Ukraine elections: Luke Skywalker vs Princess Leia?

Ukraine’s two leading presidential candidates are both pro-EU. So what sets them apart?

It will be Yulia Tymoshenko's third attempt at the presidential post in Ukraine [AP]

A beautician, a communist, an ultra-right activist, a former spy – this is just a small selection of the 23 candidates registered by the Central Election Commission for an early presidential election scheduled for May 25. Two of them withdrew during the campaign thus having reduced the list to 21. The most exotic aspiring candidate, Darth Vader, failed the application process and was not registered; he is expected to try his luck in Kiev’s mayor race.

Nevertheless Ukraine is poised to witness a “star wars” election in which its two leading political stars Yulia Tymoshenko and Petro Poroshenko battle it out at the ballot.

For the first time in Ukrainian history, both top-runners are pro-EU, and there is no viable candidate to take the pro-Russian side. This election is crucial for Ukraine, as people expect to see a legitimately elected and internationally recognised president who will get Ukraine out of political and social turbulence.

Petro Poroshenko

As far back as a year ago nobody could seriously consider Poroshenko a strong candidate for the presidential race. The 48-year owner of chocolate manufacturer “Roshen” is one of the top richest Ukrainians according to domestic and international ratings. In 2014 Forbes estimated his fortune at $1.3bn, which brought him to the club of world billionaires. Yet his political achievements were relatively modest: He was repeatedly elected to the parliament, briefly served as foreign affairs minister and minister for economic development and trade and chaired the National Security and Defense Council.

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Poroshenko could have remained one of many oligarchs in power, if he hadn’t gambled on revolutions and public protests. During the Orange Revolution of 2004, he was wearing an orange scarf and standing on the Maidan stage shoulder-to-shoulder with Vitkor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.

After the “orange” protests paved the way for Yushchenko’s presidency, Poroshenko expected to be appointed prime minister. But the newly elected president gave this portfolio to Poroshenko’s main rival – Tymoshenko. That decision led to a lingering personal and political confrontation between the two.

The recent Euromaidan protests gave “the chocolate king” a second chance to demonstrate his leadership potential. Poroshenko didn’t wait to see where it would all go. During the first big clashes between protesters and police, he was at the frontline. While the former opposition leaders were talking to the rally from the stage, Poroshenko was trying to stop both the radical groups and police from further violent attacks. After this, he was often seen on the Maidan stage. Unlike Vitaliy Klychko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleg Tyahnybok, he was not taking part in talks and shaking hands with former president Viktor Yanukovich and that played well with Maidan supporters.

His reasonable and non-radical position during Maidan protests generated high approval ratings. Two months before the expected vote, a group of Kiev-based think tanks announced the results of their opinion polls that clearly showed that almost 25 percent of respondents are ready to vote for Poroshenko, while his closest rival Tymoshenko had only eight percent. In May Poroshenko’s approval rating grew up to 34 percent, while Tymoshenko’s went down to 6.5 percent. Tymoshenko’s sympathisers criticise these figures and expect them to change.

Poroshenko tried to secure his lead by making a deal with another popular candidate, heavy-weight boxer Vitaly Klychko, who downgraded his ambitions from presidential office to Kiev mayor’s office and endorsed Poroshenko. The Poroshenko-Klychko tandem was positively perceived by voters, but also it was endorsed by odious Ukrainian oligarchs such as Yanukovych’s former chief of staff Sergiy Liovochkin and notoriously known gas trader Dmytro Firtash, who got bailed out jail in Austria and awaits extradition to the USA to face trial for bribery and corruption. This “oligarch connection” can seriously undermine Poroshenko’s position.

Yulia Tymoshenko

For the 53-year old former business woman and ex-PM, this election will be third attempt at the presidency. In 2004, she stepped down from the competition to give way to united opposition candidate Yushchenko, although her political ratings were sky high. In 2010, she tried her luck again, but lost by three percent to Viktor Yanukovich. Her political defeat made her vulnerable. Yanukovich did not find any better way to get rid of his political rival but to put her in jail on power abuse and embezzlement charges. Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in jail, but in fact spent slightly more than 2.5 years in a guarded cell in Kharkiv hospital where she was transferred for back problems.

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Numerous attempts of foreign lobbyists and Western leaders to talk Yanukovich into releasing Tymoshenko for medical treatment abroad failed. Yanukovich didn’t want to risk her coming back on the political scene with a vengeance. Only after the mass protests ousted the president, Tymoshenko’s supporters in the parliament voted on her release, rehabilitated her and restored her political rights, so she could run for office again.

Tymoshenko didn’t waste time. After a short medical treatment for her back problems in Germany, she walked into the election campaign on high heels, supporting herself on a crutch and boasting about an anti-corruption action plan. Her rhetoric and promises remained the same.

Tymoshenko had two key tasks during the election campaign: to boost up her rating and to find a strong enemy she can fight with. The first task seems to have failed: 2.5 years behind bars did not help her popularity and her campaign was not even nearly as successful as those she conducted before.

During the Orange Revolution in 2004, her every appearance on a stage was making people scream “Yulia! Yulia!” and applaud to whatever she was saying. Now the situation is totally different: When Tymoshenko first appeared on the Maidan in 2014 after her release, people were still mourning the loss of more than 100 slain protesters and her speech didn’t make any impression on the crowd. Of course, she tried to find new messages and started a charm offensive, but, unlike Poroshenko, she can’t play the “Maidan revolution” card. Yet Tymoshenko is known for getting better results than those given by the polls.

Another challenge for Tymoshenko was to find a “dragon” to slay for her election fight. In 2004, she was fighting with the “universal evil” embodied by then president Leonid Kuchma; in 2010 her top nemesis was Viktor Yanukovich. Now when the niche is empty she can’t demonstrate her fighting skills to the full extent. She is trying to make a “collective” enemy out of corrupt politicians, oligarchy and pro-Russian separatists who are tearing apart eastern regions of Ukraine, but voters perceive those as abstract notions.

Given the economic crisis, Russian invasion of Crimea, separatists’ coup in Luhansk and Donetsk regions and dysfunctional police and regional authorities, people are likely to vote for a person with less talk and more feasible action plan for the stabilisation of Ukraine. At the moment, both Tymoshenko’s and Poroshenko’s agendas look very similar and have preserving of national unity as a top priority. No matter who wins the race, Ukraine will secure its European direction. 

Olesia Markovic is a Ukrainian journalist. 

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