Election Preview: Ukraine 2010
Ukraine holds the first round of presidential election today, January 17. These elections are important for the future of Ukraine’s political orientation and it may also hold important repercussions in the region.
The 2004 presidential election was closely disputed between Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych. While Yushchenko, a pro-Western and pro-European former Prime Minister led in the first round of voting, the pro-Russian Yanukovych led in the disputed and later voided first runoff. Following the ‘Orange Revolution’, after the colour of Yushchenko’s coalition, the Supreme Court annulled the results of the first runoff – universally known to be fraudulent (101% turnout in Yanukovych’s oblast) and ordered a second runoff to be held. Yushchenko won the second runoff and became President. His victory signaled an important setback for Putin in Moscow.
However, Yushchenko did not fulfill the hopes his voters had originally vested in him. Firstly, Yushchenko sparred with his original Prime Minister, the ambitious pro-Western Yulia Tymoshenko and later dismissed her. He dissolved Parliament twice, in 2006 and later in 2007 sparking a political crisis due to the dubious constitutionality of the dissolution. Furthermore, like most Ukrainian Presidents, Yushchenko was not able to fulfill his promises of all sorts. His very assertive and up-front style of governing, especially in his tough relations with parliamentarians, and his lack of results have resulted in his party and his popularity crumbling to levels between 10%.
Ukraine has been starkly divided between east and west for centuries, and independence has encouraged further polarization. The electoral results of 2004, 2006 and 2007 continued to reflect this polarization. In the east, historically part of the Russian Empire, a majority or at least a plurality of the population speaks Russian and a sizeable minority are actually ethnic Russians. These voters have always seen neighboring Russia as Ukraine’s obvious and natural ally economically and politically. To this region, rich in minerals (the Donetsk area is in the middle of a very large coalfield), can be added the Crimean peninsula. This region is even less ethnically Ukrainian (58% ethnically Russian), having been ceded to the Ukrainian SSR only in 1954. Attachment to Ukraine is extremely weak in this area: when 90% of Ukrainians voted for independence in 1991, only 54% of Crimeans voted in favour of independence. On the other hand is western Ukraine (including Galicia), historically influenced by Polish and part of Austria-Hungary until 1918. In Galicia, a sense of Ukrainian nationalism was developed under Austro-Hungarian rule (Vienna sought to prevent Moscow from gaining influence in this region) and was later the base of dissidents under the Soviet era. A large majority of voters here speak Ukrainian and there are a number of Greek Catholics in this area. Voters in western and central Ukraine have always tended to prefer moderate pro-Western parties and politicians. Yushchenko received over 90% of the vote in Galicia in the 2004 runoff(s).
The main candidates in today’s election are President Viktor Yushchenko, incumbent Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovych. Despite the fact that he’ll lose by the first round and likely fail to win more than 10% nationally, Yushchenko insists on being a candidate. However, the strength of the Orange movement has seemingly shifted to Yulia Tymoshenko and her party (Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko). The pro-Western movement in Ukraine has always been divided, but on the pro-Russian side, Yanukovych and his Party of Regions have affirmed themselves as the major option for the eastern Ukrainian voter. The Communist Party, which remains very hard-left, has been progressively sidelined since their heydays in the 1990s. The Socialists, which used to be hard-left as well, have also be sidelined and lost all seats in 2007.
Tymoshenko and Yanukovych are very likely to be the top-two candidates. However, two populist candidates have gathered significant steam. The first is Arseniy Yatsenyuk, former chairman of the Verkhovna Rada. He is generally centrist, leans to the west and supposedly supports political reforms. He had his peak in the summer, but has since come down to 6%. Sergei Tigipko had his surge later in the campaign, and he now polls around 15%. Tigipko is a businessman and former Governor of the Bank of Ukraine. He is a member of a small Labour Party, which supported Yanukovych in the 2004 campaign. Tigipko is generally leaning to the east, and criticized the Orange government’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Russia. The Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Volodymyr Lytvyn, leader of the Lytvyn Bloc and member of the Tymoshenko majority in the Parliament, is also candidate on a agrarian/populist platform.
Petro Symonenko, the nutcase leader of the Communist Party, who came second in the 1999 election but whose party has since fallen to around 4-6% of the vote, is candidate for a third consecutive time. His votes are concentrated nowadays in the mining region of Donetsk, and should likely flow to Yanukovych in a runoff. There are also a number of fringe candidates, a lot of them being crazy.
Exit polls show that Yanukovych has around 35-36% of the vote against around 25% for Tymoshenko. Tigipko has around 11-15%, Yatsenyuk around 5-7% and only 5% or so for President Yushchenko. Turnout is lower than in 2004, highlighting the popular discontent with politicians all across the board. Yanukovych remains unpopular, and so does the Orange movement.
Yanukovych leads by a large margin in the runoff polling because his voting base in the east is solidified, while the west is more divided (though still favours Tymoshenko) and undecided. The runoff will be closer than expected, but Yanukovych has an advantage there too after the perceived failure of the Yushchenko and pro-western administration. However, I have a hard time seeing how Yanukovych could win a runoff by an decisive margin in such a polarized country.