Experts: Poroshenko needs a near-miracle to win race
After it became clear that political satirist Volodymyr Zelenskiy would defeat President Petro Poroshenko in the March 31 first round of voting, the incumbent president addressed voters of the rival he will face on April 21 to say he “has heard” their message.
Poroshenko reminded that April 1, the next day after the vote, is a Fool’s Day, referring to Zelenskiy’s profession, and all laughs should be over after that.
“My friends, it’s no joke,” he said. But the “no joke” situation is, in fact, the one in which Poroshenko is in now. He faces a steep uphill battle in his quest to win another five-year term and defeat Zelenskiy in the second round on April 21.
According to the election results, more than 5.7 million people voted for Zelenskiy and only 3 million for Poroshenko.
All polls predict that Zelenskiy will defeat Poroshenko in the second round. According to the forecast by Rating group conducted in late March, Zelenskiy will win by 20 points — 39 percent of votes against 19 percent for Poroshenko, with a huge number yet undecided.
With such a gap, Poroshenko will have to do nearly the impossible to defeat Zelenskiy in the second round, experts say.
“I just cannot see it, unless Zelenskiy self-destructs,” Timothy Ash, a London-based political analyst, wrote in an op-ed.
Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta political think tank, said Poroshenko still might win though “it’s very hard, the gap is very big.”
There is one precedent in Ukraine’s political history in 1994, when Leonid Kuchma lost to Leonid Kravchuk in the first round of presidential election but beat him in the second round. The gap between them in the first round was 7 percentage points, half that between Zelenskiy and Poroshenko.
On election night on March 31, Poroshenko called on Zelenskiy to participate in a televised debate.
Zelensky accepted, insisting in a video address on April 3 that they should take place at Ukraine’s largest stadium Olimpiyskiy, and Poroshenko should publicly admit that “he would debate not a puppet, a clown, a bumpkin, but a presidential candidate, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.”
Poroshenko took the challenge in another video address late at night. “Stadium it is,” he said.
Ukrainian public broadcaster UA Pershiy made a statement that it can hold the debates at the stadium on April 19, on the last Friday before the run-off, as the law requires.
Fesenko said the debate may play in favor of Poroshenko, who is an experienced politician and good speaker. Poroshenko will try to create a contrast between himself and a “weak and incompetent” Zelenskiy.
It, however, will not necessarily work. In the presidential campaign of 2004, a better educated Viktor Yushchenko failed to win the debate against Viktor Yanukovych, who had much weaker speaking skills but was well-prepared.
In the presidential campaign of 2014, Poroshenko refused to debate with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is an accomplished public speaker. Both Poroshenko and Zelenskiy ignored a debate with Tymoshenko on March 29.
Low electoral turnout
Though the polls were predicting Zelenskiy’s victory, many had doubts that his largely young electorate will eventually come to the polling stations. But the electoral turnout of 63 percent proved they were wrong.
Fesenko believes that the higher turnout will be in the second round, the better chances Zelenskiy will have. “If it is at least 55 percent then Zelenskiy wins,” he said. “If it is less than 50 percent than Poroshenko gets a chance.”
A poll by Rating group conducted in late March showed that 19 percent of voters of Tymoshenko, 18 percent of voters of ex-SBU chief Ihor Smeshko, 16 percent of voters of ex-energy minister Yuriy Boyko and 15 percent of voters of ex-defense minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko were ready to support Zelenskiy as their second choice. For Poroshenko, a significant flow of voters was possible only from Grytsenko (13 percent) and from nationalist candidate Ruslan Koshulynsky (14 percent), according to the same poll.
In this situation Poroshenko’s team will likely try to persuade people who voted for other candidates, fist of all the voters of Tymoshenko and Grytsenko, who became the third and the fifth in the first round, to ignore the run-off, Fesenko said.
Poroshenko’s consultants could also try to distract the young electorate from going to the polling stations on April 21. “They will try to organize some free concerts, shows, deliver the free tickets, anything to distract them from the vote,” he said.
On April 2, a group of friends of a murdered activist Kateryna Gandziuk claimed Poroshenko’s low result in the first round was caused by ignorance to the demands of civil society.
“You can go on listening to your allies who brought you to 16 percent in comparison to 54.7 percent in 2014 and you will see your crash in the second round. Or you can get your head out of the sand at last and do what you should have done long ago,” they wrote on a Facebook page “Who ordered the killing of Katia Gandziuk?”
The activists demanded Poroshenko to fire his party members Andriy Hordeev and Yevhen Ryshchuk from the posts of governor and deputy governor of Kherson Oblast and allow prosecution of them. Activists suspect both officials of ordering Gandziuk’s murder, which they deny. They also demanded Poroshenko stop cooperating with the tainted Odesa’s mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov and Kharkiv’s mayor Hennadiy Kernes and pressure for an investigation of dozens of attacks on activists.
On April 1, the experts of AntiCorruption Action Center, an anti-corruption watchdog, urged Poroshenko to fire Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, head of anti-corruption prosecution Nazar Kholodnytsky and deputy head of SBU state security service Pavlo Demchyna, all of whom are suspected of corruption and sabotage of investigations into graft. They demanded to support stripping of impunity of lawmakers and change inefficient judicial governance bodies.
“We see no movements from Poroshenko to fulfill these tasks so far,” the experts of Anti-Corruption Action Center said in the report, adding that his competitor Zelenskiy has already signed promises to fulfill most of these demands if he gets elected.
Poroshenko responded to the anti-corruption demands with offering on April 2 that the government conduct tests on a lie detector for officials of Ukroboronprom, state-run defense company. In late February — early March journalists of the Nashi Groshi investigative program revealed massive embezzlement in the defense sector, involving Ukroboronprom, which was conducted by Poroshenko’s ally Oleh Hladkovskiy and his son Ihor Hladkovskiy.
On April 3, Poroshenko also ordered the government to conduct a rather symbolical decrease of the utility gas prices of 17 kopeks per cubic meter. For a family of three people, it would be a saving of less than Hr 2 ($0.07) per month, according to Kyiv Post's calculations.
Poroshenko could also try to destroy Zelenskiy’s reputation in the few weeks remaining between the two rounds. In his speech on election night, Poroshenko has already openly called his competitor a “puppet of (oligarch Ihor) Kolomoisky.”
Zelenskiy, whose TV show is being screened at Kolomoisky’s 1+1 TV channel, denies links to Kolomoisky other than business ones.
Ads claiming Zelenskiy is totally dependent on Kolomoisky were widely used on social media before the first round. Since early April, the strategy apparently changed. The new ads target alleged incompetence of Zelenskiy, showing a man who resembles him, as a chief commander unable to take a decision, a doctor, incapable to conduct surgery or a pilot who doesn’t know how direct an airplane.
Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes Poroshenko’s strategists will continue using Kolomoisky’s card against Zelenskiy as well as continue portraying him as a candidate allegedly linked to Russia.
Fesenko said that there will be more revelations about business and even family of Zelenskiy. “They may go even up to talking of Zelenskiy’s nationality through stressing on these issues are normally not being accepted well here,” Fesenko said. Zelenskiy years ago admitted being Jewish.
In late March, historian Oleksandr Palii, a vehement supporter of Poroshenko, wrote on Facebook that “President of Ukraine should be Ukrainian and Christian,” a post that sparked many outraged comments.
On April 2, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and reformist lawmaker Sergii Leshchenko, both big critics of Poroshenko, claimed that prominent Israeli political technologist Moshe Klughaft arrived in Kyiv to contribute in Poroshenko’s reelection. Poroshenko’s press people denied this.
“It will be a lot of very interesting things in the coming weeks,” Jarabik said. ■
A man comes out of a voting booth in Kyiv on March 31, 2019, the day Ukraine held the first round of its presidential election. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)