With less than ten weeks to go to polling day on 31 March, there are nearly 20 candidates running in Ukraine’s presidential race. The list is not yet finalised, with several more likely to declare their candidacy in the days ahead. Expert political commentators in Ukraine predict that the 31 March vote will result in a two-candidate run-off between the current incumbent Petro Poroshenko and the instantly recognisable Yulia Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko received the nomination of her Baktivshchyna party’s congress last week at the Palats Sportu in Kyiv, accompanied by a lavish spectacle of music and entertainment. President Poroshenko has not yet declared his candidacy at the time of writing, but has been actively campaigning and making his pitch to the electorate as the champion of stability for the country.
Is there anyone among the cast of competing candidates that could challenge Tymoshenko or Poroshenko? As has become tradition in Ukraine, the candidate list is colourful. Sadly for Star Wars fans there is no Darth Vader Party running this time, but the list, which includes comedians and a pop star, does not disappoint those looking for entertainment.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a well-known actor who stars in a popular TV show in which he plays a school teacher who goes on to become President, showed a certain audacity in announcing his candidacy on New Year’s Eve, bumping President Poroshenko’s traditional New Year address off the airwaves. The third season of his TV show is strategically timed to air in March, the month of the election. Of course, the inevitable questions are being asked about why he is running and who is really behind him? The owner of his television channel 1+1, Ihor Kolomoisky, is being named as his likely backer. ‘Team Ze’, as his supporters are known, is growing and seems to comprise those who are simply ready for a change, something fresh, the ‘anyone but Poroshenko’ camp.
Another screen star running is Yulia Lytvynenko, a television host who shares not only Tymoshenko’s first name but also looks strikingly like her, causing people to do a double take when driving past billboards to work out which Yulia they are looking at. The fact that she worked for Pryamiy TV which was owned by a Poroshenko loyalist causes speculation that she is running only to take votes away from Tymoshenko.
If we dismiss the clowns and the stalking horses, then for those looking for a more cerebral choice, then there is at least one serious thinking person’s candidate who does not fit the Ukrainian mould of personality cult politics. His name is Vitaliy Skotsyk. He is not from the prevailing power structure, there is no oligarch bankrolling him and he is an independent thinker. Vitaliy Skotsyk is an economist and a successful businessman. He is new to the world of politics but over the last 4 years he has renewed the country’s Agrarian party to build up his political support foundation with a true Western style democratic political party which has adopted a manifesto that is long on fresh policy ideas and short on ego trips.
The energy with which he has motored a new party onto the scene is reminiscent of France’s Emmanuel Macron, but he is different from the French President in that he actually talks to and listens to his voters. His passion for town hall meetings and his method of bringing people into politics for the first time is closer to Barack Obama, if one can conjure up such an image in white rural Ukraine. Skotsyk belongs to the conservative centre right and must be the only presidential candidate in Ukraine who actually wants to limit presidential power, with his plans for a senate, a lower chamber and a German style role for the country’s Presidency.
Another serious professional in the running is Oleksandr Vilkul the leader of the Opposition Block. Experienced, and a polished, energetic orator, he has the strongest following from the party’s heartlands in Southern and Eastern Ukraine. But his association with the government of disgraced former President Yanukovych as former Vice Prime Minister in the last government will make him unpopular with voters in Western Ukraine.
Anatoly Grytsenko, the head of the Civil Position party is a former defence minister who is doing well in the polls since announcing his candidacy. Roman Nasirov, who has been a suspect in a corruption case since March 2018 will also run. Independent lawmaker Vitaliy Kupriy, former journalist Dmytro Gnap, pop singer Syatoslav Vakarchuk, Mayor of Lviv Andriy Sadovviy from the Samopomich (Self-Help) party, maverick populist Oleh Lyashko Leader of the Radical Party and former diplomat Valentyn Nalyvaichenko all swell the ranks of candidates lining up to run.
The main pro-Russia candidate is Yuriy Boyko of the Za Zhytta party. President Poroshenko has already accused Russia of meddling in this upcoming electing by means of social media, cyber and television interference.
Not to be left out, the intelligence services have their candidate too. Igor Smeshko, who led the Ukrainian security service during President Kuchma’s second term just declaring his candidacy. Mr Smeshko dined with Viktor Yushchenko the night of his infamous poisoning. Mr Smeshko told Ukrainian TV that if he had really wanted to kill Mr Yushchenko with poison, Mr Yushchenko would now be dead, which is an original if macabre way to reassure voters about the sincerity of his platform.
If we accept the likelihood of a second-round presidential election battle between Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, each of these candidates have their challenges to overcome. Poroshenko has been accused of being reluctant to truly tackle corruption; Ukraine is currently ranked number 130 in Transparency International’s latest world corruption perception report published last week – not a great endorsement. Polls about Tymoshenko show that a large section of the electorate does not trust her, and she has the largest negative ranking of any of the candidates.
At a time when a five year war with Russia and choices about the European Union and NATO loom large for Ukraine, the electorate’s decision on 31st March will be important. It remains to be seen whether this year’s voters are ready for the challenge of breaking away from the old personality style politics and the voices of experienced candidates they know from past performance, or choosing a fresh candidate looking to deliver on new promises for Ukraine’s future generations. It promises to be a fascinating contest.