21/12/2009 - Analysis - 1st round
Mathilde Goanec &Camille Magnard
5 years after the Orange Revolution that was the source of so much hope, the Ukrainians are voting to elect a new president on 17th January next. Most of the key candidates who ran in 2004 are running again in 2010, even though the balance of power has mainly been reversed. This election will take place under the control of hundreds of international observers and even before the voting has taken place accusations of electoral fraud are already being heard on the part of the main candidates against their rivals.
Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western champion turned pariah
With less than 5% of voting intentions in the most recent polls the outgoing President is paying the price for the disillusion caused by the "Orange years". During his term in office Viktor Yushchenko succeeded in irritating his European partners, he has disappointed the Ukrainian public opinion and failed to reform the country and fight against corruption. Above all he continually exasperated Russia and half of the Russian speaking Ukrainian population by undertaking nationalist policies deemed hostile in Moscow, notably with regard to the past and by actively continuing work to draw closer to NATO which does not seem to have the support of most of the population.
Viktor Yanukovich, the main favourite
He is leading the dance. The loser of 2004 seems to be the favourite in the polls for the election on 17th January next. His large frame, his perfectly styled hair and his decisive look compete on the billboards against his main rival Yulia Tymoshenko. Rapidly assimilated to the simple role of the "pro-Russian" candidate in 2004 Viktor Yanukovich is leading a low profile campaign by wiping out the irregularities from his former image. The head of the Party of Regions is now concentrating on rising beyond his traditional electorate by insisting less on the themes dear to his heart – the defence of the Russian language and drawing closer to Moscow. He is capitalizing on the lack of reform over the past few years (for which he is partly responsible since he was Prime Minister under Viktor Yushchenko in 2006) and the political chaos in which Ukraine finds itself at present. Many observers say however that he is being manipulated and is under the close control of his sponsors, the most important oligarchs, in the industrial area of Donbass and members of the Party of Regions.
Yulia Tymoshenko, emancipation
Yulia Tymoshenko who attempts to embody Ukraine in her campaign (with the omnipresent slogan "She works, she will win, she is Ukraine!") by mixing traditional Ukrainian models and Soviet imagery, is tackling this election in the uncomfortable position of head of government. She places all responsibility for the poor results of the Orange Revolution on her former ally turned rival Viktor Yushchenko and likes to present herself as the one who remains standing in the face of the joint attacks on the part of Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovich. Running second in the polls Yulia Tymoshenko is trying to rally a wide ranging electorate recruiting both on the Russian and Ukrainian speaking sides who are disappointed with Viktor Yushchenko. Also on an international level her position stands as a compromise, promoting pacified relations with the Russian neighbour notably with regard to the gas issue. She does not therefore appear to be in conflict with her rival Viktor Yanukovich with regard to the issues which were the focus 2004 campaign – i.e. relations with Russia and the need for emancipation towards the West. Both rather embody the post Orange Revolution period, the quest for a compromise both inside and outside of the Ukrainian borders.
The other candidates
Behind these 3 leading figures in Ukrainian politics are Arseni Yatseniuk, former Economy and Foreign Minister and ex-speaker in Parliament – Serguey Tigipko, a powerful businessman and former head of the Ukrainian national bank. Relatively young and not really discredited because of their former political functions they stand as "professionals" against "the politicians" – both are vying for the role of outsider even though they have little chance for the time being of really taking the post of President in January. Then come several well-known personalities in the political arena, Petro Symonenko, head of the Communist Party, Aleksander Moroz, Socialist Party, Volodymyr Lytvyn, present speaker in Parliament and young Oleg Tiahnibok from the far right party Svoboda who won some elections locally this year. The strangest of them cannot be forgotten, Vasil Protyvsikh literally "against everyone" in Ukrainian. This well-named personality whose real name his Humeniuk opportunely changed name on 2nd October, before starting off in the race for the presidency. In all, 18 candidates registered with the Central Electoral Commission which they had to pay 2.5 million hryvnia (218,000 €) as a registration fee.
The election stakes
The future president will have to manage a country that is literally on the verge of bankruptcy because Ukraine has been in financial and political crisis for many months. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the Ukrainian economy is in serious recession with an annual decline in its GDP of 15% whilst inflation has reached 16% in spite of a 7 billion € loan by the IMF over the last year. Exhausted the government even begged the financial institution to pay it over 1 billion extra € at the beginning of December, funds that are necessary to pay pensions and civil servants' wages not to mention its very heavy gas bill. But this was in vain. The IMF and the EU, Ukraine's main creditors do not want to pay one single kopek more without reform taking place. The approval of the 2010 budget that has been delayed on so many occasions will be voted on after the elections said Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko mid-December.
From a social point of view the result is hardly splendid: the minimum salary is limited to 53 € (in spite of the approval of a very controversial law on the raising of social minima this autumn, which has not been applied for the time being), whilst the average salary totals around 170 €. The emerging middle class has been the worst affected by the crisis, victim of the numerous loans taken out in foreign currency, which are impossible to reimburse in hryvnia. Many companies have dismissed workers or reduced working hours and do not intend to stop there, notably in the steel, chemical and construction industries and also in service companies. Imported products, of which there are a great number, have doubled in price and the real estate market, that was booming until the start of the crisis continues to decrease in value.
Without any or barely any reforms and the almost permanent blockage of Parliament the country has been in a state of breakdown from a political point of view since 2006. The Ukrainians have already had 2 general elections in 4 years and came close to the 3rd one last year after the dissolution of Parliament by the President but this was finally suspended. The institutional change which followed the Orange Revolution, which eroded the President's power, is proving to be extremely unsound and ineffective. Many experts believe that a change of Constitution and the redefinition of power must be one of the priorities of the next president.
Corruption remains omnipresent, notably in the judicial system and the country even sadly ranks first amongst the CIS States for its level of corruption according to the report by NGO Transparency International in 2009. These issues match expectations on the part of the population, as indicated by a study undertaken by the sociological institute of Kiev at the end of November across the country: those interviewed ask the future president to make it a priority to create jobs, reduce inflation and corruption and improve health services and bring back a certain amount of stability to Ukraine again.
A flat electoral campaign
Contrary to 2004 the Ukrainians do not seem to be expecting much of this new presidential election and are following the on-going campaign with a dispassionate eye. Far from the exuberance of the Orange Revolution the candidates are themselves undertaking a campaign void of passion and are struggling to mobilise the crowds, since the broken promises of 2004 have killed off the hope of better living conditions amongst many people. The race for the presidency in 2010 which reveals no strong ideological rift or definite political programme is mainly being played in terms of the candidates' image by means of an orgy of impressive advertising whether this is in the media or in the street. Ukrainian experts believe that the main candidates will have spent nearly 100 million € in communication expenses, sums which make a number of European leaders rather jealous. For the time being most of the serious runners, Viktor Yanukovich, Yulia Tymoshenko, Viktor Yushchenko and Arseni Yatseniuk are refusing to take part in any TV debates that have been planned on the leading national channel. Only scandals seem to be capable of livening up the lukewarm campaign: a paedophilia scandal involving MPs, candidates' accounts being brought up to date, vehement denunciation of how the Swine Flu epidemic has been used for political ends ... This has reached such a pitch that journalists were already pointing in the autumn to a "hard", "dirty" campaign in which manoeuvring on the sidelines superseded the politics.
An ideological turn-around?
The other obvious difference from the previous elections is the almost total obliteration of the pro-Western/pro-Russian rift which marked the Orange Revolution. The main candidates now carefully avoid overtly criticizing Moscow aware of the change in opinion on the part of some of the Ukrainian electorate but also on the part of the international community with regard to Russia. Viktor Yanukovich speaks of "deleting the negative part of the past few years to take up good relations with Russia again" whilst Yulia Tymoshenko regularly receives praise from the Kremlin for her leadership of the country, notably on gas issues. The Prime Minister seems to have learnt the lessons of the last 5 years of tense relations with Moscow which is still a regional economic and political partner Ukraine cannot turn its back on. Its repositioning also seems to show a certain amount of realism and electoral opportunism, since the presidential election can only be won by rallying beyond the over simplistic East-West differences of the Orange Revolution. Realignment towards the East by the main candidates also coincides with a kind of lassitude with regard to a European partner who categorically refuses to provide Ukraine with the guarantees it is expecting with regard to possible membership.
According to a TNS survey undertaken mid-December one third of voters have chosen Viktor Yanukovich. Yulia Tymoshenko follows 10 points behind the favourite and no other candidate rises beyond the 5% mark. However there has been a slight comeback for Viktor Yushchenko who entered the campaign much later than the others, probably due to a lack of funds. According to the same survey 20% of the electorate have not yet decided who their candidate will be or they will not turn out to vote. Political experts are forecasting that the election will be decided in central Ukraine (Dniepr region), which is more undecided and also in Western Ukraine whose electorate may sway over to the nationalist vote since they are rejecting their 2004 candidate Viktor Yushchenko.