Zelenskiy opens lead in recent poll as No. 2 spot shifts to president
Editor’s Note: Election Watch is a regular update on the state of the presidential race in Ukraine. The country will elect its next president on March 31, 2019, with a possible runoff on April 21. The Election Watch project is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. The donor doesn’t influence the content. Go to kyivpost.com for more election coverage.
Six weeks before Ukrainians cast their ballots in the presidential election on March 31, two candidates appear to be pulling ahead of the pack of 44 candidates: Actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy and President Petro Poroshenko. However, the speed with which the leaders have been trading places in polls hints that nothing is certain yet.
Two new polls came out on Feb. 12 and 14, both presenting a similar picture.
Actor and comedian Zelenskiy, the biggest disruption of the race, has improved his ratings and achieved the biggest lead yet in this campaign. He first showed up as the frontrunner in early February, and a week later solidified his standing: he now has the support of 28 percent of Ukrainians who have chosen their candidate, according to a survey released by U.S. pollster Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.
Earlier polls gave an unclear view of the likely runner-up, vacillating between Poroshenko and ex-Prime Minister Tymoshenko. Now it is more certain: Poroshenko is in second place with 18 percent of the vote. Tymoshenko has 15 percent.
Another poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) showed almost exactly the same numbers for the leading trio.
In the one-on-one runoff, Tymoshenko can beat Poroshenko, according to the KIIS poll. But Zelenskiy beats both.
Among the underdogs of the race, little has changed in the last few weeks. Anatoliy Grytsenko, an ex-defense minister who was leading the polls in summer 2018, ranks fifth with just 6.1 percent support, according to KIIS.
Some voters have long expected Grytsenko to join forces with Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi, leader of the Samopomich Party. Both are key representatives of the pro-Western opposition and have similar agendas. However, there has been no unification. As a result, Sadovyi ranks at just 2.3 percent. He is even being outrun by the much less recognizable Ihor Smeshko, an ex-Security Service of Ukraine chief who has been keeping a low profile since he quit that post in 2005. Smeshko has
Meanwhile, Sadovyi accused Poroshenko of exploiting Lviv’s longstanding garbage problems to secure the support of the mayor’s 25-member faction in parliament. He published a document from 2016 that he said showed that people from the president’s inner circle contacted him with the promise to resolve Lviv’s garbage issues in return for him supporting the pro-presidential coalition in parliament.
Why the leap?
Zelenskiy has gone from the biggest disruption of the campaign to its biggest sensation. His rating grew from about 6 percent in December to 16 percent in January and 28 percent in February.
Sociologists explain Zelenskiy’s leap by the fact that he has won over the sympathies of young people, who were previously undecided. Now the challenge is to make them come and vote.
On Feb. 12, participants in the Dragon Capital Investment Conference in Kyiv discussed Zelenskiy’s success in great detail.
Iryna Bekeshkina, the director of the National Democratic Initiatives think tank, said she used to be skeptical about Zelenskiy’s chances of making it to the runoff, but has now changed her forecast.
She said several factors are driving his breakthrough: a protest vote, his television fame, and populist appeal.
“Young people don’t want to vote for established politicians. (Rock star) Svyatoslav Vakarchuk is not running. So many think: Let it be Zelenskiy, just not the old ones,” Bekeshkina said.
She also praised his campaign, saying it will “go down in the textbooks.”
Zelenskiy’s campaign is a smart mix of populism and comedy. The third season of his show “Servant of the People,” where he plays an amiable and honest president of Ukraine, is set to air shortly before the election on March 31. The promos for the show are effectively promoting Zelenskiy’s potential presidency.
This irritated the Committee of the Voters of Ukraine, a community organization monitoring elections. The organization said that Zelenskiy has to pay for his show to be aired — as he would pay for regular political ads. It also appealed to the National Television Council to check whether the show is a political promo.
Zelenskiy’s comedy group, Kvartal 95, was supposed to perform in Vinnytsya on Feb. 14 but the local concert hall canceled it. The concert hall’s management cited a law banning presidential candidates from visiting military sites. The hall belongs to the Defense Ministry.
“I’m sure it’s a coincidence that this happened in Vinnytsya,” Zelenskiy said in an online video announcing the cancellation, evidently hinting at the city being Poroshenko’s political power base.
Meanwhile, the murder of Kateryna Gandziuk, an outspoken local official and activist who died in November following an acid attack, has provided a grim background to the campaign and a litmus test for the election.
Members of two political forces and their associates were implicated in the attack — Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna and the Poroshenko Bloc. The activists pushing for justice for Gandziuk named several top officials in Gandziuk’s native Kherson Oblast whom they deem responsible for her murder and who are members of Tymoshenko and Poroshenko’s parties.
On Feb. 9, a group of activists came to an outdoor Tymoshenko campaign event in Kyiv to demand that the candidate comment on her party member’s alleged involvement in the murder.
But the police detained some of the activists, saying that they were carrying knives and tear gas illegally, and later detained them again — this time more violently — as they protested the seizure of personal belongings at the police station.
Such a harsh reaction from law enforcement led some political commentators to conclude that Interior Minister Arsen Avakov secretly supported Tymoshenko for the presidency. Avakov belongs to the People’s Front, Poroshenko’s coalition partner and a self-declared frenemy of the Poroshenko Bloc. The People’s Front didn’t nominate a presidential candidate. While some party members, like Parliament Speaker Andriy Parubiy, back Poroshenko for the presidency, Avakov, who is one of the most powerful figures as the nation's top cop, never declared his support for any of the candidates.
Avakov responded to these rumors on Feb. 10 with a Facebook tirade where he denounced activists who carry arms at political rallies and criticized the presidential campaign in general for its dirty tricks. But he hasn’t said whether he sympathizes with Tymoshenko or anyone else.
“This isn’t an election campaign, this is horrible f*ckery,” Avakov said. “As a result, we will get f*cked-up leadership.”
Placards depict Ukrainian entertainer and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy and oligarch Ihor Kolomoysk looking out from his back. They read “Servant of oligarch, doll of oligarch” and were distributed in Lviv before his performance there on Feb. 8, 2019.