KYIV BLOG: Comic Zelenskiy leads record number of candidates for the Ukrainian presidency

KYIV BLOG: Comic Zelenskiy leads record number of candidates for the Ukrainian presidency
Ukrainians mistrust all the establishment candidates, outsider and comic Volodymyr Zelenskiy takes the lead in most recent polls
By Ben Aris in Berlin February 11, 2019

Ukrainians mistrust all the establishment candidates allowing outsider and comic Volodymyr Zelenskiy to take the lead in the most recent polls for the presidential election. 

Ukraine’s Central Election Commission (CEC) has registered a record total of 44 candidates for the race for the presidential election scheduled for March 31, the CEC said on February 8, which was the last day for adopting the decision to register.

Among the registered candidates are Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Zelenskiy, and ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko, who are considered the only candidates with a realistic chance of winning, according to the latest polls. As none of these candidates has any chance of winning the 50% needed for a first round victory, the election will almost certainly go to the second round slated for April.

Among decided voters, Zelenskiy is now the clear frontrunner with 23% support, compared to 16.4% for Poroshenko and 15.7% for ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been leading until recently. The poll was conducted among 11,000 respondents between January 16 and 29 by the respected Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), the Razumkov Center and the Socis Center for Social and Market Research.

Zelenskiy’s lead was confirmed by a second poll released the same day. Among decided voters, Zelenskiy has 19.0% support, compared to 18.2% for Tymoshenko and 15.1% for Poroshenko, according to the Rating Sociological Group, which conducted its survey among 6,000 respondents between January 16 and 24.

Zelenskiy’s strong showing is despite a slow start to his campaign where he turned to social media to ask the people to define his campaign that disappointed analysts. It also comes on top of a scandal that exposed the fact that he still has active business in Russia, despite a statement saying that he had ended all his business relations in Russia following the annexation of the Crimea in 2014.

Having got off to an early start as the first candidate to declare a run for the presidents job, until recently Tymoshenko consistently enjoyed a 10 point lead in all the polls and was expected to win both rounds of the election under any scenario, according to by the US-backed International Republican Institute (IRI).

The incumbent Poroshenko seems to be in real trouble now as Zelenskiy’s presence in the race has been hurting his chances more than Tymoshenko’s. However, the race is still wide open and Ukrainian polls are extremely inaccurate.

Zelenskiy’s strong showing, despite the problems with his campaign, also highlights how unpopular the incumbent candidates are with the regular voters. Poroshenko may be ranking third but he also ranks first in the “won’t vote for them under any circumstances” category in the polls, followed by Tymoshenko, who is as unpopular.

Zelenskiy’s appeal is that he is not from the establishment and promises a fresh start. Another recent poll found that some 70% of Ukrainians feel the country is going in the “wrong direction” and have felt that way consistently since the EuroMaidan popular uprising in 2014. The incumbents – including Poroshenko and Tymoshenko – are felt to have failed to deliver on any of the promises of Maidan and the establishment is being blamed for dramatic fall in the quality of citizens’ lives.

Meanwhile, Poroshenko announced the official start of his election campaign on February 9. "Today [...] my election campaign officially begins. I fully count on you, on our common victory," Interfax news agency quoted him as saying. "We need only an honest victory. One that no one can question."

The president added that he had decided to run for the second term as president of Ukraine in order to complete building a strong, successful state capable of ensuring order, well-being and security for every Ukrainian, to prepare the country for joining the European Union (EU) and Nato, and not to let populists "multiply by zero everything that people have achieved through suffering".

"My strategic goals for the second term can be summed up in several points: fighting poverty and preparing the country for the entry into the EU and NATO, ensuring peace on conditions that are beneficial for Ukraine and restoring the country's territorial integrity," Poroshenko said.

The statement followed the adoption by Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, of the amendments to the nation’s constitution regarding the strategic course of the state to secure Ukraine’s full membership in the EU and Nato, which is an increasingly popular goal amongst regular Ukrainians and is the cornerstone of Poroshenko’s campaign.

Tymoshenko has also rallied to meet the challenge of her recent hit in the polls by “going low” and accusing US-born acting Ukrainian Health Minister Ulana Suprun of being "sent by Americans" to "experiment on Ukrainians."

Suprun has been an outstanding success both in reforming the Ukrainian health care sector and especially in cracking down on the notorious corruption in the sector, as she described in an exclusive interview with bne IntelliNews “Gloves off for Ukraine's health minister as long-awaited reforms begin,” last year. Her campaign has made her enemies who successfully managed to get a court to block her appointment as full minister on the basis that she holds dual nationality – Ukrainian and US citizenship. Ukraine’s international partners have come out in support of Suprun, who is seen as one of the last liberal reformers left in government after most of the others have been either sacked or pushed out by the ruling elite.

Tymoshenko’s attack on Suprun is nonsensical, as Suprun has actively worked to improve the lives of regular Ukrainians. The quality of healthcare remains a key concern to voters, but Tymoshenko’s attack is typical of her overtly popularist and combative style of politics; the creation of an “enemy within” goes hand in glove with Tymoshenko’s earlier remarks that some of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) changes imposed on the government, such as hiking domestic heating tariffs were “economic genocide” imposed by an “enemy without,” but this approach has resonated with the public in the past.

With the candidates so close in the race, the presidential elections have now entered the dirty fighting stage. What worries observers is the possibility that these elections will be less than free and fair. Poroshenko is widely expected to use his “administrative resources” to skew the vote to his advantage. Moreover, he added several supporters to the roster of the Constitutional Court last year, in a move that suggests he believes the results will be disputed. The 2006 Orange Revolution impasse over the final results was resolved by the Constitutional Court ruling in favour of Viktor Yushchenko and against his opponent Viktor Yanukovych.

One red flag that has already appeared is a recent statement by the CEC that the electoral roll has only fallen by 80,000 people since the last elections in 2010, despite a severe demographic crisis, similar to that Russia experienced in the mid 90s, and the fact that some 5mn Ukrainians are currently living and working abroad from a total voting population of under 20mn, but remain registered voters. Analysts warn that these absentee voters create the opportunity for massive vote rigging for an unscrupulous candidate.