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Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Guide to Ukraine's Presidential Election

Today, the people of Ukraine will head to voting stations to elect a new president. This will be Ukraine’s fifth presidential election since the country became independent in 1991. 

Interim president Oleksandr Turchynov of the Fatherland Party has decided not to run for re-election. His few months in office were marred by crisis and violence in the Crimean peninsula and in eastern Ukraine. Shortly after he took over the presidency from ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, Russia invaded the autonomous, pro-Russian Crimean peninsula and claimed it as their own territory. Pro-Russian insurgents declared independence in two different eastern provinces and have provoked the Ukrainian Army to violence. 

President Turchynov

Today’s presidential election was originally scheduled for March of 2015. However, from December to February, pro-EU Ukrainians rose up in and pressured former President Yanukovych to resign. Yanukovych left the presidency in late February, and the interim government quickly moved to schedule earlier elections.
According to many Ukrainian-American protestors in Washington, Ukrainians back home are anxious, but optimistic. 

Whoever is elected president today has a multitude of issues to address. Ukraine's eastern provinces are being torn apart by violence incited by pro-Russian insurgents. Crimea, once an autonomous province in Ukraine, was invaded by forces loyal to Russia in March and is now a disputed territory that both Moscow and Kyiv* lay claim to.   

Propaganda has been widely distributed by both the pro-Russian and pro-European factions of Ukraine throughout the EuroMaidan Revolution, and this election, provided it is free and fair, will give the international community an important look into Ukrainians' sentiments and how they've changed since Yanukovych left Kyiv in February.

Ukrainians are anxious to vote. 21 candidates have thrown their hats into the ring, but only about five of them have a serious chance at a large percentage of votes. The major candidates are as follows.  

Petro Poroshenko

Petro Poroshenko is a wealthy businessman who made a fortune in the confectionary industry-a Forbes article called him "Ukraine's Willy Wonka". He is a very influential and well-known politician in Ukraine, as he has served as Minister of Trade and Economic Development and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He is running as an independent but generally leans toward the pro-European faction of Ukrainian politics and has been endorsed by Vitali Klitschko, leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, a liberal pro-Europe party whose acronym means “Strike”. Klitschko, a retired heavyweight boxer nicknamed "Dr. Ironfist", was a popular candidate for president, but decided in March to run instead for Mayor of Kyiv, a race where he is far and away the favorite to win. 
Poroshenko is the favorite to win Ukraine’s presidency. His pro-European ideals have made him popular in Western Ukraine, and his business background has gained him votes in a country hurt badly by economic recession. As an independent, Poroshenko is not affected by Ukraine’s flawed party system as much as other politicians, and he has amassed his millions in an industry not affected by corruption unlike oligarchs that opted to go into oil. Polls indicate that Poroshenko is likely to win close to 50% of the vote. 

If he surpasses that threshold, he will be elected after one round of voting. If Poroshenko wins less than 50% of the vote but still comes in first, he will have to compete in a runoff election against the candidate who places second. If so, his opponent may be a certain woman known for her distinctively braided hair. 

Yulia Tymoshenko 

Tymoshenko, leader of the pro-European Fatherland Party, is also running for president. She ran in Ukraine’s 2010 presidential election, narrowly losing to Yanukovych in a runoff. She served as Prime Minister during Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency (2005-2010) and was arrested on charges of corruption. During EuroMaidan, she was released from prison and made an emotional speech to the people crowding Kyiv’s Independence Square, praising them for their bravery and service to their homeland.

Tymoshenko still enjoys some popularity in Ukraine, but her not-so-clean record and abrasive remarks about “killing the Russians” have scared some Ukrainian voters away from her. She does not have nearly as much popularity as she did in the 2010 election, and is only expected to poll around 13-15%. 

Serhiy Tihipko: Tihipko has changed parties frequently in his political career. He was a member of the Strong Ukraine party initially. Later, that party was absorbed by the pro-Russian Party of Regions. He was later expelled from the Party of Regions and re-established his Strong Ukraine party. He is expected to gain around 8-10% of the vote.   

Mykhailo Dobkin is the new leader of the Party of Regions, replacing deposed President Yanukovych. Dobkin is a long shot to win the presidency because of the recent revolution, but as a member of a party which tends to be popular in Eastern Ukraine, his presence in government shouldn't be brushed off quite yet. Petro Poroshenko recently said “There are no western Ukrainians or eastern Russian-speaking Ukrainians or Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians – there is only one Ukraine, whole and indivisible.” If Poroshenko is to unite the country as he seems to want to, he will likely be consulting Mr. Dobkin on various issues. 

Oleh Lyashko is the leader of the Radical Party of Ukraine. The Radical Party only gained one seat in the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) in 2012’s parliamentary elections. His party's views seem to be relatively similar to those of the Fatherland and UDAR parties. He's expected to pull in around 7% of the vote, but it should be interesting to see if that success translates to electoral success in the Verkhovna Rada. Of course, when you control one seat out of 400, one could argue that there's nowhere to go but up. 

Last is Oleh Tyahnybok. He leads the Svoboda party. Svoboda is the Ukrainian (and the Russian) word for "Freedom", but the party is often dismissed as a fascist organization because of its nationalist platform. Its cousin, Right Sector, shares many of its nationalist views but seems to be less antagonistic to non-Ukrainians than Svoboda. He is only expected to gain about 2% of the vote. 

The Ukrainian National Academy of Pedagogic Sciences recently conducted a poll with the following results: 

Poroshenko 45%
Tymoshenko 13.3%
Tihipko 8.0%
Lyashko 7.6%
Others: 6.7%

Ukraine’s new president will have a lot of work to do. The government is plagued by widespread corruption at all levels. The pro-Russian insurgency is still wreaking havoc in eastern provinces, and questions abound as to how Ukraine will tackle the loss of the Crimean peninsula to Russia. The economy is in the middle of a crippling recession. Ukrainians in eastern provinces are skeptical and distrusting of the interim government that replaced Yanukovych. Corrupt as he was, Yanukovych had widespread support in eastern Ukraine in the 2010 election.  

In theory, the election is open to people in the disputed territory of Crimea, which is claimed by both Russia and Ukraine but controlled by the Kremlin. 

 Whoever wins this election would be prudent, in my opinion, to schedule new elections for Ukraine's legislature soon. The present Verkhovna Rada has made some emotionally charged and  nationalistic decisions in the time of crisis. The parliament voted to ban the teaching of Russian in schools (this did not go into effect, President Turchynov vetoed the measure) and ousting over thirty MPs from the Communist Party of Ukraine. 

In any case-good luck, Ukraine. You're going to need it. 

*Kyiv is another spelling of the Ukrainian capital Kiev. "Kiev" is typically seen as the Russian spelling of the city, "Kyiv" the Ukrainian spelling. 

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