The meaning of Ukraine’s presidential election

EPA-EFE//STEPAN FRANKO

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky walks to the presidential office following his inauguration in Kyiv, 20 May 2019. Zelensky defeated his political rival, the incumbent former President Petro Poroshenko, during a second round run-off on 21 April that saw the former win an unprecedented 74% of the vote.

The meaning of Ukraine’s presidential election


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It would be both disingenuous and inaccurate to interpret the election simply as a protest vote. The presidential election in Ukraine was a “change” election in the strictest sense of its democratic meaning.

This must be seen as a new and distinct chapter in the continuing narrative of Ukrainian society’s desire to return to its instinctual European philosophical and political orientation that was flagrantly interrupted by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, generational Communist rule, and its malignant offspring – the corrupt oligarchic rule that has strangled Ukraine in its post-independence years.

Ukraine fundamentally affirmed its national, sovereign, and independent uniqueness in the post-Soviet space with this election.

The Euromaidan Revolution of 2014 was a rebellious protest against the governing practice of the last hundred years and not a political revolution in the strict sense of the word. It was a revolution of dignity, an existential desire by society to reject the lingering Marxist-Leninist values of the last century and the legacy of state capture that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and replace it with a worldview where individual ambition and aspiration, with respect towards fundamental human rights, would take precedence over statist or feudal oligarchic rule.

In a general sense, Poroshenko lost the election because he neither established nor employed a commonality of a shared language between his government and the electorate that was both inspired and rooted in a shared agreement on values that had been profoundly proclaimed during the events on the Maidan more than half a decade ago.

Poroshenko’s failure of courage and his inability – along with the entirety of his generation of politicians, oligarchs, and bureaucratic toadies as well as their foreign advisors and paid lobbyists – to both transcend and reject the values and criminal aspects of an ancién regime that was no longer palpable for the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian citizens was the main cause of his historically massive defeat.

Though some have already argued that more changes occurred during his term in office than at any time since independence, he failed to change the fundamentals.

Poroshenko lost because he failed to deliver on his promises to change society and to rid Ukraine of nearly three decades of corruption and to establish the efficacy of the rule of law in daily life.

The record must show that during his tenure, not one governing official was legally held responsible nor imprisoned for the murders on the Maidan. Not one oligarch from the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych regime was imprisoned and not a single corrupt official from Poroshenko’s own administration was every formally investigated for corruption. Grandiose promises were made but were never fulfilled.

As one lady selling flowers said in downtown Kyiv weeks before the election, “He had his chance, it’s time for someone else”.

With a failed and deeply entrenched corrupt political class still in place, the electorate yet again affirmed the political mandate for the country, just as they did during the Maidan rebellion, by electing new leadership and a new generation of politician in the form of the 41-year-old Zelensky.

Ukrainians want the creation of an economic environment that would act as a foundation for economic growth which would raise their daily standard of living. They are more than aware that the quest for economic opportunity and justice continues to be stifled because of corruption and the absence of the equal application of the rule of law. Put rather simply, Ukrainians, many working arduous hours, are just plain sick of being poor.

They want to see the establishment of a free society inspired by fairness and social equality. They demand a new order and reality that is founded upon rules-based criteria. They want to experience daily order that is founded on the rule of law and which guarantees individual safety.

They have an expectation that the role of government is to serve the people and not clannish self-interest. They demand that oligarchs be relieved of their power over daily societal life. They want peace and a re-energising of efforts to break the imposed stalemate with the war with Russia.

Put most simply, they want their children to have the opportunity to earn a decent living and for them to stay in the country of their birth. By some estimates, over 2 million young people have left Ukraine since the Maidan because they feel that they cannot earn an adequate living according to their talent and ambition.

Such desires are not “populist”, but the authentic desires of a politically astute and engaged populace whose expectations are the same as in any free democratic country.

The election of Zelensky was not prognosticated by any of the so-called ‘political experts’ – either domestic or the class of Kyiv-centric foreign transients who continue to frame events through outdated, biased, and historically uninformed matrixes that are often clothed in a condescending elitism – and who, when upon leaving, authoritatively pontificate in Western capitals as if they actually know what is really going on in the country.

They all missed the depth of aspiration of Ukrainians to change the trajectory of their history and become democratic Europeans.

The presidential election was only the latest example of how the people of Ukraine are attempting to transform their country into a civil society based on the rule of law. The electors of Ukraine have spoken in a clear and concise voice, a declaration that exerted its power in establishing a modern democratic mandate with the potential to frame a new narrative for Ukraine.

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