Can Petro Poroshenko win Ukraine’s presidential race?

Ukraine’s incumbent is lagging behind in polls, but he still has time to manipulate political events to his advantage.

Petro Poroshenko
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko delivers a speech during a ceremony to enthrone Metropolitan Epifaniy, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in Kiev on February 3 [Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]

In Ukraine, incumbents tend to be underdogs in presidential races. Never in the 21st century has an acting Ukrainian president, or his appointee, been a frontrunner in a presidential election and, in fact, in the case of former President Viktor Yanukovych, the incumbent never even made it to the polls, having been toppled by a popular revolution.

But President Petro Poroshenko seems dead set on breaking this pattern and winning a re-election. Just seven months ago, he was lagging far behind former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and a few more candidates in the polls, but by the end of 2018 he was already breathing down her neck. January polls pushed both him and Tymoshenko back, elevating TV comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy to the status of the frontrunner. But, given his ability to shape the political agenda, Poroshenko still has a chance, if the stars align the right way.

Accused by Ukraine’s progressives of corruption and hampering reforms, Poroshenko can hardly be described as someone who bears the torch of the 2014 Maidan revolution. However, the same is true about each of his main rivals: Tymoshenko’s entire career is mired in corruption scandals; Zelenskiy is rumoured to be backed by oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who has been accused of syphoning billions of dollars from a Ukrainian bank; former Defence Minister Anatoly Hrytsenko is a proponent of enlightened authoritarianism, and; Yury Boyko formally represents the Russia-friendly anti-Maidan opposition.

With this line-up of candidates, the March vote invites parallels with Boris Yeltsin’s desperate effort to retain office at the backdrop of the disastrous Chechen war in 1996. He eventually succeeded, but only at the cost of undermining democratic procedure.

In Ukraine, like in the rest of the former USSR, incumbents can manipulate the political agenda to boost their ratings and improve the chances of getting re-elected. In the post-Soviet era, no one has excelled more in such political manipulation than Russia’s Vladimir Putin. In 2014, after suffering an historical slump in popularity due to the 2011-2012 wave of protests in Russia, the Russian president sent his ratings soaring to 89 percent by annexing Crimea in the aftermath of Ukraine’s revolution, launching a war in the Donbas region and unleashing an unprecedented wave of chauvinism in the country.

Poroshenko is taking a page out of Putin’s playbook, but he’s applying it on a modest scale and within the constraints of democratic procedures. His aim is to rally nationalist-leaning voters in the Ukrainian-speaking regions of central and western Ukraine by resorting to the same right-wing populism currently dominating politics in neighbouring Hungary and Poland.

Large billboards with his campaign motto “Army, Language, Faith” were lining almost every avenue in the country for most of 2018, months before he officially announced his decision to run for re-election. It wasn’t empty sloganeering. Poroshenko worked hard on all three of these fronts: military affairs, the language question and the church dispute. 

The language issue came first. Millions of Ukrainians use Russian as their first language and prior to the Maidan revolution, Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine were free to proclaim it as the second official language in their territory. The nationalist wave that swept through Ukraine in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 military aggression brought the question of national language to the fore and the far right started rallying for curbing language rights of the Russian-speaking population in the country.

In 2017, the Ukrainian president oversaw the adoption of a law, which promotes the Ukrainian language by effectively phasing out secondary education in Russian. That didn’t give the desired boost to his ratings but instead led to a diplomatic spat with neighbouring Hungary because the Hungarian-language schools were affected in the same way as Russian. Poroshenko fared much better on the military and religious fronts.

By supporting a low-intensity trench war in the Donbas region with the help of its hybrid forces, Russia has made Ukraine bleed drop by drop – something that inevitably affects the popularity of the current president, who was elected in 2014 on the promise to end the war soon. Poroshenko needed to be seen as proactive as possible, even though Ukraine is not capable of overcoming Russia’s war machine militarily. 

In the last couple of years, Ukrainian forces have been advancing into the buffer zone which divides the warring sides as per the Minsk agreements of 2015. Speaking at the end of 2018, Poroshenko’s adviser Yuriy Biriukov said that Ukrainian armed forces “have liberated practically the entire grey zone”.

Another front was opened at sea, when in March 2018 the Ukrainian border patrol seized a Russian fishing boat, threatening to do so with each vessel that leaves or enters ports in Crimea. Russia responded by beefing up its presence in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, prompting Ukraine and its Western allies to talk about a renewed Russian aggression. Ukraine continued testing Putin’s patience by sending small naval vessels under the newly built bridge over the Strait of Kerch, linking Crimea to Russia. Moscow’s paranoia was further inflamed by an article in Washington Examiner, an obscure US newspaper, suggesting that Ukraine should blow up the bridge

Then as the election campaign in Ukraine started in earnest, the standoff at sea reached its climax. On November 25, the Russian navy opened fire on three Ukrainian vessels, thereafter seizing them and arresting the 24 Ukrainian sailors on board.

Putin’s decision to escalate played right into Poroshenko’s hands. Claiming that a large-scale Russian invasion was imminent, the Ukrainian president went to parliament and after overcoming strong scepticism among MPs, managed to push through a month-long martial law period, which lasted till the end of December. It remains unclear what that measure, which theoretically gave the president sweeping powers, entailed beyond fomenting patriotic fervour among Ukrainian voters. It had no visible effect except for the severe restrictions imposed on Russian nationals visiting the country.

Like language, religion also became a highly politicised issue in Ukraine after the outbreak of the war in the Donbas in 2014 and Poroshenko saw a political opportunity in that, too. He put in much effort to unify the divided Ukrainian Orthodox Church and wrest it out of the control of the Russian Patriarchate, which finally paid off on January 5, when the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I officially granted it independence.

As soon as the announcement was made, Poroshenko set off on a tour of central and western Ukraine, where the bulk of his electorate is based, showing Bartholomew’s edict, known as Tomos, to large gatherings in cathedrals and churches. He successfully touted this achievement as Ukraine’s great victory over Russia, even though it remains incomplete since the largest number of parishes (around 12,000) remains under Moscow patriarchate’s control.

There are still almost two months left till the election and Poroshenko’s spin doctors will certainly need to devise more drama to secure his election victory. And it seems they are actively working on that front. A freshly adopted law requires all parishes aligned with the Moscow Patriarchate to reregister – a measure designed to coerce church communities into switching to the newly created Ukrainian Church. If this measure is successful, Poroshenko would surely use it to boost his popularity on the campaign trail.

Meanwhile, as Aleksandr Turchynov, the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, told the BBC on December 19, Ukraine is preparing to send more naval ships to exercise its right to free passage through the Strait of Kerch. Set up at the right moment, a new dramatic standoff at sea may give Poroshenko a decisive edge over the rivals.

Less than two months before Ukrainians cast their votes, we are yet to see what scriptwriters from the presidential administration in Kiev have envisaged as the culmination of the election drama, and whether it would be convincing enough to break the pattern of the incumbent president never getting a second chance in Ukraine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.