Much like champagne and fireworks, the presidential address delivered before the countdown to midnight is a traditional part of New Year celebrations in Ukraine. As 2018 was ending, 1+1 – a top TV channel owned by oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky – broke that tradition. It instead aired Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian and entertainment producer, announcing his long-speculated bid for the presidency. ‘There is a third way: to try and change something in the country and I have chosen it for myself,’ he said in a soothing voice familiar to his comedy show, jewellery ads and TV series The Servant of the People. In it. he plays an honest schoolteacher who accidentally becomes president and sends corrupt officials to jail amidst dramatic soundtracks and standing ovations from vyshyvanka-clad extras.
Zelenskiy’s public announcement crowned the electioneering that started long before the official launch at the end of the year. Already by mid-summer, streets in Ukraine were teeming with billboards; online pop-ups and TV channels displaying candidates-to-be pointed to the owner’s preference, or to a diversification strategy if no preferences were obvious. As some TV channels changed hands, favourites changed respectively.
Everybody wants to be president
By 8 February 2019, the deadline for registration, the Central Election Commission, had registered44 candidates. Some are running to increase their visibility for the upcoming parliamentary elections in the autumn. Most are not seriously vying for the presidency; instead their campaigns are being paid for by someone else in order to steal votes from competitors or to endorse other candidates in exchange for political influence.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko lead the opinion polls. Tymoshenko runs as a fierce critic of the incumbent president and government, as a defender of the people and an ambassador of a fundamentally new course in everything – from the constitution to the economy to social doctrine – that will trigger a ‘quantum leap’ to a ‘new, successful, happy and wealthy Ukraine’. The watchdog group the Committee of Voters in Ukraine claim that her party spent nearly three million euros between April and September of last year to promote this doctrine with a document, totalling about 400 pages, entitled the New Economic Course. Much of this money came from individual donations, some giving the party 336 payments of up to 148,000 Ukrainian hryvnias. The individual donation system allows Tymoshenko’s party to avoid financial checks.
Poroshenko’s campaign builds on the image of a candidate with a record of taking a firm stance on Russia and Ukraine’s geopolitical choice, and of a statesman who has delivered on some important tasks. These include accomplishments on the diplomatic front, strengthening the army amidst the war and the Ukrainian language, and successfully pushing for the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Critics of his platform claim that it wrongly prioritises identity issues over economic development and the fight against corruption, or that it focuses on outdated issues to run on. Proponents argue that this is a restoration of historical justice which will help strengthen Ukrainians’ self-perception as something separate from the orbit of Moscow and its Russkiy Mir; such improvements, they claim, cannot be lumped together into one category with wages, business or utility prices. The harshest criticisms of Poroshenko and his party-led coalition, however, centre on the failure to reform the justice and law enforcement system and to dismantle monopolies in crucial sectors of the economy, as well as cronyism and regional feudalism. They condemn Poroshenko for opting to make compromises with ingrained corruption for the sake of stability.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy is somewhat of a black swan, although according to an article on RBC Ukraine, Poroshenko’s team started measuring his ratings back in 2016 when his TV series,The Servant of the People, was already running. Zelenskiy promotes himself as a combination of non-establishment candidate – something between Emmanuel Macron and Beppe Grillo – inviting people to sign up for his campaign team online. In a move that has triggered both interest and criticism, he has asked citizens to list their top concerns on Facebook for his platform to address. His team is supposed to read these concerns and find solutions, which will be implemented if he wins the presidency. However, it is currently unknown who exactly will be on his team or what his platform will look like. In earlier interviews, Zelenskiy showed no strategic vision or understanding of how to solve Ukraine’s pressing problems.
The other candidates
The next three candidates in the polls are Anatoliy Hrytsenko, Yuriy Boyko, and Oleh Liashko. Hrytsenko was minister of defence from 2005 to 2007, under Viktor Yushchenko, and head of the Verkhovna Rada’s national security and defence committee from 2007 to 2012. He unsuccessfully ran for the presidency in 2010 and 2014. With the slogan ‘There are more honest people’, Hrytsenko is now running as a candidate of the centrist pro-European opposition. A mix of veteran politicians from the time of the Orange Revolution, Euro-optimists and anti-corruption activists joined Hrytsenko at his recent forum of democratic forces. Mustafa Nayyem, a former journalist and current member of parliament, asked other current or potential candidates from the same field (including Samopomich leader, Andriy Sadovyy, and rock singer Sviatoslav Vakarchuk) to join forces with Hrytsenko in the upcoming election. But Sadovyy has already announced his bid for the presidency and previous attempts to establish a new post-Maidan party and united movement have failed.
Yuriy Boyko was the minister of energy and fuels from 2010 to 2012 and vice prime minister from 2012 to 2014 under Viktor Yanukovych. He promoted himself as the candidate of the pro-Russian opposition before it recently split. He claims to be running to ‘protect all citizens from those in power today, and from the way they have brought the country to impoverishment’, and to ‘restore peace, stability and development’. His name is largely associated with a massive fraud case, revealed by a journalist’s investigation in 2011, where the state-owned offshore gas and oil monopolist purchased Black Sea offshore oil drilling equipment for an overpriced 800 million US dollars. When Boyko and the government raised gas prices in 2010 he justified this by saying it would allow Ukraine to invest in domestic gas exploration and extraction, including within the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. He is now one of the staunchest critics of the current government’s tariff policy.
Oleh Liashko is a veteran politician and a leader of his own party. Somewhat surprisingly, he came third in the early presidential election of 2014 – mostly thanks to his entertaining and populist campaigning. Liashko uses fiery rhetoric to criticise those in power and defend the people, also issuing protectionist, eurosceptic and anti-IMF messages. The latest attempts to defend the people from him and his party undermine some successful, if painful, reforms in health care and public broadcasting. A lawsuit against acting Health Minister Uliana Suprun from Liashko’s party member has blocked the work of the ministry for now, while his party quota representative in the Supervisory Board of Suspilne, Ukraine’s public broadcaster, initiated the heavily criticized vote for the dismissal of Suspilne chairman Zurab Alasania. Lately, Liashko has been expressing these sentiments in the media owned by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.
I, the people
For many European countries, having so many candidates competing for the top office or parliament means the fragmentation of the established political system. For Ukraine, this year’s number is record high, but this isgenerally its established system. It maintains several intrinsic features. Firstly, it offers few to no ideological distinctions between the rivals and, instead, revolves around a heavily personalised political culture. An essential cleavage in the current campaign is between the candidates committed to resistance against Russia’s aggression and integration with NATO (best represented by Poroshenko and Hrytsenko) and those promising to accomplish peace quickly (such as Tymoshenko or Boyko) or to reach a compromise with Russia and Vladimir Putin (as Zelenskiy suggests). On the upside, the lack of ideological framework allows politicians to be flexible and respond to people’s main concerns – a trend exploited in the West by both constructive and destructive populists. On the downside, most Ukrainian politicians focus on public opinion surveys and do not consider the greater picture, nor do they encourage their voters to think beyond the short term. What is worse, the plurality of contenders does not translate into a plurality of political ideas.
Secondly, most of the candidates have already been in power and have failed to deliver the fundamental changes they are once again promising. They have contributed to the emergence of the frustrated electorate. Still, they keep fuelling expectations with far-fetched and dangerous promises. One of the many consequences is that voters are becoming insensitive to an appropriate debate about policy. This makes competition more difficult for the new players with more moderate and responsible platforms.
Thirdly, none of the potential candidates have offered a technocratic platform of continuity that would build on the successful post-Maidan reforms and apply political will to deliver change where the incumbents have failed. This would be the best option for Ukraine. Instead, the voters are bombarded with the promise of quick solutions and single-handed messianism. ‘You have to be down-to-earth, talk about the daily bread, manna from heaven that will fall on Ukrainians after the election. You can’t talk about intangible ideas,’ an expert working with the Opposition Bloc said off the record in a comment for the Novoye Vremia weekly. This puts Ukraine in a position where even candidates with anti-populist platforms must run on populist slogans, sociologist and journalist Maksym Vikhrov writes in Ukrayinskiy Tyzhden.‘The more competitive politics gets, the more populism you have, especially when there is no clear leader,’ sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina said in an interview with Ukrayinskiy Tyzhden last May.
The most important weapon in this battle is a local brand of anti-elitism. Jan-Werner Müller, describes populism as ‘a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified – but ultimately fictional – people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior’. The version of populism at play in Ukraine’s 2019 election carpet-bombs incumbents with criticism, focusing on the symptoms of the system built over the years of independence – such as rising utility tariffs and low pensions – rather than on the structural problems that take patience and time to solve. And, moreover, it does so in emotionally overcharged terms.
‘A de facto tariff genocide is happening in the country,’ says Tymoshenko in a comment for Inter, a popular TV channel, in 2016, quoting the rise in gas and electricity prices since 2014 when ‘the so-called democrats came to power’. ‘Total impoverishment’ is her other go-to expression. Liashko pledges to run in the election ‘without lies, without abuse, amorality, and without trade on blood’ – a reference to a widespread statement that those in power benefit from the ongoing war with Russia. Boyko promises to cut utility tariffs and raise wages and pensions.
Manipulation further dramatizes these messages. According to an article in Vox Ukraine (a fact-checking web site), Tymoshenko was the top liar and manipulator in 2018, followed by Vadym Rabinovych, Liashko and Boyko. An earlier analysis revealed that their rhetoric was predominantly negative. Although Poroshenko and Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman ranked in 2017 among the least manipulative figures, and were known for using positive rhetoric (it must be mentioned that they conveniently omitted discussion of their own failures), by late 2018 they had moved closer to the top five purveyors of negativity and manipulation. The most popular themes for exploitation include gas, public debt, the economy and trade.
While not offering any clear solution to these problems, these tactics carry another dangerous implication. They discredit the necessary, albeit painful, reforms that have been implemented since the Maidan. And they do not address Ukraine’s structural problems, such as injustice, impotence of the law enforcement system, monopolies and the cumbersome business environment. Instead, they amplify a sense of public victimhood and popularise band-aid solutions that could lead Ukraine to Venezuela-like economic consequences.
Another weapon in the battlefield is self-promotion – presenting oneself as the sole representative of the people. This fits into the description of populists as anti-pluralists. While many Ukrainians are frustrated, the triggers of the frustration are far from uniform. Bekeshkina points to one interesting development in the campaign. In the past, Ukrainians used to choose between candidates perceived as pro-western or Russia-leaning. This cleavage persists for some candidates today, she says, but not for Poroshenko or Tymoshenko. They have support in different parts of Ukraine. What makes the current campaign somewhat different is that nearly 20 per cent of the poorest citizens would vote for Tymoshenko, while around 20 per cent of the relatively well-off would opt for Poroshenko. The number of undecided voters or those who will not vote is high.
In theory, this level of disappointment should create a drive for new faces and a renewal of the elite. Sociologists have time and again pointed to Ukrainian society’s appetite for new leaders. In practice, the current political culture and the electorate it cultivates excludes non-systemic politicians. The Maidan offered an opportunity for a renewal of the political elite. It brought to the surface new parties, activists, journalists and volunteers with a healthier political culture. But they have failed to join forces or come up with an appealing platform. So far, Samopomich and the Democratic Alliance, one of the parties that surfaced during the Maidan, have announced a political union for the presidential, parliamentary and local elections. Some are developing a clear platform and attracting potential voters to contribute. One example is People Matter, a project ‘that brings together those who care about the future of our country and work daily to change it for the better’. Comprised of reform-minded people from business, public service and NGOs, it offers a largely economy-oriented Manifesto of Ukrainian Liberals. Its speakers are touring across the country with inspiring and change-oriented rhetoric. But it has not announced its political ambitions yet, and many liberal actors simply remain in civil society. More generally, the field of potentially new players remains fragmented.
Last but not least, the amount of money spent on promotion during this campaign points to the fact that many parties and candidates rely on financial and media support beyond the mandatory public funding for parties. This can only come from interest groups or media owners. Some players are attempting to build a different party culture. One example is Syla Lyudey (Power of People), a party that is not in parliament but is building a structure based on membership fees, encouraging non-members to donate voluntarily and disclose this information. It has recently held party primaries and nominated its representative for the election –the former investigative journalist, Dmytro Hnap. He has conducted a crowdfunding campaign to collect 2.5 million Ukrainian hryvnias for the presidential bid contribution (while facing a scandal around his handling of the prize money his investigative team had won in 2015 shortly after). However, this practice and its effects are miniscule compared to the mainstream approach of the top parties, which offer everything to voters and demand no responsibility or participation in return. As a result, interest groups, rather than voters, become (or remain) clients of the parties after the election. One way to change this is by amending legislation on media promotion of campaigns.
Discouraging though the campaign may be, there are checks and balances for anyone who wins the election. Civil society and the media act as effective watchdogs and contribute to the evolution of policies. Another check is the well-respected community of war veterans with a moderate but firm opinion on Ukraine’s security perspective. The international community has been supporting civil society and reform efforts and is another source of pressure for responsibility and positive change in Ukraine. This multifaceted pressure and support must continue, especially considering the likely nature of the next Ukrainian president and the on-going weaknesses with the Ukrainian political landscape coupled with the existential security threat from Russia.