For five years Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent Ukrainian president projected the self-confidence of a statesman on a mission. After mobilising the military to resist Russia’s approaches on the eastern and southern borders, he has kept Ukraine safe without getting sucked into a major war.
He has improved the country’s relations with the West by signing the EU Association Agreement; getting the visa-free travel regime with the European Union, and redefining Ukraine’s collaboration with NATO. He ensured that the recently formed Orthodox Church of Ukraine has been granted independence, marking a historic split from the Russian Church. His country looks stronger and more independent today than the one he inherited in 2014.
Historians may still judge him by this statecraft, but the voters who came to vote during the presidential elections on 31 March did not. Hence, the unease Poroshenko is showing in recent days as it seems likely that he will lose the presidential election to Volodymyr Zelensky, a showman with no political background, but who is leading this pack of two into the 21 April second round with a double-digit lead over Poroshenko from the first round.
This has become Zelensky’s contest to lose as it seems unlikely that Ukrainians will change their minds about Poroshenko in the next few weeks. On Poroshenko’s watch, they have seen Ukraine become more divided, where anyone opposing him is portrayed as an enemy. Not to mention the fact, that accusations of him and his allies being involved in corrupt schemes became a fluent fixture on TV shows as well as in the national and international papers.
When he came to power in 2014 his robust pro-Ukrainian speeches contributed to the election victory, which made him the President and struck a remarkable contrast with his predecessors. His supporters, which include many in the Ukrainian diaspora abroad, today see him as an indispensable statesman who has achieved remarkable things for Ukraine — most notably, in standing up to Russia—while keeping the world’s concerns about Ukraine’s conflict on the front pages of the international papers.
The opponents recognize all that. But besides charges of corruption, they provide another powerful line of attack – the system of politics under Poroshenko has not really changed after the revolution of 2014. They claim, in fact, that he has fully embraced the tactics that have come to define the old brand of Ukrainian politics. Most of the foreign observers tend to agree. More unfortunately for the incumbent, most of the country’s voters seem to think so as well.
The implications of Zelensky’s win would be quite significant. Today’s Ukraine has to tackle two major issues: war and poverty. Neither Poroshenko nor Zelensky has developed a solid economic platform before the election. Neither candidate offered any viable alternative to the war other than making some non-specific promises. Neither of them faced a true ideological opposition – just a group of vaguely patriotic parties defined by little more than the personalities of their leaders, their dislike of Poroshenko, and a general anti-corruption rhetoric.
The second round among the front-runners features no candidate from the camp associated with democracy and the anti-corruption agenda championed by post-revolution forces. For all the bold pronouncements made after the revolution, that diverse, eclectic movement has produced many NGOs, but no real and lasting liberal ideology or defensible political structure.
It has failed to unite as one camp behind a dynamic, charismatic, credible, pro-Western politician. Its power is diluted by the sheer number of groups running their own separate campaigns and, internally, many of them are not managed democratically either. For many of them, any resistance is a reactive state of mind as many have set their sights too low restricting their vision to the next election cycle, leading them to forget the ultimate purpose of winning and changing the country.
Leaving that camp far behind in the first round, Zelensky offered Ukrainian voters a new entertaining personality, while promising red skies over paradise along the lines of his popular TV show. He has also lured some from the liberal camp to join him, thus splitting their camp. The electorate has responded by throwing their support behind him and propelling him into the second round with a commanding lead.
Zelensky’s victory would bring tectonic changes to the Ukrainian political landscape which is defined not as much by any particular ideology as it is by personal connections. These loyalties will be challenged by the new gravitational forces. Western diplomats will struggle to understand what the new president stands for and will be looking for early clues in the upcoming team and advisors’ appointments, as well as their emerging narratives.
The Ukrainian diaspora abroad, often holding their outdated views of Ukraine, and the nationalists at home will find Zelensky’s eagerness to use the Russian language in public life quite unsettling. Some will be concerned that this, together with his business interests in Russia, may translate into more accepting policies towards Moscow. Many will also be concerned that the inexperienced Zelensky will fail in navigating through the messy relationship with Russia.
I am concerned that Zelensky’s election will represent a surge in politics that lacks substance and is driven by a need for constant entertainment. The Ukrainian nation still has yet to become a multicultural, multiethnic, multi-faith, egalitarian democracy, and I am afraid that Zelensky’s likely victory will not offer the answer.
In this, Ukrainian voters have the most to lose; soon they will find out that there is no red sky, and the joy of being entertained by their principal politician does not really make them any wealthier.
Against this backdrop, the liberal camp has few reasons to celebrate. Their “united” candidate, Anatoly Grytsenko, received less than 7%. I define a liberal democrat as someone who aspires to safeguard a fair, free, and open society in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, private property, equality, and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty and ignorance.
By this standard, most Ukrainians are leaning to be liberal. It is just that in Ukraine, as a movement, this camp is too weak and disorganised, and its representatives are too selfish and narcissistic to translate these simple ideas into the political mainstream in a coherent way.
This is a time of reckoning for those of us who are committed to the radical evolution of Ukrainian democracy. The time has come to take this loss more seriously. This camp needs to step up and its old leaders should step out. The groups should unite, select a leader or leaders – most likely even strangers to Ukrainian politics, as long as those leaders are honest, principled, and courageous.
Together, they should run for parliament as well as for state and local offices, win important posts, combat the corruption that cripples Ukraine, appoint new judges, and do things that demonstrate that this new liberal class is ready to take full responsibility for the future of their country.
Otherwise, as a class, they will become perennial losers, just like some of their candidates in this last presidential election; and their voters will be supporting someone else, even if this someone lacks any substance beyond the entertainment factor.