains the shift in Russian policy towards the Ukraine.

Finally, the changes in the political system demanded by Maidan activists might be delayed. Not only because the presidential election does not symbolize the advent of a new political elite but also because the next administration may not wish or not manage to change the system despite their good intentions. Following the change of power, a group of activists and experts decided to champion the immediate transformation of Ukrainian legislation in a number of areas such as the fight against corruption, judicial independence, European integration, decentralization and transparency of administrative documents; a program called the “Reanimation Reforms Packages”. Its promoters organised lobbying of MPs and government and obtained the adoption of several new laws. They refuse to directly assimilate into government structures. However, two of their members did agree to participate in the Reform Support Centre, bringing together association representatives and experts supporting the government in the publication, development and implementation of public documents, including legislation, that is pro-reform. The transformation of the political system depends on the weight of these initiatives and the lustration, widely discussed at Maidan, but which seems to have become a minor consideration, in particular regarding the political class in the face of the question of territorial integrity.

This article was presented at the Center for International Research and Studies (CERI-Sciences Po) on May 14.