Hot campaign ends with very calm election in Ukraine
Editor’s Note: Election Watch is a regular update on the state of the 2019 races for the presidency and parliament. The country elected a new president on April 21 and will vote for a new parliament in October. 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.
It happened: On April 21, showman Volodymyr Zelenskiy won the Ukrainian presidency in a landslide with 73 percent of the vote.
After a surreal campaign that resembled reality TV and included a stadium debate and a public drug test, Zelenskiy went silent. Four days after the vote, he has largely avoided the spotlight. His Facebook and Instagram accounts, which were his preferred communication platforms during the three-month campaign, also went silent.
While the president-elect is catching his breath somewhere out of the public eye, analysts and politicians are discussing his possible first steps and appointments.
Thanks to Zelenskiy’s notorious vagueness and his campaign’s lack of clear substance, there are plenty of grounds for speculation about his first steps and his candidates for the key posts, which include the chief of staff, defense and foreign ministers, prosecutor general, and the head of the state security service, or SBU.
For all the strangeness of the campaign, the actual runoff Election Day was calm and brought no surprises. Polls predicted that Zelenskiy would win by a large margin, leaving little to no chance for his competitor, President Petro Poroshenko, to get a second term.
The polls turned out to be accurate: Zelenskiy won over 73 percent of the vote, while Poroshenko took only 24 percent.
The election saw a relatively low turnout of 61 percent — the second lowest voter turnout in the history of Ukrainian presidential elections. Even fewer people, 59 percent, took part in the 2014 election where Poroshenko won in the first round. Every earlier election saw a considerably higher voter turnout, especially in the second round, in which people traditionally showed more interest. Yet in this election, even fewer people showed up for
the runoff on April 21 than for the first-round vote on March 31, which featured 39 candidates.
As polling stations closed and the exit poll results came in, Zelenskiy celebrated victory. The gap between him and Poroshenko, at 49 percent, was the biggest margin of victory in Ukrainian election history. It was so large that no one waited for the official result to come in.
Zelenskiy celebrated his victory at his team’s headquarters, but only appeared before the press twice on election night: once to react to the results and to promise “he will never fail” Ukrainians, and once to answer several questions. His most memorable statement of the night was the one he didn’t address to Ukrainians.
“To all post-Soviet countries: look at us. Everything is possible,” he said.
Poroshenko acknowledged his defeat immediately after the exit polls came out.
The president went on stage at his campaign headquarters in Kyiv to concede, and called Zelenskiy, according to the president-elect, soon after.
Poroshenko’s concession speech won him praise among his supporters and observers. The outgoing president was dignified, calm, and seemed to be in a good mood. The election result wasn’t a surprise to anyone, including Poroshenko.
He offered his help to Zelenskiy and emphasized that he would pass to him “the international network of support” that Ukraine has.
But Poroshenko’s best post-election moment arrived on the following day, when several thousand people held a rally near the presidential administration to thank him for his service. Poroshenko welcomed the crowd and took selfies with his supporters. He and his wife Maryna also came to the administration’s balcony to wave, resembling British royalty.
The pleasant surprises for Poroshenko ended there. The election tested the loyalty of some of his top allies.
On the day after the election, the Prosecutor General’s Office, led by Poroshenko’s appointee and ally Yuriy Lutsenko, published subpoenas for several former top officials
from Poroshenko’s circle, who are suspects in a massive embezzlement case linked to the people of disgraced ex-President Viktor Yanukovych. The subpoenas were first sent weeks ago by a controversial prosecutor within the agency, but denounced by Lutsenko as nonsense.
Lutsenko, who endorsed Poroshenko for re-election, was notably absent from Poroshenko’s headquarters on election night. So was Poroshenko’s former protégé, Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, and the Mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, who both endorsed him.
Zelenskiy’s inauguration has yet to be scheduled. According to the law, it can happen no later than June 3. Poroshenko’s inauguration in 2014 took place less than two weeks after Election Day.
To schedule the inauguration, parliament will need to vote for it. It is in parliament’s interest to postpone it until late May: Then the inauguration would take place less than six months before the parliamentary election, scheduled for October. That will mean that Zelenskiy cannot dissolve parliament and schedule a snap election — something he said he has been considering.
On April 25, Zelenskiy complained that the Central Election Commission was intentionally holding off the official announcement of his victory to postpone the inauguration and prevent him making such a move. "This is unfair," Zelenskiy said in a video he published on social media — the first he has recorded since the election. "The president, who has the trust of 73 percent of the people, has the right to at least consider (dissolving parliament)."
Whenever it happens, the parliamentary election is likely to see many new parties.
Prime Minister Groysman announced on April 22 that he was going to create and lead a party, giving no further details. Lawmakers Yegor Sobolev and Semen Semenchenko, former members of the Samopomich Party, said they will be starting a reformist party of their own.
Businessman and Kyiv city council member Serhiy Gusovskiy is also starting a party. His will be a conservative liberal.
Also, former deputy prime minister Roman Bezsmertniy said in January that he was starting a neo-conservative party, to be named Movement +380 after Ukraine’s international dialing code.
However, these new parties may find it hard to gain a foothold in parliament in October. An April poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology shows that 25 percent of Ukrainians support Servant of the People, the party of Zelenskiy, named after his satirical TV show. It was registered in 2018 and has not yet been active. Neither its ideology nor its members are known.
The second most-popular party, supported by nearly 16 percent of Ukrainians, is Opposition Platform — Za Zhyttya, a pro-Russian party led by populist lawmaker and TV personality Vadym Rabinovich and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s friend and unofficial representative in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk. Their candidate, Yuriy Boyko, came fourth in the first round of the presidential election on March 31, winning nearly 12 percent of the vote, mainly in eastern Ukraine.
According to the poll, other parties that will reach the 5-percent minimum needed to get into parliament are also the ones connected to top presidential candidates: Poroshenko’s Bloc (14 percent), Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (12 percent), Anatoliy Grytsenko’s Civic Position (5.1 percent) and Ihor Smeshko’s Strength and Honor (5 percent).
Russia is watching
As Ukraine waits for its new president to take to power, Russia has been flexing its muscles.
The hostile neighbor that annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and has been waging a war that killed over 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine took new steps to apply pressure to the country, likely trying to improve its hand in any future negotiations with Zelenskiy.
The first blow came before the election. On April 18, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia would ban exports of crude oil, oil products, and coal to Ukraine starting from June 1.
When asked about the ban, Zelenskiy confessed that he didn’t know “this issue profoundly” and suggested Ukraine could search for alternative imports from Western countries.
An even stronger signal came after the election, when the Russian government moved to simplify the procedure of receiving Russian citizenship for Ukrainians living in the parts of eastern Ukraine occupied by Russian and Russianbacked forces since 2014. Now, Ukrainians from the occupied territories can get Russian passports no later than three months after applying.
The provocative decision was met with harsh criticism in the U.S., the U.K., and the European Union. Ukraine asked the United Nations Security Council to call a meeting and discuss Russia’s move.
Both Poroshenko and Zelenskiy condemned the decision, but while Poroshenko recorded a video address on the matter, Zelenskiy put out a written statement.
Meanwhile, Putin first commented on the Ukrainian election only four days after it took place, on April 25. He called Zelenskiy’s landslide victory “a complete and utter failure of Poroshenko’s policies.” ■
Children watch as an elderly woman fills out her ballot in front of her house in the village of Korolivka, Kyiv Oblast on April 21, 2019, during the second round of Ukraine's presidential election. Elderly people who cannot come to the polling stations can vote at home. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)