When are elections legitimate? This is a tricky question to which the Ukrainian presidential election of May 25 does not provide a clear answer—contrary to what Western governments and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have claimed. It depends on how the election data are sliced and contextualized. Calling Ukraine’s poll “free and fair” cannot distract from the electoral void in the Eastern regions of Donetsk and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Luhansk.
Petro Poroshenko won the election in the first round, obtaining about 55 percent of the vote with an overall turnout of just above 60 percent (the final official results are expected by June 1). Compared with the European Parliament elections of May 22–25, with their average turnout of 43 percent across EU member states, the Ukrainian figures look strong; and they are similar to turnout in national elections across Europe.
However, turnout carried particular significance in this Ukrainian election—arguably more so than the actual vote choice. Turnout stayed below preelection expectations and varied significantly across the country. The regional breakdown of turnout reads like a summary of the political developments in recent months and the key challenges the newly elected president faces as he embarks on rebuilding the Ukrainian polity from within.
The only other time that a Ukrainian presidential candidate crossed the 50 percent threshold in the first round, thus avoiding a second-round runoff, was in December 1991, when Leonid Kravchuk became president of a newly independent Ukraine.
There are other parallels between the 1991 and 2014 elections. Then and now, the winning candidate appealed to voters across regional, ethnolinguistic, and socioeconomic cleavages. In both elections, turnout and crossregional support were at least as important as the actual vote choice.
In 1991, over 80 percent turned out to vote, just below 62 percent voted for Kravchuk, and, in a parallel referendum, over 92 percent came out in favor of Ukrainian independence. In 2014, the presidential election itself was a vehicle to express support for the Ukrainian state in its current borders—no election took place in Crimea.
The first-round victory masks regional differences in turnout and, by extension, the levels of explicit support for Poroshenko. As a result of violence and intimidation, very few polling stations in Donetsk and Luhansk were open, resulting in provisional turnout figures of 15.4 percent and 39 percent respectively.
Overall, turnout in Southeastern Ukraine presents a mixed picture and, on the whole, is significantly lower than in the country’s Western regions. A turnout of over 50 percent reads like a clear statement on the part of the electorate in support of the Ukrainian state. The Eastern regions of Zaporizhia and Dnipropetrovsk saw a turnout of 51 percent and 55.5 percent respectively. Kharkiv and Odessa—two hot spots in the protests and violent clashes that took place earlier in the year—came in at 48 percent and 46 percent.
Turnout in the central regions stood at 60–65 percent, with Kiev city close to the national average and Western regions recording a higher turnout. The highest was Lviv, with 78 percent.
The choice of Poroshenko, an oligarch who is known as a pragmatist and has held government posts under former presidents Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych, creates the conditions for diplomatic talks with both Russia and the West. The West had already endorsed Poroshenko prior to the election, and the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have acknowledged the overall election result and the principle of holding talks with Poroshenko marks an important step.
Closer integration with the EU as well as a commitment to neutrality rather than NATO membership have been part of Poroshenko’s program. He has front-loaded socioeconomic issues and promised parliamentary elections before the end of 2014—the first such announcement since Yanukovych’s ouster in February.
However, the first days after the election saw violence on an unprecedented scale. Poroshenko will be sworn in within the next month, but in the meantime, he is supporting the interim executive’s attempt to use the momentum generated by the election to reassert control over Donetsk. The Ukrainian army was deployed to take back the regional airport, killing militants and civilians in the process.
Poroshenko himself used the unhelpful language of targeting “terrorists”—the counterpoint to the equally misplaced characterization of the Kiev interim government by Russian sources as “fascist.” In the short run, civilian casualties can only have one effect: to sustain and increase support for the separatists.
If he wants to break through the cycle of violence, Poroshenko has to change gear and concentrate all his efforts on the roundtables that started in a halfhearted manner before the election. The lesson from conflicts elsewhere is that eventually, governments have to talk to representatives of armed groups.
In Ukraine’s case, there simply isn’t the time to wait years or decades to come to this conclusion. Poroshenko could be quickly running out of time and options, and this might be his and the country’s only lifeline.
The election gives Poroshenko a clear enough mandate to reform and strengthen the Ukrainian state. The only way forward is obvious but not easy to implement: a set of negotiations—an internal one on a new constitution based on the principle of decentralization, which should be put to a referendum, perhaps alongside the parliamentary elections; and another one including Russia and Western governments, the EU, and the OSCE on how to disarm pro- and anti-Ukrainian government groups and defense units.
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.