(Co-authored with Tatyana Malyarenko. Originally published in The Conversation.)
The presidential elections in Ukraine on May 25 were meant to offer the country the beginning of a way out of a protracted crisis. Some of the signs were quite positive. Presidential candidates were stressing the need for unity and dialogue. Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, a powerful tycoon based in eastern Ukraine, took a strong public stance against the separatists there. An OSCE election observer mission has been put in place. And Russian president, Vladimir Putin promised to recognise the results and (yet again) withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine’s borders.
In one sense, expectations of a new beginning for Ukraine, were thus indeed not unreasonable. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed unlikely that any elections could be held at all. Russia had annexed Crimea and massed some 40,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern border, while well-armed separatists gained control in parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and held a referendum there in the hope to follow in Crimea’s path.
Unrest spread further across Ukraine, including to Odessa where dozens of people were killed following violent clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian demonstrators. Even the week immediately before the elections saw high levels of violence, with numerous casualties as a result of clashes between Ukrainian security forces and separatists.
Exit polls suggest a clear victory lead for “chocolate king” Petro Poroshenko with 56% of the vote – leaving former prime minister, Yulia Timoshenko (13%), in his wake. If these numbers are confirmed, Poroshenko has cleared the 50% threshold required to win the election outright without the need for a run-off poll.
Mandate is unclear
Yet, the question is what difference this will make to Ukraine and Ukrainians. Poroshenko, popular though he may be at the moment because the general disillusionment that voters feel with the current political elite in Kiev, does not have his own political party – and neither has he so far articulated a clear vision for the future, a plan for reform or a set of policies to bring Ukraine out of its current crisis. It will be difficult for him to manage the deeply fractious political process in light of a deepening economic crisis and the continuing spectre of intensifying civil war.
The difficulties he faces in trying to deliver on Ukrainians’ expectations for real and sustainable change are further compounded by the current constitution, under which most power is vested in the parliament where Poroshenko has yet to build a support base. This may change by the end of the year, but only if he manages to build a strong network of local political support across Ukraine ahead of new parliamentary elections and if he can sustain his current popularity.
The other big challenge for whoever is eventually declared the winner in the presidential elections is the situation in eastern Ukraine. One immediate issue will be the new president’s legitimacy. Regardless of the endorsement of elections by the OSCE, EU, US, and even Russia, the winning candidate is unlikely to have received any votes in Ukraine’s eastern flashpoints. The central government did not manage to distribute ballot papers in Donetsk, Lukhansk and many other cities of eastern Ukraine.
The country’s central electoral commission formally allowed members of local electoral commissions in eastern Ukraine to stay home. While this may be a reasonable step given the security situation there and threats by separatists to disrupt any attempts to hold a vote, it also puts a question mark to Kiev’s willingness to engage with the east.
Moreover, it gives tactical advantages to most candidates, except Tihipko who would most likely have received support from the electorate in the eastern regions. The de-facto exclusion of around 15% of the population from the presidential elections will inevitably play into the hands of those seeking to justify further separation of the east from the rest of Ukraine. Local separatist elites and their presumptive supporters in Moscow will sooner or later question the legitimacy of the elections and their outcome.
Yet, much like the elite in Kiev, it is unclear whether local elites in the east have any clear plan for their next moves. As Moscow seems, at present, reluctant to incorporate the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, one would expect the separatists to engage in building something that resembles state institutions or parallel structures in the areas under their control. But they do not and merely seem to roam across the two regions and create instability.
This may work as a short-term strategy to position themselves for an eventual bargaining process among Ukrainian oligarchs over the re-distribution of the really big and attractive “cake” left behind by ousted president, Victor Yanukovych. This cake remains attractive to powerful players in Russia as well – and it remains to be seen whether they will seek to realise and protect their interests by stabilising or de-stabilising the current situation in Ukraine.