Poroshenko Seeks Reelection
By Lisa J Walters, on 8 June 2018
Andrew Wilson, Professor in Ukrainian Studies
Ukraine is already in election year. Both the president and parliament chosen in the tumultuous year of 2014 are due to be reelected in 2019. The presidential election comes first, in March; the parliamentary elections are expected to follow in October. As always, there are rumours of some politicians plotting a different time or a different order. But, currently, the depressing prospect for the 2019 elections overall is that all of the major players will return. So none has an incentive to campaign for early elections. (Former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has seen his party’s support collapse, but most of his team will jump on to other parties ae ‘life rafts’).
President Poroshenko, however, is currently trailing fourth or fifth in the polls, having dropped significantly since last year. He also has the highest negative ratings: 45% would not vote for him under any circumstances, compared to 24% for former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, whose revival in the polls is due to relentless campaigning against the pain of economic reform.
The main poll is as follows.
|September 2017||December 2017||February 2018|
|Would not vote||19.9||15.3||15.2|
|Would spoil the ballot||3.1||4.5||5.5|
|Difficult to say/undecided||34.0||39.1||38.3|
If the ‘don’t knows’, etc are stripped out, the results are as follows.
|September 2017||December 2017||February 2018|
Everyone is a Populist
The overall picture is pretty depressing, four years after the EuroMaidan. The field is broad, but the choice is limited. Tymoshenko is out in front, but by profiting from social and economic problems rather than addressing past faults. She is followed by another trio of populists. Oleh Lyashko is the loud-mouthed Ukrainian equivalent of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. In 2014 he peddled easy solutions to the war in the east; now he leads on anti-corruption rhetoric, while quietly doing favours for the oligarchs in parliament. Vadym Rabinovych is himself an oligarch. His new ‘For Life’ party is campaigning on a single message of peace in eastern Ukraine, backed by his colleague’s News One TV channel, and by Viktor Medvedvchuk, Putin’s right-hand man in Ukraine. Former energy minister Yuriy Boiko has split the vote of the old Opposition Bloc with a message that is more radically Russophile.
Oleh Tyanybok is the most popular of the nationalist candidates, as leader of the ‘Freedom Party’. The far right is divided and still marginal, though it makes a lot of noise on the streets. But this is Ukraine. Tyahnybok leads the pack because he is still prominent on oligarch-controlled TV.
Hroisman is the current Prime Minister, who was appointed to replace Arseniy Yatsenyuk in 2016. Originally a Poroshenko loyalist, he has sought to carve out his own political niche; but is subtly undermined by Poroshenko if he goes too far.
That leaves only two possible ‘reform’ candidates currently in the race: former defence minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko and the mayor of Lviv Andriy Sadovy. But both are insider-outsiders at best: Sadovy’s party has been mixed up with oligarchic money; Hrytsenko has stood in the last two elections.
Even the wild cards may tend towards populism. Other polls have included Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, the singer in Ukraine’s leading rock band Okean Elzy. He is not yet officially a candidate, but insiders may try to coopt him if he runs. Strangest of all is Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor who plays a history teacher, Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko, in the hit TV series ‘Servant of the People’. On TV, his online rant against corrupt politicians goes viral and makes him the actual president. In real life, he represents a mood of anti-politics; which, sadly, is easy for government political technologists to exploit. Zelensky and Vakarchuk both poll at around 8-9%.
Poroshenko’s Reelection Strategy
The populist chorus undermines Poroshenko in the short-term; but his advisors think he can rise above it in the longer-term. First of all, Poroshenko is only just behind. Competition between the populists means that no one is decisively ahead.
Second is a radical change of clothes. Poroshenko was originally elected in 2014 as a moderate reformer. He claimed to be the most pro-European candidate and that the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement would help Ukraine move away from the corrupt stagnation of its post-communist political economy. He wasn’t that radical on the conflict in the east – the then Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk was more hawkish.
Poroshenko now has two big cards to play. One is Europe and the West. The arrival of visa-free travel for Ukrainians in 2017 has been loudly trumpeted. Ukraine gets on surprisingly well with the Trump administration, although everything in Washington is volatile and the investigation of Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort by the Mueller enquiry could always throw a spanner in the works. In April 2018 Poroshenko celebrated the arrival of US Javelin anti-tank missiles.
But ‘Europe’ will be decisively linked to nationalist themes this time. Expect various stunts that makes Poroshenko look good as commander-in-chief. The continuing ‘de-communisation’ campaign will be exploited to equate the neo-Soviet with the pro-Russian in opponents like Boiko. In April, Poroshenko appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul to grant autocephaly (self-rule) to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church; which is suddenly apparently urgent before the 1030th anniversary of the Christianisation of Kyiv this summer. (An autocephalous Ukrainian Church would unite two of Ukraine’s many fractious Churches, and put informal pressure on the ‘Moscow Patriarchate’, which is currently institutionally the largest Church in Ukraine). Poroshenko could even revive his quixotic idea of a referendum on joining NATO – and get some response from Pompeo and Mitchell in the US.
Russia will be blamed for mass interference in the elections. Which is both ironic and tragic. Russia will be interfering in the elections, and both Kyiv and the West will need to respond. But moral dilemmas will be deliberately created, with the authorities claiming every resource of patriotic support (more on this in a separate blog).
Locally, this strategy is known as ‘switching the target’ (perevod strelki ), changing the conversation, shifting attention away from subjects that do not suit you, and trying to jump from one core electorate to another. But switching the target is a risky strategy. You may lost your original base vote and fail to gain another.
Russian-style ‘political technology’ has long disfigured Ukrainian politics. But several new ‘technologies’ have actually debuted under Poroshenko, since 2014, and are supposed to aid his shift of image.
Trolls and bots are much more common than they used to be: Poroshenko trolls even have their own nickname, Porokhoboty .
The presidential administration also covertly employs undercover ‘experts’ to talk up its image online, on social media and on TV. Most Ukrainian TV is controlled by the oligarchs, but informal temnyky (‘themes of the week’ – black and white lists of what not to say and what positive points to make) pressurise the private TV channels.
The most important political struggle in Ukraine is the ongoing saga of anti-corruption reform. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau, NABU, was set up in 2015; but its investigations have lead nowhere without separate anti-corruption courts. The government has dragged its feet on this issue, and even fought back against NABU, investigative journalists and anti-corruption NGOs. The authorities have set up attack web sites like National Interests of Ukraine (nin.org.ua), in suspiciously professional English, to try and discredit reformers in the eyes of their foreign donors.
Aggressive ‘shoot the messenger’ criminal changes have been bought against activists; just as in Russia, where Aleksey Navalny was bizarrely accused of theft from the state timber company Kirovles in 2013. In April 2018 Pechersky District Court in central Kyiv accepted the plea of MP Boryslav Rozenblat who claimed that NABU had entrapped him into taking a bribe. Vitaliy Shabunin, head of a watchdog NGO, the Anti-Corruption Action Centre, has been charged with punching a blogger who had been goading him online.
The authorities have amassed a ‘war chest’ for the elections. Even if they cannot restore relations with the IMF, international money markets have been happy to buy into Ukrainian IPOs; albeit at high interest rates storing up trouble for state finances in the future. Seven by-elections in 2016 showed how the authorities are slowly reviving the use of ‘administrative resources’ at election time.
The Second Round
Poroshenko may only need to get his vote back up into somewhere in the teens. His final strategy is an easily defeatable opponent in round two. A year or two ago this included Tymoshenko. It was assumed her record as Prime Minister before 2010, her loss of the 2010 election, and her misreading of the political mood after returning from imprisonment at the end of the EuroMaidan, all left her with a ‘low ceiling’. Too many voters had negative memories of her.
But Ukrainians seem to have short memories. Tymoshenko’s stock has continued to rise, so the authorities have shifted to kompromat against her, most recently focused on alleged donations from Gaddafi to her 2010 campaign, and questions about a $390,000 lobbying contract in Washington.
So the ideal opponent for Poroshenko to defeat in the second round would be one of the populist trio of Lyashko, Rabinovych or Boiko. Of those three, Boiko is the best fit for a ‘patriotic’ Poroshenko campaign. And there is plenty of kompromat on Boiko, particularly his role in the government’s purchase of over-priced Crimean drilling rigs under former President Yanukovych.
Though this would really be playing with fire on both sides of the political divide: fuelling both Ukrainian nationalism and inflaming public opinion in eastern Ukraine with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Ukraine deserves a better choice. But it has chosen Europe over Russia. Poroshenko therefore needs Europe, even as he hopes to exploit it in his campaign. He should not be supported unconditionally, but nor should anybody else – all candidates should be assessed on how the actually deliver on the agreed reform agenda. The EU must not give up on the all-important struggle over anti-corruption courts. This is a huge event in itself, and a potential tipping point either way for Ukrainian civil society. The EU did exactly the right thing in withholding 600 million euros of aid in December 2017 because of Ukrainian backsliding over reform; but then proposed another billion in March 2018. Western embassies in Kyiv must be active in supporting harassed NGO activists.
And more can be done to shape the election environment. More can be spent on helping anti-disinformation campaigns, including domestic disinformation. The fledging public broadcasting service needs help to get off the ground. Parliament approved a law on open voting lists at first reading in 2017, but since then nothing has been done.
The outcome of the elections is at least uncertain, so Ukraine is at least democratic to that extent. But its democracy is unhealthy. They may be little immediate prospect of radical change; but the narrative that is created around the election is just as important. It can either maintain some momentum or poison the atmosphere in the years to come.