The dark horse presidential candidacy of comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy is gaining momentum, according to results released on March 5 in the latest poll conducted by the Rating Sociological Group. Among those that have already decided to vote, 25.1% will cast their ballot for Zelenskiy, compared to 16.6% for President Petro Poroshenko and 16.2% for ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
The fight is becoming dirty as the two incumbent politicians try to see off the challenge from the newcomer. Tymoshenko has accused Poroshenko of treason and started impeachment proceedings at the end of February, after the son of a business associate of the president got caught up in an arms smuggling scandal. And all the oligarchs have been using their media holdings to back their preferred candidates.
However, Zelenskiy has managed to stay above the fray and will win in any scenario in the second round vote, if no one wins 50% or more in the first round. The comic would win 42% of votes in the second round runoff, compared to 24% for Poroshenko. Zelenskiy would earn 37% if his runoff opponent is Tymoshenko, who would earn 24%.
The poll was conducted between February 19 and 28 among 2,500 respondents and gives Zelenskiy a larger lead than the previous poll by Rating, which indicated a smaller lead for Zelenskiy.
“In order for Poroshenko to be re-elected, he will need to damage Zelenskiy’s image among the public in the next several weeks. However, his ability to do this is rather limited given that any financial machinations are tiny in comparison to what is alleged of the president. If Zelenskiy maintains this lead in the polls for the next two months, which we believe is likely, then it will be too large for Poroshenko to manipulate the vote in order to claim victory. Nor will he be able to delay establishing the official vote results under any manufactured pretext,” Zenon Zawada of Concorde Capital said in a note.
Increasingly the campaign has become a slugfest between Tymoshenko and Poroshenko as they concede that Zelenskiy is too far ahead to be caught with only three weeks to go.
Tymoshenko has been focusing her attacks on Poroshenko because her campaign has likely accepted that Zelenskiy will qualify for the runoff. But unfortunately for her, Poroshenko has enough control of state resources to be able to ensure for himself a second-place finish to qualify for the runoff. And she has limited ability to protest any possible manipulations.
To underscore how rough and ready democracy in Ukraine is, the Zelenskiy camp claimed they had found wire taps in their campaign offices.
Zelenskiy also revealed more policy plan details in a TV interview on March 1. He said he would work to stop the killings in the war in Donbas immediately and renew negotiations outside the formats of the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk and the Normandy Four, which are no longer effective. He said that negotiation with Russia is “inevitable,” but gave no more details on who he believed he could end the war in the east.
Zelenskiy wants to change the format to the Budapest Memorandum format involving Russian, American and British diplomats. On his campaign’s Facebook page on March 3, Zelenskiy said he is also drafting a new law on illegal enrichment that will fully meet Western requirements, vowing that one presidential candidate in particular will go to prison. He was likely referring to Poroshenko.
The interview was broadcast on the 1+1 television network, which also broadcast his “Servant of the People” series that cast him in the role of an honest history teacher who unexpectedly becomes president.
The 1+1 network is controlled by Igor Kolomoisky, with whom Zelenskiy was shown to have indirect business ties related to the distribution of his entertainment programs.
Zelenskiy was implicated in a scam to move funds out of the failed PrivatBank, that used to belong to Kolomoisky and it is claimed that the comic received $41mn in the deal. There have also been rumours that Zelenskiy intends to return PrivatBank to Kolomoisky if he wins, despite the $5bn of public funds that were pumped into PrivatBank as part of its rescue.
The same broadcast also featured presidential contender Tymoshenko, who has often appeared on the 1+1 network too. In a BBC news report broadcast on March 4, Zelenskiy denied being Kolomoisky’s “puppet”. In his turn, Kolomoisky said his support for Zelenskiy isn’t motivated by revenge against Poroshenko. “For me, Zelenskiy is not a personality. He is a certain symbol. A symbol of a change in generations. Ukraine needs not one Zelenskiy, but millions of Zelenskiys,” the oligarch said.
The national police confirmed on March 4 that it found elements of wiretap devices at a building neighbouring the headquarters of the Zelenskiy campaign earlier that day, reports Concorde Capital.
Campaign employees found a box with wires in a corridor and informed police. When they arrived, a security guard said he saw unknown individuals install the apparatus. “This device can’t be acquired on the Internet at a bazaar. It is sold only to those who engage in investigative activities that have a license issued by the Security Service of Ukraine,” said MP Anton Gerashchenko on his pravda.com.ua blog, where he often reveals confidential information from law enforcement sources. In response, the SBU – already alleged to be fulfilling the orders of the Poroshenko campaign – released a statement acknowledging that it owns the devices but denied using them to spy on the Zelenskiy campaign.
“Zelenskiy is continuing to pursue his campaign strategy of targeting the president for criticism and merely playing off his scandals and mistakes, which are surfacing on a daily basis. The strategy is working brilliantly so far. At the same time, he is continuing to keep his election promises to a minimum, merely declaring positions that are universally appealing and reasonable to fulfill,” Zawada said.
“The wiretapping is another example of the president’s opponents playing the role of being politically persecuted to their advantage, regardless of the verity of the claims. We believe it’s possible the president’s campaign had employed SBU agents to wiretap the Zelenskiy campaign headquarters. Moreover, evidence continues to surface of the president using his control of the SBU to intimidate campaign opponents. But playing the role of the persecuted underdog has always been an effective strategy in Ukrainian elections,” Zawada added.