An American’s Guide to the Ukrainian Presidential Election

A pool of candidates want to unite the country with Sunday’s vote, but separatists are making it extremely difficult.

A woman cleans a poling station in a village near the eastern Ukrainian town of Velyka Novosilka on May 22, 2014,
National Journal
Marina Koren
May 23, 2014, 8:25 a.m.

It has been a long five months in Ukraine, and you’ve prob­ably heard a lot about it. Its pres­id­ent was ous­ted after vi­ol­ent street protests, Rus­sia took over an en­tire chunk of its ter­rit­ory, and sep­ar­at­ist groups have wreaked hav­oc in its cit­ies to the east.

On Sunday, all of this in­stabil­ity will serve as the back­drop for something that re­quires max­im­um co­oper­a­tion: a massive, pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

About 36 mil­lion Ukrain­i­ans are eli­gible to vote in the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, which was sched­uled to take place on March 29 be­fore the up­ris­ing that drove Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych out and es­tab­lished an in­ter­im gov­ern­ment in Feb­ru­ary. The win­ner will serve a five-year term — and help de­cide the fu­ture of the frac­tured coun­try.

Here are the ba­sics you need to know for Sunday’s wa­ter­shed event.

Weeks of pres­id­en­tial de­bates wrapped up Fri­day.

There are 23 can­did­ates in total, 21 of whom agreed to par­ti­cip­ate in a series of tele­vised de­bates this month. One can­did­ate, whose cam­paign is fin­anced by the richest man in Ukraine, has had his as­sets frozen by Switzer­land over his role in the Ukraine crisis. Many are run­ning as in­de­pend­ents, in­clud­ing one who re­cently sat down with Na­tion­al Journ­al. You can read that in­ter­view here.

A poll of 6,200 Ukrain­i­ans re­leased Tues­day put bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man Petro Poroshen­ko in the lead with 54 per­cent of the vote. Poroshen­ko, nick­named the “chocol­ate king” for his chain of con­fec­tion­ary shops, was the only ol­ig­arch in the coun­try to im­me­di­ately voice his sup­port for the up­ris­ing when it first began in Novem­ber, long be­fore Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych fled the coun­try.

Former Ukrain­i­an Prime Min­is­ter Yulia Ty­moshen­ko is a dis­tant second, at 10 per­cent of the vote. A pop­u­lar politi­cian known for her trade­mark hair braid, Ty­moshen­ko was re­leased from pris­on in Feb­ru­ary after serving two and a half years for ab­use of of­fice, but she hasn’t been able to re­vive her base. Banker Ser­hiy Ti­gip­ko, an in­de­pend­ent, is in third place with 9 per­cent. His sup­port is strongest in the mainly Rus­si­an-speak­ing parts of east­ern Ukraine, where, he says, Kiev’s in­ter­im lead­ers have mis­handled sep­ar­at­ist re­bel­lions.

Most of the can­did­ates stand united in their cam­paign rhet­or­ic. They have been highly crit­ic­al of the in­ter­im Kiev au­thor­it­ies, and say that res­ist­ing fur­ther Rus­si­an in­ter­ven­tion and fix­ing the Ukrain­i­an eco­nomy are top pri­or­it­ies. If no can­did­ate re­ceives an ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity in the first round of vot­ing on Sunday, an­oth­er round with the two highest polling can­did­ates will take place on June 15.

Re­gion­al re­bel­lions are cre­at­ing ma­jor prob­lems for a smooth elec­tion.

The good news is that can­did­ates have cam­paigned with min­im­al in­ter­fer­ence from sep­ar­at­ists, and there have been few form­al com­plaints about elec­tion law vi­ol­a­tions or in­tim­id­a­tion of voters, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic In­sti­tute. The bad news is that sev­er­al pres­id­ents and vice pres­id­ents of loc­al elec­tions com­mis­sions have been ab­duc­ted, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions, and their captors are un­known. 

The east­ern re­gions of Don­etsk and Luhansk have been taken over by pro-Rus­si­an sep­ar­at­ists in re­cent weeks, and they are re­fus­ing to co­oper­ate with loc­al au­thor­it­ies and lead­ers. Kiev has at­temp­ted to re­gain con­trol, lead­ing to bloody clashes. If the re­bel­lion dis­rupts elec­tion pro­ceed­ings there — as ex­pec­ted — as many as 2 mil­lion people could be de­prived of their right to vote, ac­cord­ing to Ukraine’s elect­or­al com­mis­sion.

And Kiev’s in­ter­im lead­ers can’t do much about that.

“We clearly re­cog­nize that on the vast ter­rit­ory of the Don­etsk and Luhansk re­gions there is no way to hold elec­tions in a nor­mal way,” Ukraine’s In­teri­or Min­is­ter Ar­sen Avakov said Monday.

But they’re go­ing to try.

Kiev politi­cians have been meet­ing and co­ordin­at­ing with re­gion­al groups in the lead-up to the elec­tion. About 1,000 elec­tion ob­serv­ers from the Or­gan­iz­a­tion for Se­cur­ity and Co­oper­a­tion in Europe have been dis­patched throughout the coun­try to keep an eye on the ground. More than 55,700 po­lice of­ficers and 20,000 vo­lun­teers have been tasked to keep the peace on polling day.

Mean­while, Rus­sia is watch­ing and wait­ing.

Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin keeps say­ing that the 40,000 Rus­si­an troops sta­tioned along­side Ukraine’s bor­der are pulling back, while the White House and NATO keep say­ing there is no proof of that. On Fri­day, Putin said that he would re­spect the out­come of Sunday’s elec­tion, but the rhet­or­ic from oth­er Rus­si­an of­fi­cials has sug­ges­ted that Mo­scow may back­track on that prom­ise.

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