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Ukraine’s Presidential Election Proves the Country’s Democratic Spirit Is Alive and Well

Ukraine’s Presidential Election Proves the Country’s Democratic Spirit Is Alive and Well

KYIV, Ukraine—Ukrainians took to the polls Sunday and voted for their next president. 

After a bloody 2014 revolution to depose a pro-Russian president, and after nearly five years of war against Russian forces in the country’s east, many voters viewed the election as a landmark exercise of their hard-earned democratic freedoms, and another step toward ditching Moscow’s influence.

“These are the first elections in the history of Ukraine when we are choosing the future of our country with our own hands,” said Andrey Kobzar, a 41-year-old former staff sergeant in the Ukrainian army and a war veteran.

“I am glad that my country is moving in the right direction—toward NATO, Europe, and the entire world community,” Kobzar said.

As of this article’s publication on Monday, with about 75% of votes counted, Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky was well in the lead with 30.4% of Sunday’s vote.

Incumbent President Petro Poroshenko came in second place with 16.12% of the tally. For her part, Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko—once the contest’s front-runner—placed third, claiming 13.2% of the electorate.

Since no candidate won a majority on Sunday, a second-round runoff between Poroshenko and Zelensky will be held on April 21.

Zelensky is a political outsider who plays the role of Ukrainian president in a popular TV show. His showing marks a sea change in Ukrainian politics, underscoring that the country’s voters are willing to consider candidates outside the pre-revolutionary political caste. 

However, with Poroshenko projected to gain the support of many voters left up for grabs after Sunday’s vote, many experts predict the April 21 runoff will be a nail-biter.

“I support the current president because I don’t believe that Zelensky is actually a defender of the Maidan’s values and goals,” said Andrii Fedotov, a 29-year-old tech entrepreneur who lives in Kyiv.

Ukraine’s 2014 revolution is colloquially named after Kyiv’s central square, the Maidan, where the uprising began.

Whatever the final outcome in April, many outside observers say Sunday’s election was a milestone for Ukraine’s post-revolutionary, democratic progress.

For one, pro-Russian candidates had next to no chance of success. That alone is a sign of what many say is Ukraine’s irreversible divorce from Russia.

Also, going into Sunday’s vote, there was no clear favorite to win the contest. The three front-runners had distanced themselves from the pack, but the final outcome remains far from certain.

“The fact that it is election day and we do not know who the winners of this election will be is a victory in itself,” said Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute, a U.S. think tank.

Smooth Sailing

At Specialized School No. 87 in Kyiv on Sunday, voters lined up at a registration counter and presented their IDs before they proceeded into booths with blue and yellow curtains (Ukraine’s national colors) to privately cast their votes. Once done, they deposited their completed paper ballots into closely guarded, translucent bins. Police officers were on hand to observe the whole process.

The mood at the voting site was calm, with no outward signs of impropriety, interference, or voter harassment by outside groups. In fact, it seemed to be business as usual. 

Similar scenes occurred throughout the day at other polling places across the capital and the country. National voter turnout was 63.48%, election officials said, up from 60.29% in Ukraine’s 2014 presidential election.

On Sunday, Ukrainian security officials said they had deployed 135,000 police officers, National Guard troops, and other personnel nationwide to safeguard the electoral process.

At least two police officers were assigned to each polling station, officials said. Also, 2,344 observers from foreign and international organizations were on hand to observe the vote.

Throughout the day there were reports of election law violations at various polling sites—up to 649 nationwide by around 3 p.m., officials said. Yet, election officials reported no evidence of “systemic” interference.

By and large, Sunday’s election went smoothly, abating rumors that far-right, nationalist groups might cause chaos, or that the old ways of ballot stuffing—a hallmark of Ukraine’s post-Soviet democracy—would re-emerge.

“The Kremlin’s extensive efforts to influence this election and paint Ukraine as chaotic and dysfunctional have failed,”  the International Republican Institute’s Twining told The Daily Signal in an emailed statement.

Leading up to Ukraine’s first presidential election after the revolution in May 2014, a pro-Russian hacktivist group called CyberBerkut launched a cyberattack against Ukraine’s Central Election Commission computers.

As of this article’s publication, there were no reports that Sunday’s election had been similarly targeted. However, Russian agents used social media to spread misinformation in the lead-up to the vote, according to security experts and Ukrainian officials.

Twining said that Ukraine’s successful election could send a message to pro-democracy movements in other post-Soviet countries.

“Genuine democratic elections in Ukraine’s wider neighborhood are a rarity,” Twining said. “They also pose a real threat to the Kremlin. If Ukrainians can choose their leaders and hold them accountable through democratic institutions, why can’t Russians?”

Shortlist

Ukrainian voters had a choice of 37 candidates on Sunday. There had been 39 originally, but two candidates dropped out after the paper ballots had been printed.

Despite the crowded field, pre-election polls suggested that Sunday’s election really came down to three candidates: Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, and Zelensky.

Poroshenko, for his part, said his campaign’s chief opponent was Russian President Vladimir Putin. Zelensky cast himself as an anti-corruption reformer, and Tymoshenko promised a “new course” for Ukraine.

Some Ukrainians were frustrated that stalwarts of Ukraine’s pre-revolutionary political scene—Poroshenko and Tymoshenko—were still on the ballot. Therefore, they opted to break from orthodoxy and go with a political outsider like Zelensky.

Poroshenko’s supporters, however, praised the incumbent’s achievements and the consistent, if measured, progress he’s made in improving the economy, building up the country’s military strength, and rooting out systemic corruption.

Andrey Khomenko, 46, a Ukrainian IT specialist who lives in Kyiv, voted for Poroshenko “because he has the strength to develop my country.”

Under Poroshenko’s watch, Ukrainians gained visa-free travel to the European Union, and Ukraine’s newly unified, national Orthodox church achieved independence from Russian control for the first time since the 17th century.

With an ongoing war and an unstable economy, many Ukrainians want a steady hand at the helm of Ukraine’s government. For them, Poroshenko was the safest, surest bet among the front-runners.

“I’m sure that our country is moving in the right direction,” said Fedotov, the tech entrepreneur who voted for Poroshenko.

Poroshenko’s critics, however, say progress is too slow and that the president has perpetuated the system of endemic corruption that the revolution was meant to overthrow.

“After the Maidan there’s been a little progress, but also a significant amount of backtracking. Not only the war—but top level corruption,” 36-year-old war veteran Yevhen Shevchenko told The Daily Signal.

For her part, Tymoshenko ran a populist campaign, promising things like lower gas prices to make inroads with economically hard-off Ukrainians. 

Tymoshenko’s storied political past appealed to supporters who believe that Ukraine needs a leader well versed in the intricacies and the exigencies of political reality—especially when it comes to dealing with Russia—while the country faces war and economic turmoil.

Yet, like Poroshenko, the former prime minister is part of the old guard of Ukrainian politics. She earned her nickname, the “gas princess,” due to her role in negotiating energy deals with Russia. Based on her third place showing on Sunday, Tymoshenko’s populist message ultimately fell flat.

Gunpowder

In February 2014, protesters braved snipers on Kyiv’s central square during a revolution to overthrow Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s pro-Russian president. 

At its heart, the revolution was about the country turning away from Russia toward a pro-European, pro-Western, pro-democratic future.

More than five years later, the revolution’s overarching goals remained on the minds of many Ukrainian voters who went to the polls Sunday.

“I voted for Poroshenko because he gave me hope for a better future, with Ukraine as a part of the EU and NATO—that’s what we stood for on the Maidan,” Bohdan Miroshnikov, 24, told The Daily Signal. 

In the weeks after the 2014 revolution, Russian military forces invaded and seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Then, Russia launched a covert, proxy war in eastern Ukraine, carving out two so-called separatist republics.

After nearly five wars of constant combat, Ukrainian troops remain entrenched along a front line in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. There, Ukraine’s military continues to fight a static, trench war against a combined force of pro-Russian separatists, foreign mercenaries, and Russian regulars. 

So far, the war in the Donbas has killed more than 13,000 Ukrainians—roughly half of that number died after the February 2015, Minsk II cease-fire went into effect. 

And with 1.7 million people who fled their homes due to the conflict, Europe’s only ongoing land war is also the Continent’s biggest humanitarian crisis.

Miroshnikov, who now lives in Kyiv, was born in the eastern Ukrainian town of Horlivka, which combined Russian-separatist forces continue to occupy. He said ending the war was his top voting issue.  

“Only Poroshenko can solve this problem,” Miroshnikov said of the war. 

Kobzar, the 41-year-old war veteran, said he voted for Poroshenko because he believes the country has been moving in the right direction under the president’s watch. Most importantly, he said, Ukraine’s military has gotten much stronger.

“I voted for gunpowder,” Kobzar said, explaining his vote for Poroshenko. “My choice is my commander in chief.”

Yet, veterans are not a single-issue demographic. For Shevchenko (who worked as an undercover agent for the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine after his military service) the conflict with Russia was a top voting issue—so, too, however, were corruption and judicial reforms.

Shevchenko didn’t vote for one of the top three candidates. Rather, he cast his ballot for Anatoliy Hrytsenko, Ukraine’s former minister of defense, who was also in the race.

“In my opinion, he’s the only candidate who is independent from oligarchs and kleptocrats,” Shevchenko said of Hrytsenko, who took 7.07% of Sunday’s vote, according to the most recent data.

Resiliency

Ukrainians’ attitudes toward Russia have hardened during the war. In a recent poll, an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians labeled Russia as “the aggressor country.”

On Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s central boulevard, street vendors sell rolls of toilet paper and doormats adorned with the likenesses of Putin and Yanukovych. 

As part of its 2015 “decommunization laws,” Ukraine banned all symbols of the Soviet Union and renamed all streets and cities that once had Soviet-era names. Every Vladimir Lenin statue in the country has come down. Even playing the Soviet national anthem is now officially against the law in Ukraine.

And, since 2014, Kyiv has rebuilt its military with the specific objective of defending against a Russian invasion.  

Ukraine possessed only 6,000 combat-ready soldiers when the war began in April 2014. However, in just a few years—and while fighting a war—Ukraine has rebuilt its military into the second-largest in Europe, in terms of manpower, comprising about 250,000 active-duty troops and 80,000 reservists. 

In Europe, only Russia has a bigger military.

Besides the war, Ukraine faces some other tough challenges.

Ukraine remains the second-poorest country in Europe in terms of per capita gross domestic product. The Ukrainian hryvnia’s value slid from about 8 to 1 against the U.S. dollar in 2013, to its current value of roughly 27 to $1. Consequently, inflation is up and the average Ukrainian citizen’s spending power is way down.

For Fedotov, who voted for Poroshenko, Ukraine’s economic turmoil steered his decision at the ballot box on Sunday.

“The most important issue for me is economic development and deregulation for businesses and investments, as well as securing private property rights,” Fedotov said. 

Ukraine also faces an ongoing demographic catastrophe.

Millions of Ukrainians have moved abroad for work. That trend, coupled with chronically low life expectancies—particularly among men—and low fertility rates, has set the country’s population on a steady decline since the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991.

On the anti-corruption front, one of the revolution’s rallying cries, progress remains halting. 

“Corruption remains a top voter concern,” Twining said. “Ukraine’s next president must work with parliament to pursue real reforms that boost growth and tackle corruption to make the country more resilient to Russian subversion.”

A Win for Democracy

In the early months of the war in 2014, with Ukraine’s regular army on its heels, everyday Ukrainians filled the ranks of irregular, civilian combat units. They headed out to the country’s east, where they faced Russian tanks, artillery, and the Kremlin’s regular troops in a land war to preserve their country’s sovereignty.

At the same time, legions of volunteers collected and delivered supplies to support the front-line troops—often at great risk.

It was a grassroots war effort, underscoring a widespread attitude of self-reliance among Ukrainian citizens who were unwilling to wait for the government to act in a moment of crisis.

Ultimately, the volunteer movement did more than save Ukraine from a military disaster. It also paved the way for the country’s democratic civil society to flourish in a way it never had prior to the war.

“There is always hope for a better future,” said Shevchenko, the war veteran and anti-corruption undercover agent.

Across Ukraine, volunteers who once made shell-dodging supply runs to the front lines are now refocusing on long-term, pro-democracy projects, which they say are equally as important to Ukraine’s future as the ongoing war effort. And a new generation of politicians who came of age during the revolution and war are now pushing for change in ways previous generations never did.

“Young people are accustomed to learning quickly, simplifying the bureaucracy, working on results,” Oleksandr Toporivskyi, the 28-year-old mayor of the western Ukrainian town of Novovolynsk, told The Daily Signal.

“We strive to show that life in the community depends on everyone … realizing their wishes together,” Toporivskyi said.

Many Ukrainians and outside experts agree that the momentum of change is building, pushing Ukraine toward the democratic, Western-oriented future its protesters, civil society activists, and soldiers have fought for since 2014.

“The front line in the struggle between the free world and Putin’s shadow empire lies in Ukraine—and the people of Ukraine are clear which side they are on,” Twining said.

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