Ukraine’s Presidential Election: Key Candidates and Key Questions

Anna Korbut breaks down the leading contenders for Ukraine’s presidency and the questions voters need to be asking.

Expert comment Updated 8 September 2023 Published 7 March 2019 3 minute READ

Anna Korbut

Former Academy Associate, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Candidate billboards in Kyiv. Photo: Getty Images.

Candidate billboards in Kyiv. Photo: Getty Images.

Ukraine’s post-Maidan political arrangement has delivered on some transformations but proved disappointing on others. Regardless of who wins the presidential polls, which begin on 31 March, tough questions should be asked about the viability of campaign promises, the provenance of candidates’ funding and the influence of vested interests.

A central element in the current political environment is a conflict between voters’ expectations and frustrations with their current situation and the need for Ukraine to transform into a resilient and better-off country. Resistance from a mix of powerful interest groups, as well as Russia’s aggressive stance and record of meddling in elections, aggravate this clash.

The leading candidates

There are over 40 candidates for president but realistically, the choice has narrowed down to three leading options.

Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent president, is running on a platform framed around state-building and stability, resistance to Russia, integration with the West and the record of what Ukraine has accomplished since the Maidan, mostly in building a strong national identity.

Some of his far-fetched promises include Ukraine’s application to join the EU and NATO by 2023. Reform accomplishments have come at a cost, especially for average Ukrainians. What’s worse, people associated with President Poroshenko have featured in many corruption scandals.

In the latest one, investigative journalists revealed a scam whereby a group led by the son of Oleh Hladkovsky, first deputy secretary of the National Defence and Security Council appointed by Poroshenko, bought defective parts for military equipment from Russia at inflated prices and pocketed the margin. The scandal is likely to deal a serious blow to Poroshenko’s campaign just a month ahead of the election.

Yulia Tymoshenko, ex-premier and the leader of Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), offers an overhaul of everything, from the constitution to the way Ukraine will work with international partners to approach the conflict with Russia.

When it comes to explaining how exactly she will implement the promises, inconsistencies arise. For example, Ukraine has no law on referendums, since the Constitutional Court ruled a 2012 law governing them unconstitutional. So how exactly would Tymoshenko run a referendum, as she is promising, to change Ukraine into the parliamentary republic if elected president?

There are many more: Tymoshenko pledges to halve utility prices for households while keeping Ukraine’s cooperation with the IMF running; cut taxes while increasing public spending; and liberalize the energy market while making sure that domestic gas production covers the needs of households, to name a few.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy builds his campaign around the idea of people power and contrasts himself with the political establishment, coating this in a smart media campaign.

His election promises include a mechanism whereby ‘the people of Ukraine will shape the key tasks for the government through referenda and other forms of direct democracy’, as well as popularly elected justices of the peace to deal with ‘simple disputes’. He has a list of changes for many other areas, from taxation to pension insurance to the abolition of immunity for politicians.

The big questions

While they reflect what voters and activists complain about, these tactics raise some serious questions.

Firstly, what will the candidates do, step by step, to implement such unrealistic promises?

For now, neither Tymoshenko nor Zelenskyy have provided any credible explanation of how they would deliver institutional transformation of the judiciary, taxation or energy, or proceed to break up monopolies and regional fiefs. In their recent rhetoric, both candidates promised to put Poroshenko in jail after the election for corruption in wartime. However, it is the courts, not the president, that would make such decisions.

All have pledged to ensure the establishment of an independent High Anti-Corruption Court to complement two other agencies in the fight against top-level corruption. But they have yet to explain how they would clean up other levels of the judicial system, or to turn the fight against corruption from an election slogan into an institutionalized framework.

Secondly, how will the candidates deliver on their promises without having the powers to do so?

What both Tymoshenko and Zelenskyy pledge to do goes far beyond the president’s portfolio. This means that the candidates are de facto running for a majority in the legislature, the Verkhovna Rada.

Ukraine’s parliament does need a serious renewal. But none of the current candidates seem likely to receive an overwhelming majority in the October 2019 parliamentary election. The next Verkhovna Rada is likely to be more fragmented, and any winning party will have to build a coalition.

Finally, how are the candidates funding their campaigns?

Tymoshenko and Zelenskyy promote themselves as a better alternative to the incumbent. But Tymoshenko’s party statements reveal a pattern of dodgy donations and Zelenskyy’s offices are sprouting across the country without a clear source of funding. It would serve his image well to report on this campaign infrastructure, especially as oligarchs begin to give him rhetorical support and allegations surface of money transfers between the accounts of PryvatBank and Kvartal 95, Zelenskyy’s comedy show.

A dismal campaign

Ukraine needs politicians that could marry the expectations of voters to the harsh reality of changes the country must go through over the next few years. Instead, the campaign is being driven by reckless criticism of the incumbent president, personality cults and populism. While delivering quick electoral gains, these tactics promise neither strategic thinking nor the ‘new’ politics the country needs.

Also read: Ukraine’s Presidential Election: Six Things You Should Know