March 31, 2019
In the first round of election, political newcomer and TV comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy received 30.24% of the vote while his rival and formerly incumbent President Petro Poroshenko received 15.95%. Since no candidate received 50% of the vote or more in the first round, the May 5 runoff saw Zelenskiy win 73% of the vote and become the new president of Ukraine. Voter turnout for the second round was 62.8%.
- Semi-presidential republic; executive power is shared between the president, who exercises considerable power over foreign and security policy, and the prime minister and government, responsible primarily for economic and budgetary policies and the daily administration of state affairs.
- Legislative power is vested in the unicameral 450-member Verkhovna Rada (parliament).
- The president is elected for five years in a majoritarian system and can serve up to two consecutive terms. If no candidate wins an absolute majority of votes in the first round, a second round between the two candidates with the most votes will be held on April 21, 2019.
- 39 candidates are on the ballot, but the campaign is largely a three-person race between Petro Poroshenko (incumbent), Yulia Tymoshenko, and Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
- The election will take place in an uncertain economic and security environment: Russia continues to control of parts of Ukraine’s territory via support to illegal armed groups and due to the illegal annexation of Crimea. Ukraine remains one of the poorest countries in Europe.
- A recent Gallup poll found that only 9% of Ukrainians have confidence in their government, the lowest confidence level in the world.
- Petro Poroshenko: incumbent, “continuity candidate”; pro-EU/NATO; running on a nationalist platform of support for the Ukrainian language, strengthening Ukraine’s military, and the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Russia; his administration has overseen several important reforms but has faltered in the anti-corruption domain, and failed to raise standards of living; he remains deeply unpopular in Ukraine but has recently risen in the pools.
- Volodymyr Zelenskiy: anti-establishment candidate; comedian and actor (who plays the part of the Ukrainian president on TV) with no political experience; nominally pro-EU, but with mostly undefined political positions; allegedly backed by exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky; draws wide support from young Ukrainians disillusioned with Ukraine’s political class; proposes crowdsourcing key policy positions, including the peace process in eastern Ukraine.
- Yulia Tymoshenko: populist, two-time former prime minister; nominally pro-EU/NATO but has accommodated Russian positions in the past (signing large energy deals with Moscow and failing to condemn Russia’s invasion of Georgia); has adopted a tough line against Russia, vowing to return Crimea and rejecting the idea of special status for Donetsk People’s Republic or Luhansk People’s Republic; proposes a “Budapest+” format for resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine that would add France, Germany, and China to the original Budapest framework.
- Yuriy Boyko : opposition candidate running on a platform of normalizing Ukraine’s relations with Russia.
- Anatoliy Hrytsenko : former defense minister running on an anti-corruption and anti-oligarchy platform; pro-EU/NATO; preferred candidate among many democratic opposition lawmakers and activists, but has failed to garner popular support.
Impact on U.S. and transatlantic interests
- The United States has provided a total of more than $1 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since 2014. Since the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution placed Ukraine firmly on a pro-Western path, the Poroshenko administration has improved public procurement transparency and established new anti-corruption legislation and bureaus, but Ukraine continues to suffer from endemic corruption and the influence of oligarchs in politics.
- In December 2018, the IMF approved a new $3.9 billion loan agreement for Ukraine. This replaces a $17.5 billion bailout program signed in 2015 which, citing concerns about corruption, the IMF suspended in 2017 after disbursing half.
- Russia de facto controls large swathes of eastern Ukraine via support to separatist militias, in violation of the Minsk agreements. There are frequent ceasefire violations. In November, Russia effectively closed the Sea of Azov to Ukraine, captured three Ukrainian naval vessels and 23 Ukrainian sailors remain in Russian custody.
- This election represents both a referendum on the Poroshenko administration and a choice as to how Ukraine wishes to manage its future relations with Russia.
Key Issues to Watch
- The presidential election will take place against the backdrop of continuous challenges to Ukraine’s territorial integrity from Russia.
- Allegations of voter bribing, wire taps, and registering fake “technical candidates” abound on all sides. However, the national focus on preventing election fraud in addition to the presence of over 850 international election observers is likely to make this election among the least fraudulent in Ukraine’s history. Voter turnout is anticipated to be high, and may exceed 80%.
- President Petro Poroshenko has alienated many of the reformers who supported him in 2014. Despite having no political record, the anti-establishment candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy has won over some of their support, including that of former Finance Minister Oleksandr Danilyuk. Many view Zelenskiy as a political blank slate that, if surrounded by the right people, could be a vehicle for reform.
- Parliamentary elections are due to take place in the fall.
Data source: KIIS via Reuters. Polling period 14-22 March 2019.