MOSCOW, March 27. /TASS/. Ukrainians on Sunday, March 31 will go to the polls to vote in a presidential election. TASS FACTBOX offers a review of profiles of four front-runners in the race.
PEACE CANDIDATE YURI BOIKO
The opposition’s Yuri Boiko, of the Opposition Platform - For Life party, is in the top five Ukrainian presidential candidates. Committed to the idea of restoring peace to Donbass and mending relations with Russia, he will certainly gain a firmer foothold ahead of parliamentary elections and in a sense will not be regarded a presidential election loser whatever the outcome.
Boiko, 60, is a professional in his line of business and a noticeable figure on the country’s political and economic landscape, in particular, the energy industry. In the early 2000s he led the oil and gas company Naftogaz, and in 2006 he was the fuel and energy minister in the Viktor Yanukovich-led government. He held this position several times during his career. In December 2012, he took the deputy prime minister’s seat and in September 2014 took over the Opposition Bloc and a same-name faction in the Ukrainian parliament.
Several months before the forthcoming presidential election the Opposition Bloc split up. Boiko and the leader of the party For Life, Vadim Rabinovich, teamed up to create a new political association called Opposition Platform - For Life. After the unification Rabinovich gave up his intention to run for president, so Boiko became the opposition’s common candidate. The leader of the public movement Ukrainian Choice - the Right of the People, Viktor Medvedchuk, was made the chief of the party’s political council.
According to the latest opinion poll carried out by the pollster Rating, Boiko holds fourth line on the popularity list: 10.2% of the electorate are ready to vote for him on March 31. Theoretically the sociologists see no chances Boiko may enter the runoff.
Why are the chances so slim?
Ukrainian political analyst Andrei Zolotaryov told TASS Boiko’s chances to attain victory on March 31 were meager. "Although he positions himself as a steady, robust and fundamental critic of the authorities, this opposition politician is not a charismatic figure, which is well-seen in his popularity rating," Zolotaryov said. "Contesting 4th or 5th place in a presidential election is certainly not a task worthy of a candidate some would like to see a common candidate from the country’s southeast," he added.
What can help Boiko?
However adverse the factors he has to contend with, Boiko should not be written off altogether. In fact, he is the sole presidential candidate who has a realistic plan for Donbass settlement. In the meantime, according to opinion polls the crisis there is the Ukrainians’ worst concern.
The other day Boiko voiced the certainty that the presidential election in Ukraine would eventually promote the disengagement of conflicting parties in Donbass. "The change of power will pave a quicker and more effective way of disengaging the forces and establishing a zone of stability and security in Donbass," he said.
Boiko’s election program is addressed first and foremost to the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine and the people who support their ideas. At the same time, Boiko points out that he is for the country’s integrity and urges the "citizens of Ukraine to choose not an ideology but concrete proposals for changes to the system of running the economy, to self-government and, eventually, to the system of interaction with the world."
Among other guidelines for bolstering national unity he identified the language issue. "Two state languages - Ukrainian and Russian - will serve as a prerequisite of equality of our rights matching the European and North American standards," Boiko’s election program says.
Main victory way ahead
Even if Boiko fails to enter the presidential election runoff, this will certainly not put an end to his political career. On the contrary, it may herald another step towards new highs. Political scientist Ruslan Bortnik believes the "blue-and-white" politicians (representing mostly the interests of southern and eastern Ukraine) are holding an equivalent of primaries.
YULIA TIMOSHENKO, THE GODMOTHER OF UKRAINIAN POLITICS
Yulia Timoshenko is the leader of the Batkivshchina party, who has been in politics for about 20 years. The year 2019 for her will most likely be the last chance of becoming president. A charismatic and effective image, a new program and vast political experience are her trump cards in competition with the main rivals.
One and half weeks before the presidential election Timoshenko was firmly among the election race front-runners. According to the latest findings by the pollster Rating she may well count on the votes of 18.8% of the electorate. According to the same poll, in a hypothetical runoff Timoshenko would cede victory to Vladimir Zelensky - 22% against 35%, while her chances in the second round against the incumbent, Pyotr Poroshenko, look more preferable - 28% against 19%.
Race of a lifetime
Timoshenko’s 20-year-long road into high politics can be broken down into four stages, says Bortnik. In the first phase, when she found her feet as a politician, Timoshenko worked together with Ukraine’s former prime minister, Pavel Lazarenko. "In those years 1994-1998 Timoshenko, at first a petty motor fuel trader, matured to the chief of a budget committee and architect of a vertically integrated business called United Energy Systems of Ukraine with a multi-billion-dollar budget," Bortnik said.
The second stage is related with the personality of Viktor Yushchenko, who eventually became president. "This long phase began in 1999, when Timoshenko had already risen to the top tier of Ukrainian politics to take the seat of a deputy prime minister for the fuel and energy complex and create her own faction in parliament. She was one of the key figures in the Yushchenko government.
During Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency she was Ukraine’s prime minister twice (in 2005 and in 2007-2010 and invariably remained a mainstream politician.
"It was then that she in fact earned the status of the godmother of Ukrainian politics. The number of top level politicians who made their way into big politics through the Batkivshchina party is unprecedented," Bortnik explained.
In the third phase Timoshenko’s career went downhill. "The era of the Viktor Yanukovich presidency began on a high note. She lost the 2010 election by a very narrow margin. Life had a prison term in store for her. A certain emotional setback followed," Bortnik believes. During the Yanukovich presidency Timoshenko spent three years behind bars. Then she faded into the background and kept a low profile in Ukrainian politics up to the events of 2014.
"But for the Maidan, she would’ve served her seven-year prison term to the last day to never stage a comeback. When the Maidan set her free, Timoshenko tried to rise from the ashes like the phoenix bird. The fourth period in Timoshenko’s career - the post-Maidan one - is still continuing. The past few years saw her attempts to get back into big politics. "Timoshenko is obsessed with the idea of becoming Ukraine’s president. She has been not very successful so far, but there is a possibility the third attempt will work," Bortnik speculates.
Timoshenko’s New Deal for Ukraine
Timoshenko’s election platform, entitled New Deal for Ukraine, identifies five guidelines: New Peace and Security Strategy, New Constitution, New Economic Strategy, New Social Doctrine and New Youth Policy.
Some Ukrainian experts believe that the Batkivschina leader’s program has a number of advantages in contrast to the election pledges of other presidential candidates. "The program’s key distinguishing feature is it is systemic. Timoshenko suggests building a new machinery and re-establishing the country as a republic. It will have a new constitution and rely on a new social contract," Ukrainian political scientist Mikhail Chaplyga has told TASS.
In one of her election speeches Timoshenko mentioned the idea of introducing the post of Ukraine’s chancellor. If she emerges the winner, he speculated, "we will most probably see this idea materialize." The official title of the post may be different, he added.
"Chancellor is a working name. The gist of the idea is to eliminate the duality of power, established under Leonid Kuchma, when the prime minister was formally vested with executive powers, but the very same powers belonged to the president, too. Voting for this or that political force in a parliamentary election would be tantamount to voting for the head of the executive branch," Chaplyga explained.
Whose support Timoshenko can count on
The core of Timoshenko’s electorate are pre-retirement age female voters, experts believe. They are Ukraine’s most active voters, which largely explains Batkivshchina’s high popularity ratings. "Female voters above the middle age resident in rural communities and small towns constitute the backbone of her electorate. It is this group that Timoshenko’s social rhetoric, invariably critical of the president, is addressed to. She is trying to voice the very same ideas and messages the women of her age share with each other," Ukrainian political scientist Yelena Dyachenko told TASS.
Clue to success
A combination of these factors - career growth, team, election platform and correct choice of the electorate, as well as charisma and taste - has enabled Timoshenko to become one of the key contenders for the presidency. "The clue to her success is that she is fanatically obsessed with what she is doing - politics. In this sense politics does not spell money. True, she has always been a well-off person, but money for her has remained an instrument of power struggle, and not the other way round. Timoshenko is one of Ukraine’s few ‘refined’ politicians for whom power is above everything else - above money, life and the family. She has had to sacrifice a great deal for its sake, and that’s the root cause of her charisma," says Bortnik.
Timoshenko has been in politics for about 20 years, except for the years spent in prison.
"She still remains a certain benchmark for the Ukrainian political elite. In a sense, Timoshenko is an embodiment of Ukrainian politics," Bortnik concluded. She is determined to attain victory, but at the same time she said that she would be prepared to step down, if she failed as the head of state.
"I can tell you quite seriously that if after one hundred days in office I am unable to show you some obvious results, I will just stand up and go. That’s the kind of guarantees I can offer you today," Timoshenko promised.
VLADIMIR ZELENSKY, FRONT-RUNNER DARK HORSE
On December 31, 2018, in the last minutes of the outgoing year Ukraine learned that actor, showman, comedian, film director, producer and script writer Vladimir Zelensky had decided to join the presidential election race. He broke the news on the 1+1 TV channel belonging to big business tycoon Igor Kolomoisky and declared his decision to compete with Ukraine’s political heavyweights.
Rise to artistic fame. Family
Vladimir Zelensky, 41, was born in Krivoi Rog, a major industrial city in Ukraine. He graduated from a local school and the Economics Institute, where he studied law. As he confessed himself once, he never worked as a professional lawyer. Creative activity, acting and theater stage as a platform for communication with the audience predetermined his life for many years ahead.
Zelensky has been married since 2003. He and his wife Yelena are rearing two children - daughter Alexandra, 14 and son Kirill, 6.
Comedian’s popular election program
From the very first minutes of his election campaign Zelensky has tried to maintain a direct dialogue with the average man in the street. He created a special website to invite one and all to express opinion of the country’s most acute problems that should be reflected in his election platform.
At a certain point the chief of Zelensky’s election team, Ivan Bakanov, said that in reality preparations for the election had begun a long time ago.
"Nobody had the suspicion that Zelensky had a program when he was filing his application at the Central Election Commission. Vladimir had worked on it himself at least for seven months without telling anybody," Bakanov told BBC News Ukraine.
In the preamble, Zelensky described his vision of a "dream country" he would like to build in a very ironic way: "It’ll be a country where salutes are fired only at wedding and birthday parties, where the status of untouchables is enjoyed only by relic trees in the Carpathian mountains, and not legislators, and where elderly women get decent pensions, and not heart attacks at the sight of utility bills."
Zelensky the President would initiate legislation cancelling the immunity of the president, legislators and judges and the adoption of a law on the impeachment of the head of state.
Peace in Ukraine and the return of uncontrolled territories and more active steps by the signatories to the Budapest memorandum for the sake of achieving this are his priorities. Ukraine will keep moving towards accession to NATO, but this process must be legitimated and the people asked to express their opinion in a referendum first. Zelensky is for Ukraine’s accession to the European Union and friendship with the IMF.
In particular, he declared his intention to stay in office for only one term in order to change the system for the sake of the future.
Unusual electioneering tactics
Zelensky’s presidential campaign is proceeding contrary to the universally established customs and templates. All other candidates do their utmost to spend as much time on TV as they can, to participate in various talk shows and to use broadcasts as a means to woo the electorate. Zelensky has been doing precisely the opposite.
During his election campaign he has been on the air only once via Skype and gave only one long interview on television. Candidate Z Team’s electioneering clips can be seen only on some television channels. Some experts have drawn parallels with US President Donald Trump’s campaign - the minimum resources are employed for the sake of driving the message home in the most effective way.
"The opponents have been contemptuously referring to Zelensky as a clown, but he has turned this into a flash mob where everybody was saying that the real clowns in politics are his opponents. In this way he turned his weakness into strength," says the chief of political programs at the Ukrainian Institute of the Future, Yuri Romanenko.
Source of strength
Many pundits remain curious about the reasons for the comedian’s success, stunning by Ukrainian standards. When the first detailed popularity ratings were published in the middle of January, it turned out that Zelensky was comfortably ahead of all rivals.
He is an easily recognizable personality. He does not have to explain each time who he is. The lack of a political background is another indisputable pro. Zelensky has never been involved in politics, while the demand for new personalities in Ukrainian politics is high. Also, Zelensky is young and a good example of how one can achieve success without being an offspring of a high-ranking official or big business tycoon. The leader of the Z Team has the best anti-rating level. According to the pollster Rating it is at a tiny 13%, while nearly a quarter of the Ukrainian voters who have made up their mind will be ready to support him.
Spin doctors and political experts are saying in chorus that he who has the lowest anti-rating, and not the highest rating, is usually slated to win Ukrainian elections.
Chances for victory still hazy
On the other hand, the lack of political experience may have a dual effect on the elections. Some will quite reasonably interpret this as a shortcoming. Also, it should be born in mind that Zelensky, who has not served in the army, would have to perform the functions of the commander in chief, chair the National Security and Defense Council and bear personal responsibility for national security.
The lack of a team is another flaw of his election strategy.
"We plan to present the key people by the end of the runoff, if we get there. We will not try to cheat the people. We will name the key five," Zelensky said at a meeting with business associations in Kiev. "There will be ten weeks to spare before the term of office begins to recruit the rest. I believe we will manage to find the people we need."
In other words, Zelensky hopes he will be able to deal with the problems step by step, as they come. But in politics one must have strategic vision for years ahead.
Also, Zelensky is commonly see as a creature of oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. Many suspect that he is not a truly independent candidate and eventually will be just a figurehead, while real power and the center of decision-making will be in the hands of the oligarch and his partners.
According to different opinion polls, up to 40% of the comedian’s supporters are young people under 35 years of age. The experience of previous campaigns shows that the younger the electorate, the less disciplined it is in terms of expressing the civic position. In other terms, there is a great risk young people will not bother to go to the polling stations to find other ways to enjoy themselves on a Sunday.
POROSHENKO IN POLITICS: NO PRINCIPLES, ONLY BUSINESS
Over the more than twenty years of his political career Ukraine’s incumbent president Pyotr Poroshenko has changed ideological views and political allies many a time. Only his business remained his sole and invariable concern. Poroshenko is one of Ukraine’s richest people and he keeps steadily building up his wealth at any cost. According to the list of Ukraine’s 100 richest people published by the Novoye Vremya media resource, Poroshenko in 2018 was the last in the top six tycoons with a personal wealth of 1.1 billion. According to Poroshenko’s declaration his wealth had grown twelve-fold.
When he took over as Ukraine’s president in 2014, Poroshenko remained his usual self.
"He still uses the same tactics he has employed in business all along. He saw the country as a large corporation operating under his command and yielding stable and hefty profits," the director of the Institute of Ukrainian Politics, Kost Bondarenko told TASS.
The director of the Center of Political Studies and Conflictology in Kiev, Mikhail Pogrebinsky, agrees.
"Poroshenko is a purely business personality. As a politician he focuses most of his efforts on retaining influence for the sake of building up his financial wealth," Pogrebinsky told TASS. "He spends most of his time not on politics (except for the election campaign) but on his private affairs."
As a matter of fact he ignored the demand for quitting business. At the moment he remains the owner of tens of companies - directly or indirectly.
Roshen corporation is Poroshenko’s main asset. Also, he controls the International Investment Bank, machine-building corporation Bogdan, mass media outlets ( Channel 5 and TV Channel Pryamoi), a shipbuilding plant, insurance companies, fitness center 5th element and a number of other businesses.
Poroshenko’s business empire is not confined to his own companies.
"He is involved in each big business in Ukraine - from the energy industry to retail trade," says Bortnik.
In running his business empire the president stops at nothing and shows the highest degree of cynicism towards his people and social obligations.
"Poroshenko’s distinguishing feature is the ability to pursue his aims. He is determined and defies any impediments: ethical, economic, or social," says the analyst. This flexibility and unscrupulousness largely determined his entire political career.
As Ukraine plunged into civil war in 2014, an early presidential election had to be called in a hasty way. Poroshenko’s pledges were For New Life, Donbass War to End in Hours and Keep the Country United.
Bondarenko points out that Poroshenko had always followed the Machiavellian rule "Winning maters. If you win, people will judge the methods used as appropriate." "This explains well why not a single pledge made in 2014 has materialized. At the end of the fifth year of Poroshenko’s presidency hostilities in the country are continuing and a number of Donbass territories remain beyond Kiev’s control.
And Bortnik says that Poroshenko has not only put an end to the war in Donbass, but started its active phase. "It is his fault that a local, fragmentary conflict in Donbass has developed into large-scale war in the region’s territory."
US influence is the root cause why Poroshenko walked back on his election pledges. Poroshenko rose to power, because Washington patronized him as the most loyal candidate, says Pogrebinsky.
"The United States knew about his corruption and foreign accounts, so it was clear it would be easy to keep him under control and follow all instructions he would get," he stressed. So it happened. Immediately after his rise to power Poroshenko started pushing ahead with harsh anti-Russian policies being dictated to him from Washington.
Corruption and poverty
In the first days of his presidency Poroshenko vowed to crack down on corruption and even initiated creation of several anti-corruption watchdogs. Very soon it became clear, though, that in reality the shadow economy grew several-fold. The economic crisis in the country dealt a hard blow on the population. Wages and salaries are meager, while the prices the Ukrainian households have to pay are European and have been steadily growing for the past few years. The government says rising tariffs are one of the main demands of the International Monetary Fund, which have to be complied with. Otherwise the country will face the risk of default.
No chance for honest re-election
Poroshenko decided to run for a second term in a situation where about 78% of Ukrainians are critical of his presidency and more than half declare they will not vote for him under any circumstance. In a situation where popular support is disastrously low and the election campaign looks doomed to fail Poroshenko has to use dirty election tricks and influence opinion polls.
Bondarenko says some pollsters tend to add several percentage points to Poroshenko’s rating and to take away as many from his main rivals.
Poroshenko’s election tour of Ukrainian regions has been very unsuccessful. Any attempts by the people to ask him questions are firmly prevented. The feeling of aggression and anger in society keeps growing with every passing day. Very few Ukrainians today believe the sincerity of his promises and slogans. "True, Poroshenko may get into the second term of office through the back door, but the public legitimacy of such a president will be equal to zero," says Zolotaryov.