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Ukraine's presidential hopefuls

Roman Goncharenko
February 4, 2019

Ukrainians are set to vote for president — but there is no clear favorite. Can incumbent Petro Poroshenko retain power? How much of a threat is Yulia Tymoshenko? Or could an outsider perhaps win the race?

Ukraine election posters
Image: Imago/Zuma

Candidates vying for the Ukrainian presidency must officially register their nomination by March 31; dozens of candidates have already done so. But, unlike the last federal election five years ago, this time there is no clear favorite.

The record-breaking number of candidates is making for an outcome that will be difficult to predict, and a second ballot is considered almost inevitable. A duel between the incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko seems likely, but there is room for surprise.

Tymoshenko: A favorite, but not without baggage

For Tymoshenko, winning the presidency would be the crowning moment of her political career. After a narrow defeat in 2010 presidential election against Viktor Yanukovych and then a crushing defeat in 2014 against Poroshenko, this time, she has a real chance to become Ukraine's first female president.

The 58-year-old politician promises a "new path" despite the fact that Tymoshenko embodies the old elites. In her political career, which stretches back more than 20 years, she has twice served as prime minister and served two prison sentences for political reasons — and yet has bounced back time and again after each setback.

In her most recent period serving as the opposition, she succeeded in maintaining and expanding her base — and with seemingly little effort. The continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine, widespread poverty and slow progress in the fight against corruption have led to a huge dip in the polls for her old rival, Poroshenko.

Yulia Tymoshenko
Tymoshenko may be part of Ukraine's political establishment, but she's promised a 'new path' for the countryImage: Reuters/V. Ogirenko

In Tymoshenko's election campaign, she promises to restore Ukraine's "greatness" and the "happiness and dignity" of its citizens, along with a commitment to halving the recent surge in the price of fuel.

Another key point of her platform is a constitutional reform, which, were she to be elected, she would carry out by referendum before the parliamentary elections in autumn. Tymoshenko is striving for an absolute parliamentary democracy based on the German model. But without the backing of the current parliament, such a reform would be difficult —  if not impossible.

Read more: Russia and Ukraine in 2019: More conflict ahead?

Critics accuse Tymoshenko of populism and warn against a more Russia-friendly policy should she come to power. Whether Tymoshenko would actually move closer to Moscow is unclear, however, and for now there is little evidence to back this assumption.

While she appears to be garnering considerable support, a victory for Tymoshenko is by no means a given: she is a polarizing figure who carries significant political baggage. Her battle against former President Viktor Yushchenko after the Orange Revolution of 2004, which weakened the country for months, could have a particularly negative impact.

Why Poroshenko could be re-elected

Poroshenko is fighting for his re-election. Until recently, the 53-year-old president's poll numbers remained in the lower double-digit range; there were doubts as to whether he would even have enough support to make it past the first round of voting.

While Poroshenko's record as president is mixed, he can boast some significant successes, especially in foreign policy. He managed to implement the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement and have visa requirements loosened for Ukrainian nationals traveling to the EU. He also struck an arms deal with the US to equip the Ukrainian military.

Poroshenko gives a speech alongside the head of the newly autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church
Poroshenko has the support of the newly autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox ChurchImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Lukatsky

Poroshenko is relying on the continuation of this successful line for his re-election. He promises to submit an application for EU membership by 2024 at the latest.

But Poroshenko's weaknesses lie in domestic politics. He has faltered in several key areas, including failing to achieve any perceivable success in combating widespread corruption. Although GDP grew by more than 3 percent in 2018, inflation and the steep rise in energy prices in particular are making life increasingly difficult for millions of Ukrainians.

Read more: Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence is a mistake

But all hope is not lost for Poroshenko. A reason for his recent gain in the polls could be his commitment to the founding of a newly autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent from the Russian Orthodox Church. The president's opponents accuse him of instrumentalizing the church for political purposes, but in the end it may help him get re-elected.

Zelensky: A comedian for president?

Among the new and surprising faces of this election is Volodymyr Zelensky, with some polls even putting him as an outside favorite. The 41-year-old is a television personality with a distinctive raw tone who enjoys a high profile as an entertainer. A total novice in politics, Zelensky is known for his lead role in the television satire "Servants of the People". Fittingly, in the show he plays a schoolteacher who is elected president.

Zelensky during a concert program
A former TV comedian, Zelensky could be the dark horse candidateImage: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/A. Gusev

Zelensky's election campaign has largely focusing on young Russian-speaking voters from eastern and southern Ukraine who want to see fresh faces in politics. His laid-back election platform promises peace, an increased fight against corruption and a more straightforward democracy with significantly more referendums. Some observers in Ukraine, however, have speculated that Zelensky's run might be backed by a well-known Ukrainian oligarch with the express purpose of preventing Poroshenko's re-election.

The Pro-Russian camp relies on Boyko

Among the other candidates seen as having good chances of making it to the runoff are former Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko. An experienced but thus far unsuccessful opposition politician, the 61-year-old Hrytsenko is trying to appeal to patriotic voters.

Yurii Boiko
Ukraine's pro-Russian camp is backing BoykoImage: Imago/Ukraine News

Cracks in the latent pro-Russian camp of the Ukrainian political landscape recently saw new alliances being formed. The recently merged "Opposition Platform — For Life" party selected Yuriy Boyko as its candidate, which may provide him more broadly-based support. The party has been a meeting ground for opposition politicians previously aligned with the pro-Russian Yanukovych, under whom the 60-year-old Boyko served as vice prime minister.

Boyko has presented himself as a peacemaker who promises to implement the Minsk Protocol. His voter base, however, is limited to the Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions of Ukraine.