Polls don’t look good for Poroshenko; extra ballots cause concern; debates will be duds?
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.
A week before the election, the order of the top trio appears to be solidifying.
Actor and political satirist Volodymyr Zelenskiy has led the race since late January.
In mid-March, Zelenskiy was supported by 24.9 percent of decided voters, according to the latest poll by the Rating Group, a Kyiv-based pollster, released on March 19.
He is followed by ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 18.8 percent support. For the leader of the Batkivshchyna party, it is her third attempt to win the presidency.
Incumbent President Petro Poroshenko ranked third in the poll: 17.4 percent supported his re-election.
Out of several polls released in March, all but one place Poroshenko third. One flattering poll that had Poroshenko in second place was released by Socis, a pollster co-owned by the son of Poroshenko’s campaign strategist and lawmaker Ihor Hryniv. It was Hryniv who masterminded Poroshenko’s 2014 campaign that got him a whopping 54 percent in the first round of the election — enough for him to win the presidency outright in one round.
But while Poroshenko's chances of making the runoff seem bleak, he may still benefit from low turnout among young voters, many of whom support Zelenskiy.
Also, the turnout will be affected by the fact that many Ukrainians don't live in the place where they are registered to vote. If they want to vote, they need to change their voting location with the local authorities before March 26 — a hurdle that not everyone will clear. As of mid-March, only some 90,000 people had gone through the procedure, including those relocated from the war-torn Donbas and Russia-occupied Crimea. The exact number of Ukrainians who don't reside where they are registered is unknown.
Most of the 1 million Ukrainians who are reckoned to live and work in Poland are likely to skip the election, too. Voting for them requires prior registration with the local consulate, and many live in places where there isn't one. In the 2014 presidential election, only about 5,000 Ukrainians voted in Poland.
This may be bad news for Poroshenko, as most of the Ukrainians working in Poland come from western Ukraine, where Poroshenko enjoys especially strong support thanks to his conservative program and strong anti-Russian stance.
Meanwhile, some 15 percent of the voters remain undecided, according to a poll by the Rating Group.
There is little doubt there will be a runoff second round in this election, as none of the candidates are polling anywhere close to the 50 percent that is the threshold for the firstround victory.
And forecasts for the runoff have been consistent for the past three months. Out of the leading trio, Poroshenko has the worst chances of winning in a runoff: he is likely to lose both to Zelenskiy and Tymoshenko, according to the Rating Group’s polling data. Tymoshenko would prevail over Poroshenko but lose to Zelenskiy. Zelenskiy would beat either of them.
Poroshenko’s problem is his high anti-rating. About half of the voters declare they will not vote for him under any circumstance, according to the Rating Group. Some 30 percent said the same about Tymoshenko. Zelenskiy, who is a political novice, holds an anti-rating of just 13 percent.
But paradoxically, the same poll also showed that the largest share of voters, 20 percent, still believe Poroshenko will win. Zelenskiy and Tymoshenko follow with 19 and 18 percent, respectively.
Alarming news came earlier in the week from the Central Election Commission. According to public records, the commission had ordered a change to the number of ballots it was allocating to each round of the election.
It originally ordered 30.2 million ballots to be printed for both the first round and the runoff, which is only slightly more than the number of registered voters. However, later the commission reallocated 263,000 ballots from the runoff to the first round.
The Central Election Commission representatives could not explain why it needed more ballots for the first round of the election than for the second.
It stirred fears that the ballots were required to rig the election in favor of Poroshenko. Judging from the polls, the incumbent president isn’t guaranteed a spot in the runoff.
The Central Election Commission denied the accusations.
While in the United States and other Western democracies public debates are a must-have component of any election, in Ukraine they remain rare events.
And while the state-owned TV channel UA Pershiy hosts official election debates, they aren’t popular with the top candidates.
The station’s producer Tetiana Kyselchuk told Detector Media that UA Pershiy had invited 18 out of 39 presidential candidates to join the debates, picking the ones with the most support. However, only 13 of the 18 candidates agreed to show up.
The top candidates have yet to say if they will take part or not, according to Kyselchuk. And even those who agreed to come could drop out — as happened with Serhiy Kaplin, the leader of the Socialist Democratic Party. He failed to show up for the first debate of the election on March 18, where he was to speak alongside ex-lawmaker Inna Bogoslovskaya and Oleksandr Moroz, the former speaker of parliament and former leader of the now marginal Socialist Party.
No matter who wins the election, someone is winning already: all advertising platforms, including TV and Facebook.
According to Chesno, a campaign monitoring politicians and elections, the candidates have together spent over Hr 1 billion ($37 million) on TV advertising during the election campaign.
They have also spent on outdoor advertising and other media.
For example, according to Chesno, businessman and presidential candidate Serhiy Taruta, who on March 16 endorsed Tymoshenko without officially dropping out of the race in her favor, had by then spent Hr 150 million ($5.5 million) on advertising across different platforms.
Facebook is profiting from the election as well. The platform now displays how much was paid for any specific ad shown on a Facebook page. Watchdogs dived into the data and found dozens of posts that advertised top candidates, each boosted for hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars.
UKROP party candidate Oleksandr Shevchenko was one of the biggest spenders: He paid Facebook between $10,000 and $50,000 to boost just one post — a photo of him and his wife on the occasion of the International Women’s Day.
Days until election: