"I will run for the presidency of Ukraine," the nation's two-time former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on June 20. "The presidential post for me is not a game, these are real changes that the country is waiting for."
The iconic face of the Orange revolution crowned with her distinctive Ukrainian blond braid wrapped around her head has come back from the political dead. Tymoshenko is the first politician in the war-torn country to officially announce the launch of a campaign for the 2019 presidential elections.
Posters have gone up along roads. Political ads are being run on TV. She has even appeared in a cooking show as she takes her message to the people a little over nine months ahead of the vote.
Moreover, the head of the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party is starting her campaign as the leader in the opinion polls. However, her return to the top table of Ukrainian politics has not been easy.
In February 2014, immediately after ex-president Viktor Yanukovych escaped from Kyiv in the wake of Euromaidan protests, Tymoshenko was freed from jail, where she had been put by her political Nemesis and left languishing for three years on alleged abuse of power charges for a gas import agreement she signed with Russia as the nation's prime minister.
A few hours after being released from prison, the politician was addressing crowds of anti-Yanukovych protesters in downtown Kyiv from a wheelchair because of sever back problems, which were the result of a lack of access to quality medical assistance in prison.
The crowd were receptive. They were happy to see her out of jail. But they were lukewarm in their enthusiasm. It seemed that her time had passed. The people supported her and her partner former president Viktor Yushchenko during the Orange revolution in 2004-2005, but now the people wanted fresh faces; a new start. Tymoshenko had already become part of the country's political old guard.
This mood was confirmed later that year, when Tymoshenko was beaten by another bitter political rival, Petro Poroshenko, in the first round of the presidential elections, in which she secured less than 13% of the popular vote. During snap parliamentary elections in late October 2014, Tymoshenko’s party barely scraped over the 5% threshold required to secure representation in the Verkhovna Rada.
Populism to the rescue
Still it seems that populist rhetoric can apparently work miracles with political ratings and Tymoshenko is a master of the barbed jibe and an appeal to the people’s gut feelings. In recent years, the braided rabble-rouser and other members of her party have used every opportunity to denounce unpopular measures implemented by the government, as part of their promises to the nation's main donor, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other backers. And the IMF has proven a rich vein of issues for Tymoshenko to mine.
In April, Tymoshenko promised to reduce utility tariffs for households, and to write off utility debts for poor people "immediately after coming to power". "In order to pay for them, people will soon have to sell their kidneys," she added.
If she made good on this promise that would be in direct contradiction to the government’s IMF commitment to raise domestic gas prices to market levels – something even Poroshenko’s government has baulked at thanks to the high political cost. Poroshenko promised to carry out the hike, put all the laws in place and then at the last minute as winter started failed to implement it fully.
In late 2017, when the country's parliament was discussing the extension of the country’s land moratorium, Tymoshenko urged lawmakers that "you can sell the land only if there are peasants who have money to buy it, and not a mafia that has money to buy everything from the peasants."
This is another item on the IMF’s wish list. The fund is insisting that land sales are deregulated and a market for land created that should unleash Ukraine’s massive agricultural potential. Experts estimate that if land sales were allowed some $1.5bn-$2bn of investment would immediately flow into Ukraine’s best sector. However, for Tymoshenko the “they are literally selling off our motherland” line was a political gift that she made full use of.
And it goes on. On pension reform – which was eventually passed in an IMF compliant form -- Tymoshenko described the government’s refusal to index pensions and salaries as “financial genocide”.
The last big issue is the creation of an anti-corruption court (ACC). This time it is the IMF that has stuck its heels in and de facto frozen Ukraine’s badly needed $17.5bn stand by programme until the court is created in a form the fund is happy with. A law setting up the ACC was passed in June, but a clause that allows appeals to be heard in regular (aka corrupt) courts has gut the effectiveness of the ACC system and the IMF is insisting the offending clause be removed.
The price that Poroshenko has had to pay for his constant fencing with the IMF and his efforts to get the fund to soften its politically expensive demands is that it created an opening into which Tymoshenko has gleefully leapt.
Tymoshenko is now the most popular candidate for the nation's president, with 22.8% support among decided voters, according to the latest poll conducted this month by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS). She is followed by former defence minister Anatoliy Grytsenko (16%), populist Oleh Lyashko (13.2%), pro-Russian opposition leader Yuriy Boyko (10.6%) and Petro Poroshenko (10.5%).
"Tymoshenko is popular because she is campaigning hard," Balazs Jarabik, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells bne IntelliNews.
KIIS poll asked respondents who would they vote for given one or two choices and who they would never vote for under any circumstances.
According to him, the ex-premier is covering all the available media space, tapping into anxiety about austerity and anger with, specifically, the continuous impunity of the elites. "The latter is more important even though corruption is highlighted by the polls," Jarabik added.
"She is also successful because there are no 'new faces' with the necessary name recognition in a big country like Ukraine, so she is able to channel part of the votes of those dissatisfied," the expert added. "At the same time, her high level of negative rating - connected to the political baggage she carries - limits her chances and keeps the presidential race wide open."
The remarkable thing about the polls is that despite Poroshenko’s obvious failure that satisfies no one -- not the IMF nor the voters as no one is getting what they want – none of the other candidates have been able to rally the citizens behind their flag.
Another poll from the Sofia Center of Sociological Research in March found that only 1.7% of respondents support the state institutions, while a massive 78.8% either partly or completely don’t support the state bodies.
No viable alternative leader has emerged from this morass. Ukrainian voters dislike all their political leaders. Even Tymoshenko’s lead in the polls is sullied: not only does she have the most support, she is also second only to Poroshenko in the “never support under any circumstances” category. That is the paradox of Ukrainian politics: Tymoshenko is at the same time the most popular and the second most hated politician in the country.
Reasons to be worried
If Tymoshenko wins she will find herself in the same predicament. Tymoshenko's popularism means she unsettles the likes of the IMF and other donors, which have helped Ukraine to overcome the economic and financial crisis of 2014-2015, as well as the consequences of Russia's annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas region.
"Naturally, donors offer a low-key response to Ukrainian politicians’ attempts to formulate their programmes beyond the IMF framework, alluding to the refinancing of external debts," Alexander Valchyshen, head of research at Kyiv-based brokerage Investment Capital Ukraine (ICU), tells bne IntelliNews. "This raises the question of an ultimate lender in foreign currency if the private lending market should be closed."
Meanwhile, a lawmaker from Tymoshenko's parliamentary faction, Alexei Ryabchyn, argues that Batkivschyna's leader, a two-time prime minister of Ukraine, "is perfectly well aware of the way to deal with the IMF while including the national interests of the state."
"The IMF focuses on a balanced budget, which depends on the professionalism of the government team," Ryabchyn tells bne IntelliNews. "As of today, it is a challenge, because following a 15% slump, the economy has been growing at a modest pace of 2-3%. The government has made a mess of transparent privatization and de-offshorization of the economy; there is significant capacity with respect to the intensification of the fight against corruption within the customs and tax authorities."
The lawmaker adds that unfortunately, there is no way of doing without the IMF now, but the main rule for the interaction with the IMF is to do without the IMF as soon as possible, meaning an operational economy that is self-reliant without external borrowing. "Building such an economic model is what Tymoshenko will be aiming at," Ryabchyn underlines.
In search of 'new faces'
Meanwhile, political populism has its limits in today's Ukraine. While Poroshenko is increasingly looking like a lame duck as the elections loom – assuming that the ballot is free and fair, which remains a big if – despite her lead in the polls now, it is highly unlikely she will win enough votes to win in the first round and the stigma of “old school” elite she carries will come back to bite her in a second round run off.
According to the latest opinion polls, Tymoshenko would be ultimately defeated in the second round by Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, frontman of the nation's iconic rock group Okean Elzy, as well as Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comic who plays the role of a spoof president in a televised show.
“I would question whether Vakarchuk really wants to run. This is a huge effort with a lot of strings attached and I am not sure he is ready for it”, Jarabik says.
"For Zelensky this is a show, he has nothing to lose even though he would not succeed to gather enough votes," the expert added. "I have my doubts about his success, as so far there is no sign of a serious campaign; he has no team, no programme or even political opinions. Even though he has the potential to be a Ukrainian Beppe Grillo, he does not resemble his early days because of the lack of seriousness."
With additional reporting by Ben Aris in Berlin