Dnipro, Ukraine – On Sunday evening, outside a polling station in Dnipro, the fourth-largest city in Ukraine, pensioner Alexey Krut shared his opinion of Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and Dnipro native.
“I hated Yulia Tymoshenko from the start, but if she gets to the second round I’ll vote for her,” the 68-year-old told Al Jazeera. “Anybody but [current president Petro] Poroshenko”.
But Tymoshenko did not make it to the second round, winning only 13.4 percent of the vote later on Sunday.
Presumably, Krut will now support Volodymyr Zelensky, the comedian who faces Ukraine’s incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in a runoff vote on April 23.
Zelensky has never held political office, and is best known for playing a fictional president on the TV show, Servant of the People.
On Sunday, Zelensky took 30.2 percent of the vote, almost double Poroshenko’s 15.9 percent.
The comedian has enticed many in a country where only nine percent of people have confidence in their government.
Meanwhile, faith in Poroshenko, the confectionary tycoon who became president in 2014, has plummeted amid corruption allegations.
His reelection campaign is loaded with nationalist rhetoric, stressing his role as commander-in-chief of a country still at war, and as the winner of autonomy for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Tymoshenko saw public disillusion as an opportunity to make her third bid for the presidency. She ran on a populist platform, promising to cut expensive utility bills loathed by elderly Ukrainians.
“It’s a surprising result,” said Serhiy Kudelia, a specialist in Ukrainian politics and an associate professor of political science at Baylor University in Texas in the United States. “Of all the candidates’ policy proposals, Tymoshenko’s was the most elaborate. But those young people who vote for Zelensky are not particularly responsive to the social promises she’s known for. For them, she’s just one of the discredited old political class.”
Tymoshenko still divides opinion in Dnipro, where she was born in 1960 when the city was known as Dnipropetrovsk. It was renamed in 2016 in accordance with a law banning communist-derived place names.
After a stint in local business, she entered parliament in 1996. By 1999, she had become minister for energy, earning her the sobriquet “the gas princess”.
In 2004, Tymoshenko took to the streets of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv at the helm of the Orange Revolution, protesting the allegedly rigged election of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
A recount was held; Viktor Yushchenko won, and Tymoshenko went on to serve as Ukraine’s prime minister.
In 2009, she signed a reportedly unfavourable petrol deal involving Russia’s Gazprom. It would prove fateful.
When Yanukovych became president again in 2010, the deal provided a pretext for revenge, and Tymoshenko was jailed on charges that the European Court of Human Rights deemed politically motivated.
When Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014, Tymoshenko was released, appearing in a wheelchair and without her signature blonde braids in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti or central square of Kiev.
While she won accolades in Kyiv and western Ukraine, Tymoshenko never fared well in elections in her native region, where she came fourth on Sunday with eight percent of the vote. Zelensky, the comedian, came first with 45 percent.
“I think she’s at a disadvantage in Dnipro,” said Viktoria Narizhna, a local activist and cultural worker. “I never registered much sympathy for her here, where locals remember scandals before her rise to fame. People who supported the protests in 2014 don’t see her as part of that movement, because she wasn’t.”
Yuri Anikevich, a 58-year-old who went to school with Oleksandr Tymoshenko, Yulia’s husband, feels differently.
“I saw Yulia three or four times, and she made an impression: a beautiful, clever, courageous woman,” he said at a bar near the Dnieper River. “A lot of people here like her; when she was prime minister pensions rose nearly twofold.”
Local independent journalist Vadim Bedrinets said: “When our local elites move away, they forget where they came from. Compare that to the Donbas [region], where people have strong local loyalties; when the Donetsk ‘clan’ of oligarchs ruled Ukraine, subsidies flowed into their city. So locals supported Yanukovych to the very end.”
Donetsk is just 250km from Dnipro, which is home to thousands displaced by the conflict with Russia.
Gone are the days when Dnipro was a stronghold for Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
Openly pro-Russian sentiments are no longer politically palatable here, yet some locals take a dimmer view of the 2014 revolution: the pro-Russian Yuri Boiko came second in the Dnipro Region, with 12 percent of the vote.
Enmity with Russia has hit the city’s military factories, which were once oriented towards Moscow.
In the Soviet period, Dnipro was a closed city due to these strategic facilities such as Yuzhmash, which produces rockets and missiles to this day.
Dnipro is no less famous for its production of oligarchs, such as Viktor Pinchuk, Hennadiy Korban, and Ihor Kolomoiskyi, whom Poroshenko appointed as governor of the region in 2014.
He played an important role in tempering the post-revolutionary turmoil, organising local auxiliaries to halt pro-Russian separatism encroaching on the region. After clashing with the president, Kolomoiskyi left office in 2015. He now lives in Israel, vowing never to return until Poroshenko is gone.
One widespread belief, which comedian Zelensky dismisses, holds that Kolomoisky backs his campaign to prevent Poroshenko’s re-election. But when Poroshenko suggests that Zelensky is merely Kolomoiskyi’s puppet, locals in Dnipro are unfazed.
“Poroshenko visited in 2014, promising that the war would be over in two weeks. That was five years ago,” said 55-year-old Lina Shevchenko, a local businesswoman, after casting her vote. “Those were scary times; many kept packed suitcases at home. It was only thanks to Kolomoisky that we didn’t end up a ‘people’s republic’ ourselves.”
Sunday was not Tymoshenko’s last chance to run for high office, as Ukraine holds parliamentary elections this October.
Kudelia, the professor of political science in Texas in the US, believes that Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party will not hold the balance of power, but could wield some influence in a coalition.
If her biography shows anything, it is that Yulia Tymoshenko does not give up.