Events in Ukraine are in a downward spiral. Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has admitted that the government in Kiev has lost control over parts of the country’s southeast. The mass deaths of mainly pro-Russian separatists in Odessa on May 2 have fed into further mobilization and polarization. Western governments and Russia are locked in a new round of mutual accusations and threats of sanctions.
These developments are overshadowing the vital importance of Ukraine’s presidential election scheduled for May 25. This election is the only feasible means to break through the current cycle of violence. It has the potential to give a voice to the vast majority of Ukrainian citizens who have not been participating in the various protests and standoffs since the beginning of the crisis.
The election will therefore provide a first tangible snapshot of the attitudes and preferences of Ukrainian society at large. At the moment, observers simply do not know what the silent majority thinks or wants. The presidential poll represents Ukraine’s best chance to start the process of rebuilding political authority at the center.
Russian officials have questioned the feasibility and legitimacy of holding a national election in the current circumstances. This contradicts Russia’s frequent complaints about what it sees as an illegitimate caretaker government in Kiev. Russian rhetoric surrounding the impending election should not be allowed to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Western governments and the EU need to pay closer attention to the vote, highlight its importance, and try to ensure that it proceeds without major disruptions.
According to trustworthy opinion polls, there is a possibility that the election might be decided in the first round (by a vote of more than 50 percent for one candidate). Since Ukraine became independent in 1991, the country’s presidential elections have always required a second-round runoff between the two top candidates.
The current political situation could break this electoral pattern. The two key candidates in the upcoming contest are Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch known as the “Chocolate King” due to his ownership of the confectionery company Roshen, and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Poroshenko leads by a long way.
According to the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, a nongovernmental organization, a turnout of about 70 percent is expected. In their April poll, 56 percent said they would definitely vote, and 29 percent said they would probably vote. Of those surveyed, 48 percent declared their support for Poroshenko, and 14 percent for Tymoshenko. Three further candidates—Mykhailo Dobkin, a former governor of the Kharkiv region, Serhiy Tihipko, a former vice prime minister, and Petro Symonenko, the leader of the Communist Party—all scored 6–7 percent. Other polls put turnout at around 80 percent and Poroshenko above the 50 percent threshold in the first round.
Poroshenko has held a wide range of political positions, including foreign minister, minister of trade and economic development, head of the Council of Ukraine’s National Bank, and member of parliament. In 2004, he came out in support of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko when he allowed his television channel 5 Kanal to become an outlet for the opposition. More recently, Poroshenko backed the Euromaidan antigovernment protests. While he sees Ukraine’s future linked to the EU, he also stresses the need for good relations with Russia.
Poroshenko’s election strategy is a clever one. He is trying to define his program around more long-term expectations of the population: higher living standards and less corruption. Dissatisfaction with the corrupt regime of Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted as president in February, had been a key concern shared across Ukraine’s regions before the Euromaidan demonstrations.
However, Poroshenko and Tymoshenko have a history of accusing each other of corruption, when they occupied the positions of head of the National Security and Defense Council and prime minister, respectively, in the immediate aftermath of the Orange Revolution. Their disagreements led then president Yushchenko to dismiss the entire cabinet. Poroshenko’s anticorruption stance is therefore not entirely credible, but popular.
Tymoshenko’s emotional and ideological election campaign contrasts with Poroshenko’s projection of a combination of principles and pragmatism. Currently, Tymoshenko’s political record is too tainted to convince voters to give her another chance. Poroshenko, however, has styled himself as an experienced politician and reformer without getting entangled in divisive regional issues. He grew up in the Vinnytsia region in central Ukraine.
Ukraine’s 2014 presidential election is only one step toward restoring political legitimacy in the country—parliamentary elections are just as important to move on to the next stage in Ukrainian politics.
But let’s concentrate on the first step for the moment. The presidential poll may well be the only opportunity to stop Ukraine from descending into further internal conflict, Russian intervention, and the de facto loss of regions in the country’s southeast. Presidential elections are also a typical platform for protest—and this vote could trigger a new round of protests in the capital, in current regional hot spots, and in other regions.
Western governments and international organizations should concentrate their efforts on enabling clean elections, high voter turnout, and the acceptance of the outcome by the Ukrainian elites and society. It is here that the immediate future of Ukraine will be decided—rather than in sanctions against Russia.
Gwendolyn Sasse is a professorial fellow in politics at Nuffield College and university reader in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.