04 April 2014
The electoral campaign for the title of the fifth President of independent Ukraine officially started in Ukraine this week. Out of 23 candidates registered by the Central Election Commission, there are some regular customers (such as Communist-in-Chief Symonenko) and novices (such as Yarosh of the Right Sector). To the chagrin of equality defenders, only 3 are female (including the prominent Maidan medical activist, Olga Bohomolets). Following the debacle at their official Congress at the end of last week, the Party of Regions failed to settle on a single candidate. As many as five politicians are now running on its dubious legacy: former deputy prime minister Boyko, former Kharkiv governor Dobkin, informal leader of a big parliamentary group Tigipko, former deputy of prosecutor general Kuzmin and pro-Russian politician Tsaryov.
The talk on the streets of Kyiv leaves an impression that only two candidates are now likely contenders for presidency: Yulia Tymoshenko and Petro Poroshenko. Vitali Klychko’s decision not to run and support Poroshenko has clearly strengthened the latter’s hand. Tymoshenko’s party, on the other hand, was visibly shaken: some of the people in her close entourage do not conceal their irritation, while some even start to jump ship by quitting the party. With 25% Ukrainians telling pollsters that they will vote for Poroshenko in the first round, he starts the two-month campaign as a leader. Will he be able to win at the end of May? The short answer is: not necessarily.
Some positions are strong …
First, Poroshenko has resources and communication channels. After Klychko’s chief organizer Vitali Kovalchuk was appointed the head of Poroshenko’s election campaign, the latter can count on UDAR’s network of regional offices to rally support ahead of the presidential election. The Channel 5, owned by Poroshenko, is the third most-viewed TV channel in Ukraine, a country where most citizens rely on TV for coverage of politics. In this category, Poroshenko seems the only candidate capable to rival Tymoshenko, who’s been consolidating support of elites after being released from prison.
Second, Poroshenko’s team is likely to send the right messages through those communication channels, judging from his election programme. The promise of change will be tailored to different regions and voter categories. In a grasp of the latest public sentiment of the pro-Maidan voters, Poroshenko pledges snap parliamentary election under the proportional party lists. The promise to increase in expenses on defence and “re-industrialize” the military complex is a response to Ukrainians’ concerns over protecting the country’s territorial integrity, a sensitive area in which Tymoshenko’s team has been labeled indecisive and incompetent. Given the conflict with Russia can only turn uglier, this gives Poroshenko an excellent card for beating his opponent.
Third, Poroshenko is building himself a strong foreign-policy profile, given the competences of the president in Ukraine’s parliamentary-presidential system. His programme trumpets the EU as an absolute priority, perhaps inspired by public polls that show a record 52% support for the European integration. He promises the signature of the economic part of the Association Agreement, visa-free regime with EU in the first year of his presidency (does the Commission know already?), and a “political decision” on prospective EU accession by the end of his five-year term. Conversely, there’s not a single word about NATO in the programme and the previous behaviour of Poroshenko makes it likely he will avoid publicly discussing the Alliance in much detail. The news that Poroshenko’s enterprises were sanctioned in Russia will be an icing on the cake of his foreign-policy credentials: one cannot credibly resist Russia without having suffered from it, even in such a mundane way.
Finally (and perhaps most importantly), Poroshenko may still see his support base grow in those regions where his main competitor is likely to stumble. Poroshenko’s message of decentralization will be directed to the Eastern regions ridden with the talk of federalization. Similarly, the emphasis on his “economical” background is supposed to appeal to …Yanukovych’s loyalists: he even uses the very same word (“gospodarnyk” in Ukrainian) that the team of the ousted president peddled during the 2004 election campaign. In my view, if that message is played well on the ground through the campaign, Poroshenko is more likely to win over the 40% of the undecided voters in Eastern Ukraine than Tymoshenko.
… but some weak spots are there too
Petro Poroshenko is an oligarch and one of the wealthiest individuals in Ukraine. His wealth is estimated at $1,6 billion (Forbes) and he owns assets in Ukraine and abroad. Despite the talk of managerial prowess, that does not count as a doubtless asset in a country where the insatiable greed of state officials was one of the reasons for a national uprising that left over a hundred people killed on the main square. The commentators will also remind the society of the power struggle that ensued in the post-Orange revolution government after Poroshenko had been appointed the secretary of the National Security Council, with Tymoshenko as the prime minister.
But the story does not end with Poroshenko’s being an oligarch himself. It is his alleged connections to the other oligarchs that will detract from his newly-found popularity. It took less than a couple of days for the news to transpire that Klychko and Poroshenko met a (mildly-speaking) controversial oligarch Dmytro Firtash in Vienna. As I wrote before, Firtash was released on bail and now awaits extradition from Austria to the US on charges of corrupt activities in the US and India. More importantly, Firtash is seen as the middleman in corrupt gas deals with Russia and one of the beneficiaries of Yanukovych’s regime. Given how ruthless Ukrainian journalists are in digging up dirty facts, more details of Poroshenko’s encounters with Firtash are likely to taint his newly-acquired image of a benevolent reformer. Poroshenko will cause himself even more damage, if he tries to sweep it under the carpet.
With these details in mind, it’s easy to see why Tymoshenko chose “fight against corruption” as her major campaign theme. As the presidential campaign in Ukraine is likely to turn into an exchange of corruption accusations, the challenge for Poroshenko will be to turn the discourse back to national security and foreign-policy choices. As the Ukrainian society is weary of misinformation and blank spots, Poroshenko’s bid for presidency is far from certain.