With the election campaign for Ukraine’s March 2019 presidential elections underway, the election field is already shaped by existing contenders. Although the Ukrainian public yearn for new faces these have not appeared and are unlikely to appear before election day.
The choice for Ukrainians and the West in Ukraine’s 2019 elections will be between incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and four populist contenders. Of Ukraine’s six presidential elections since 1991, four have been decided in second rounds which is likely to be the case next year. Only in 1991 and 2014, due to extraordinary circumstances in both cases, did candidates win in the first round, Leonid Kravchuk and Poroshenko respectfully.
Poroshenko’s populist opponents include Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the Batkivshchina (Fatherland) party which although a member of the centre-right European Peoples Party is actually leftist. Three other populist contenders include Oleh Lyashko, leader of the Radical Party which is believed to be a virtual party supported by oligarchs.
Opinion polls so much ahead of election day should be treated with caution. Nevertheless, a dangerous warning sign awaiting Ukraine is the threat of two populists Tymoshenko and Lyashko in the second round.
Oligarch in Ukraine have never been a united political force, and this is even more the case since 2014, and they have supported every political party.
Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoyskyy has formed an “anti-Poroshenko” electoral alliance with Tymoshenko. Government policies stripped him of corrupt sources of revenue through the state oil company UkrNafta, which he had indirectly controlled, and Pryvat Bank which was nationalised.
Two pro-Russian populists, Yuriy Boyko and Vadym Rabinovych have roots in the discredited Party of Regions (now called the Opposition Bloc) which disintegrated four years ago after President Viktor Yanukovych fled from Ukraine and sought refuge in Russia. Rabinovych’s For Life political party is aligned with Viktor Medvedchuk. The Godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter is none other than President Vladimir Putin.
Populism has appeal in some Ukrainian quarters at a time of economic hardship and with no end in sight for the Russian-Ukrainian war in the Donbas. This is especially because, as the well-known Vox Ukraine think tank and NGO has found, populist politicians in Ukraine – similar to elsewhere in Europe and the US – are economical with the truth and promise the earth.
Tymoshenko is in first place in what Vox Ukraine called the ‘First-ever Ranking of Populists and Liars in Ukrainian Politics,’ followed by Opposition Bloc MP’s Rabinovych, Boyko and Oleksandr Vilkul. Samopomych (Self Reliance) faction leader Oleh Berezyuk came in fifth place.
Not everything is always what it seems at first sight in Ukrainian politics.
Land reforms are blocked by all four populist leaders who are challenging Poroshenko next year. Tymoshenko is opposed to any foreign investment in gas pipelines and therefore opposes the government’s policy on seeking Western investment. Pro-Russian populists’ favour Russian investment.
Tymoshenko has been the most vocal Ukrainian politician in calling for an extension of the existing moratorium on land sales, warning otherwise ‘there will be a huge civil war by the agrarian mafia against farmers’. Tymoshenko is leading a campaign to collect signatures to hold a referendum against land reforms.
Land reforms are intimately bound up with a successful reform of de-centralization which has led to a massive growth in budgetary revenues kept at the local level. Populists have opposed de-centralization. Land reform would boost growth and employment, the World Bank argue.
Populist opposition to land reforms is matched by Tymoshenko’s equally strident opposition to medical and pension reforms, two further reforms demanded by the West and adopted last year. Medical reforms are being led by American-Ukrainian Minister of Health Ulana Suprun who is widely praised for successfully fighting corruption in the health sector.
Traditionally, the second round of presidential elections has pitted a pro-Russian versus a pro-Western candidate which is no longer likely as Russian military aggression has reduced support for a pro-Russian orientation. The doomsday scenario in Ukraine’s presidential elections would be a second-round contest between populists Tymoshenko against Lyashko.
This leaves the scenario of incumbent Poroshenko facing populist Tymoshenko in the second round. While Poroshenko would be promoting his support for five years of reforms and European integration, Tymoshenko will be hard pressed to provide clear alternative policies. Her two periods as prime minister in 2005-2006 and 2007-2010 are not highly regarded by experts in Ukraine or the West.
Unlike Russia, the outcome of Ukraine’s presidential election is unknown; Ukraine is after all an emerging democracy. But, what is known is that who wins Ukraine’s presidency will shape the outcome of the parliamentary elections later that year and both elections are important for ensuring the irreversibility of European integration after 2024.