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Experts: Ukrainian presidential election results still unpredictable

12:31 | 05.03.2019 | Analytic


5 March 2019. PenzaNews. Less than a month remains before the next presidential elections in Ukraine, which are appointed by the country’s parliament on Sunday, March 31. According to some analysts, the main struggle for the presidency will unfold between the current president Petro Poroshenko, the head of the Batkivshchyna party Yulia Tymoshenko, and the showman Volodymyr Zelensky.

Experts: Ukrainian presidential election results still unpredictable

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According to the survey conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology on February 8–20, the leader of the overall rating is Volodymyr Zelensky, who got more than 26% of the vote. Petro Poroshenko took the second place: 18% of respondents are ready to vote for him. Yulia Tymoshenko's rating amounted to 13.8% of the vote.

The survey was held in 110 settlements of all Ukrainian regions, except for the territory of Donbass not controlled by Kiev, and covered 2,042 respondents over 18 years old. The theoretical sampling error does not exceed 3.3%.

Analyzing the situation, David Marples, Distinguished University Professor and Chair, Department of History & Classics, University of Alberta, stressed that the race is notable for the large number of candidates and for its populist character.

“Three of the candidates have a realistic chance of making it to the second round, namely Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, and Zelensky. Polls suggest that Tymoshenko's early lead has evaporated and she is losing some support, whereas both Zelensky and Poroshenko have gained support in recent weeks,” he told PenzaNews.

The atmosphere is one of hope but also cynicism, he said.

“Some candidates have higher negative than positive ratings. Some residents of Ukraine feel that the election is about the oligarchic or business elite and that elections simply replace one oligarch with another. Zelensky, a TV comedian, is in a different category and is popular but has no political experience or for that matter clear policies,” David Marples explained.

Meanwhile, according to him, the economic situation is difficult because of Ukraine's large amount of accumulated debt.

“The decision to cut trade to Russia has also had a significant impact. Ukraine wishes to cut down its energy dependence on Russia, particularly imports of oil and gas. Currently about 55% of its electricity comes from nuclear power, and many of the stations have been extended beyond their expected life cycles. Lastly, Ukraine does not control part of its major steel and coal producing regions in Donetsk and Luhansk and these regions have a significant level of out-migration to other parts of Ukraine and to Russia,” he said.

In his opinion, it is difficult to make an objective assessment of Poroshenko's rule since “it has been beset by conflict” and “followed a conflict over the direction Ukraine should take.”

“As president he has failed to raise living standards or end corruption. After the war in the east the biggest concerns are wages, pensions, rents, heating bills, and the like. Still, I think the likely winner is Poroshenko. He is able to use the resources of his position, and has adopted patriotic positions while supporting the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He is also very rich and can outspend the other candidates on advertisements and in making public appearances. He has created the image of a state at war and his statements have become quite bellicose. He is the only major candidate without a plan for ending the impasse in the east and in this way appeals to the more nationalist segment of the population,” David Marples said.

However, Ukraine needs to adopt a clear policy toward the reincorporation of the Donbass, he believes.

“This will require the cooperation of Russia, as well as the other signatories of the Minsk Accords. And it will be very difficult to achieve. A good start would be to open trade with these regions and ensure that pensioners can receive their pensions, and that the population is provided with material and consumer goods. At present, my sense is that the Poroshenko leadership is not ready to begin a reintegration process,” the expert added.

In turn, Evgeniya Voyko, Associate Professor of the department of political science at the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation, called the pre-election atmosphere in the country rather tense.

“Stakes are high for all candidates. This is especially true for the current president, who in recent months has taken many steps to strengthen his own rating and show that the levers of governance and public trust are still in his hands. The most vivid example is the religious issue, his anti-Russian rhetoric, all efforts to minimize any contacts with the Russian side and generally negative anti-Russian information background, which was created at the beginning of his presidential term, and closer to the elections,” Evgeniya Voyko said.

The candidacy of Volodymyr Zelensky, in her opinion, creates a certain nervousness and tension, and also adds some heat.

“Will Poroshenko be able to make a worthy alternative to Volodymyr Zelensky, taking into account the fact that, according to opinion polls, the gap between them is quite large? This gap reflects the socio-economic picture that is shaping up in Ukraine today. There really is a request for a person whose face is not familiar in big politics, who has not tainted himself with any machinations and unpopular anti-people moves. Tymoshenko’s and Poroshenko’s credibility is constantly decreasing. Zelensky is young, educated, and speaks to the electorate in a clear language. He invites his potential voter to jointly solve Ukrainian problems which are known not only within the country, but around the world. The situation is intriguing” the analyst said.

In her opinion, Petro Poroshenko was unable to achieve the goals set in 2014.

“Almost tenfold increase in utility tariffs seriously hit the pockets of Ukrainian citizens. A parallel rise in prices for consumer goods and no wage increase, the weak position of the national currency, the closure of a number of industrial enterprises, a multiple reduction in jobs at those enterprises that still work, harsh political rhetoric – not the whole society of the country agrees with this. Ukraine was never accepted in the EU and NATO, although these are the main tasks that Poroshenko set for himself. Curtailing relations with Russia in the economic and transport sectors also had negative consequences for many Ukrainians. Poroshenko could not solve these problems, and some of them were even aggravated. A lot of money was spent on the antiterrorist operation in the Donbass and external public relations, despite the fact that the main task was to improve the internal political component,” Evgeniya Voyko said.

Meanwhile, John Lough, Associate Fellow, Russia & Eurasia Programme, Chatham House, pointed to the slow growth of the Ukrainian economy.

“Growth in 2018 was around 3% and is estimated to be 2.5% this year. This is not enough in view of the severe economic contraction in 2014 (6.6%) and 2015 (9.8%). The currency is stable and inflation is coming down. Nevertheless, much of the population is feeling economic pain as a result of much increased energy prices and has yet to sense the benefits of the significant reforms that have taken place over the past four years,” John Lough said.

In particular, according to him, under Poroshenko’s rule, Ukraine has conducted “a major clean-up of the energy sector, a 50% cut in payroll takes, far-reaching banking reform as well as decentralisation and health care reform.”

“Public administration reform is also underway and the anti-corruption reforms have reduced some of the previous space for corrupt practices. In addition, Ukraine has re-built its armed forces and is in a much stronger position to defend itself than in 2014. However, Poroshenko is deeply unpopular in some parts of society because of his reputation as an ‘oligarch’ who many think has not done enough to raise living standards and achieve systemic change. His ratings are improving as the election draws closer and it would be wrong to rule out his chances of winning in the second round,” the expert explained.

In his opinion, the outcome of the presidential election is impossible to predict and this is creating uncertainty for business and investors.

“Volodymr Zelensky leads in several polls since he is viewed as a fresh candidate with a low anti-rating unlike the other two contenders, Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko. Regardless of who comes to power, Ukraine’s commitment to integration with Europe is not in question but some reforms may proceed faster or slower. Parliamentary elections in the autumn are just as important as the presidential election. At present, it seems certain that the new Rada will be more fragmented and this will make it harder to pass legislation,” John Lough said.

Susan Stewart, Senior Associate, Eastern Europe and Eurasia Division, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, also drew attention to the difficult socio-economic situation in Ukraine.

“On the one hand, on the whole the macro-economic situation is stable and Ukraine has managed to secure another IMF loan, which is important for continuing this stability. On the other hand, surveys show that many people are concerned about rising prices, unemployment and problems with social benefits. And while some communities are experiencing the advantages of the decentralization reform, other reforms, for example in the education and health sectors, have not yet resulted in tangible benefits for most of the population. So the situation is mixed,” Susan Stewart said.

According to her, many people are unhappy with the results of Poroshenko’s five years in power, both in terms of their personal situation and in terms of larger topics, such as the fight against corruption or the developments in the Donbas.

“Tymoshenko has significant support because she has not been in power and can therefore easily criticize what has been done and use populist rhetoric to gain votes. She also has strong structures in the Ukrainian regions. The outsider candidate, Volodymyr Zelensky, is appealing to many because he is new in politics, but familiar to people as a popular actor. But he is likely to be attractive mainly to voters in the south and east, which might not be sufficient for a win. So it is very probable that there will be two election rounds and the second round may be very close. Because so much is at stake, a lot of dubious and manipulative methods are likely to be used during the campaign,” the German analyst suggested.

Meanwhile, in her opinion, under Poroshenko the situation in the country has been more or less stable.

“He has not resolved a lot of problems, but there has not been chaos either. He has some achievements in the foreign policy area, such as bringing Ukraine closer to the EU through the Association Agreement and the visa-free regime. But essentially he has preserved the type of governance seen under his predecessors, i.e. a system based on oligarchic influence, with informal deals counting more than legal regulations. Corruption has not been sufficiently addressed, and there has not been a real reckoning with those people responsible for violence and deaths during the Maidan protests of 2013–2014. So even with all the so-called administrative resources available to him, he will have a difficult time winning the election, although a second term for him is not ruled out,” Susan Stewart concluded.

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