Ukraine’s Presidential Race Will Be Fun

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The campaign for Ukraine’s March 31 presidential election is shaping up to be a big spectacle, if nothing else. But the underlying question is serious: Is Ukraine a typical modern European country with the requisite political diversity and balance of power or is it still a post-Soviet hybrid regime in which incumbency means much more than simply being familiar to voters?

All the major players except one have already thrown their hats in the ring. They include:

  • Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is making her third presidential run. As Ukraine’s most experienced active politician, she has seen it all: Head-spinning intrigue, power, prison. Her support -- currently the highest in Ukraine’s notoriously unreliable polls -- is especially high among Ukrainian women, who account for a bigger  group of voters than men in the largely traditional, patriarchal society. Tymoshenko is a populist, a master of the two-hour emotional speech; she promises that, if she is president, Ukrainian salaries and pensions will end up no lower than in neighboring Poland (currently, there’s a fourfold gap) and that Ukrainians will start getting loans at European interest rates (currently, the cheapest mortgages in Ukraine have a 10 percent rate). She also promises to get back the territories lost to Russia since 2014, without quite being able to explain how. 
  • Comedian and producer Volodymyr Zelensky, a well-known TV personality who’s made a career of mocking Ukrainian politicians and is making an anti-elite bid along the lines of Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016.  Many, however, see him as the candidate of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who now lives in Israel after being pushed out of the country by the current government. Zelensky’s candidacy has been rocked by a recent scandal: Radio Liberty disclosed that he still held a stake in a movie production company in Russia. The firm is mainly receiving royalties from previous projects, but any involvement in Russian business, tightly controlled by the Kremlin, is a major no-no for many Ukrainian voters, especially in the country’s west. Yet, Zelensky is doing relatively well in the polls and his formidable performing skills can still win him more votes.
  • Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi, who has run Western Ukraine’s most important city with skill and unusual integrity since 2006. He is one the most Western-like politicians, though he is seen as a provincial and something of a lightweight in Kiev. His support outside his home region is low, and his best chance of winning nationwide power would be to form an alliance with another pro-Western candidate. So far, there’s been little chance of a compromise, as both Sadovyi and the candidate closest to him politically are also campaigning to bolster the chances of their parties in this year’s parliamentary elections.
  • That candidate is former Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, who has strong law-and-order credentials and a long history of backing Ukraine’s European path. His focus is on military affairs such as bringing Ukraine’s army to North Atlantic Treaty Organization standards, cutting the number of generals and getting an international peacekeeping force into eastern Ukraine; he also has the respect of anti-corruption activists.
  • Former Deputy Prime Minister Yuriy Boyko, who used to be close to deposed President Viktor Yanukovych and is considered a pro-Russian candidate, is relatively popular in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east and south. He is weighed down by the old government’s corruption scandals.
  • There’s a broader list that includes a former customs chief fired for corruption and running to obtain immunity, a pro-Russian lawmaker close to oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, a former secret police chief who has accused President Petro Poroshenko of corruption, an ex-minister who pretends to be using the presidential campaign to find a wife and an assortment of other colorful characters. 

The one major player absent from the official race is the incumbent president, Poroshenko, who is expected to announce his candidacy shortly before the Feb. 4 deadline. Even though he isn’t officially running yet, his campaign, on a conservative platform stressing an independent Orthodox Church for Ukraine, a strong military and support for the Ukrainian language, started long before those of other candidates.

Tymoshenko seeks to take the fight to the president on each of his declared priorities; Patriarch Filaret, the 90-year-old clergyman who played a key role in the recent creation of Ukraine’s independent church but was shunted aside as its leader, was present at Tymoshenko’s announcement, undermining Poroshenko’s attempts to claim the country’s spiritual independence from Moscow as a personal achievement. But neither Tymoshenko nor any of the other candidates can do certain things that are in Poroshenko’s power alone.

In March, Ukrainians who applied for subsidies to pay rising utility costs will start receiving the government aid in cash. The government insists this  “experiment” has nothing to do with the election. The Social Policy Ministry expects to hand out about 6 billion hryvnyas ( $215 million) a month to millions of mostly older people. 

Ukrainian politics are noisy, colorful and performative. The current set of candidates is modern European politics incarnate: Traditional left-right divisions are hard to trace, all the candidates use populist tricks and emotions, rousing nationalist and anti-elite rhetoric. The race promises to be livelier than anything Russia has seen since the 1990s and at least as much fun as the most dynamic Ukrainian elections. 

But is this a real fight or can Poroshenko use the power of his office to help him seal a victory even though he failed to fulfill the reformist, anti-corruption promise of the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity”? Candidates such as Sadovyi and Hrytsenko appear to be resigned to that prospect and are focused on getting into parliament to limit Poroshenko’s power. European-style fractured politics work best in parliament-centric systems. Ukraine’s post-Soviet legacy includes a strong presidency that devalues the country’s powerful democratic impulses. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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