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The election season has opened in Ukraine ahead of crucial parliamentary and presidential elections slated for next year, and the field is wide open in what should be the second truly democratic elections in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991; the first free and (largely) fair elections were also in Ukraine in 2010 when Yulia Tymoshenko narrowly lost to Viktor Yanukovych.
However, as bne IntelliNews has already reported, the situation is messy. According to the latest polls Tymoshenko is out in front with about a 17.8% approval rating and her Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party is also leading comfortably in the parliamentary polls. But she doesn't dominate. The presidential race will almost certainly go to a second round and the parliament will be fragmented with seven parties able to cross the 5% of the vote threshold needed to get seats at the moment leaving a fissiparous legislator that will need to build coalitions to get anything done.
The other key candidate is President Petro Poroshenko who is doing badly in the polls with a circa 8% approval rating. That makes it possible Poroshenko will be in the run off against Tymoshenko for the president’s job, but it is not a given as several other candidates also have around 8%.
Still, it seems likely that Poroshenko will come at least second in the first round as despite Ukraine’s desire to turn to the west and adopt European values, it retains a largely unreformed post-Soviet system. Despite promises to sell off his business interests Poroshenko retains direct control of TV5 and this week added two new members to the Central Election Committee in a move to “stack the committee in his favour,” according to analysts at Concorde Capital. Likewise the government announced last week that the minimum wage will be increased in the new year and it is making a big show of holding back the worst of the domestic gas tariff hikes the IMF has been insisting on. The president is likely to make the full use of his “administrative resources” to ensure he does well at the polls.
While the west is hoping this election will be run on largely democratic lines, backroom deals with the oligarchs will be a definitive factor in the results. Between them they control almost all the TV stations, have ample cash to finance election campaigns and have direct control (to varying degrees) over many of the political parties in the field. Ukrainian politics remains an elitist game, as highlighted by the dearth of candidates from outside the established order.
Tymoshenko is an out and out popularist who will say anything she thinks will get her elected. At the 15th Annual Meeting of the Yalta European Strategy (YES) organised by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation last week she called for reforms to get the country back on its feet, until the moderator pointed out that her fraction has voted the most heavily against nearly all the IMF-sponsored reforms. Prior to that she called for the cabinet to resign if they put though the domestic gas tariff increases, despite the fact that Ukraine would also certainly face a renewed currency crisis if tariffs are not raised, as that would prevent the next $1.9bn IMF tranche being released.
More interesting still is how the also-rans will align. Several of these are openly pro-Russia and if the Opposition Bloc, For Life! and the Radical Party form a coalition in the opposition they could steer Ukraine in a new direction, one not so committed to Europe and the IMF and more accomodating to Russia. With a pragmatic and cash-hungry Tymoshenko as president the way for compromise and deals with the Kremlin becomes open. Clearly Russian President Vladimir Putin is not even trying to make friends with Poroshenko any more and simply waiting for a change of guard in Kyiv. That also suggests the pro-Russian political parties can count on substantial (although presumably covert) help from the Kremlin.
bne IntelliNews’ Sergei Kuznetsov takes a look at who’s who in the race
Pro-EU; pro-Nato; vulnerable to criticism over contacts with the Kremlin as Ukraine’s premier
Possible alliances during the 2019 parliamentary elections
Any party except pro-Russian Opposition Block and For Life!
The nation's two-time former prime minister and head of the Batkivshchyna parliamentary faction, Tymoshenko has increased her lead in the polls in the race for the presidency ahead of next year’s vote, according to the latest surveys, and is twice as popular than her closest rival. However, she is also one of the most polarising figures in the race and those that don't like her say they won’t vote for her under any circumstances, which makes winning a second round run off harder.
Tymoshenko was the first politician in the war-torn country to officially announce the launch of a campaign for the 2019 presidential elections and Kyiv is already blanketed with her promotional posters.
A noted popularist, over the past years, Tymoshenko has used every opportunity to denounce unpopular measures implemented by the government. She has condemned many of the measures forced on the Ukraine by the IMF as part of its $17.5bn support deal.
In late August, Tymoshenko said that she does not plan to unite with other political forces or support other candidates during the presidential election, underlining that she does not intend to "take responsibility for other politicians."
She enjoys cordial relations with Russia: as prime minister in 2006 she negotiated the post Orange Revolution gas deal that became such a bone of contention later when gas prices soared.
Pro-EU; pro-Nato; pro-US; anti-Kremlin
The incumbent President Petro Poroshenko’s antipathy towards Batkivshchyna leader Tymoshenko goes way back.
According to a classified cable sent by the US ambassador in Ukraine, John Herbst, to Washington in 2006, Poroshenko "is clearly sparing no effort to pay [Tymoshenko] back for publicly tarring him as corrupt during the September 2005 struggle that led to Tymoshenko’s ouster as prime minister and Poroshenko’s resignation as NSDC [National Security and Defence council] secretary".
According to the same document, published by WikiLeaks, Ukraine’s interior minister at the time told Herbst that he had been ordered by the prosecutor general, then a close ally of Poroshenko, to arrest Oleksandr Turchynov and Andriy Kozhemyakin, senior politicians in the Tymoshenko Bloc, for "illegally destroying the SBU security service files on the January  gas deal with Russia and on organised crime figure Semion Mogilevich", who is on the list of the FBI’s 10 most wanted.
Poroshenko has dragged his feet on implementing many of the IMF programme demands, all of which are politically painful. He agreed to an increase in domestic gas tariffs in 2017 but reneged on the promise as that year’s heating season began. He has fiercely resisted the passage of the Anti-Corruption Court legislation, and attempted to water the first version of the law down when it was forced on him by the IMF. He has placed his own people in key government jobs and in particular controls the General Prospector’s Office.
Despite promises to sell his various businesses or put them into trust he has maintained control of them – including the TV5 broadcaster, which, however, is among least influential TV channels in Ukraine.
In September, Poroshenko said that Kyiv knows who the Kremlin want to see in the second round of the 2019 presidential elections. “Thank God, my name is not there [in the Kremlin's plans]," Poroshenko added during the YES annual meeting.
Poroshenko claims it is known that on the basis of the "fifth column" Russia wants to form a powerful pro-Russian opposition in the new Ukrainian parliament, "and, if they are lucky, make it a participant with the right of veto for European and Euro-Atlantic integration."
Like Tymoshenko, Poroshenko is a polarising figure and ranks high in the “won’t vote for him under any circumstances” polls, making him vulnerable to defeat by a more genuine candidate in a second round vote.
Yuri Boyko (aka Boiko)
pro-Russia; backed by the Kremlin
Possible alliances during the 2019 parliamentary elections:
The pro-Russian Opposition Bloc faction head Yuri Boyko is among the top five politicians in public opinion surveys.
According to online outlet Ukrainska Pravda, Serhiy Lyovochkin, a businessman and former chief of staff under ex-president Viktor Yanukovych, seeks to nominate Boyko as a single candidate from the Opposition Bloc.
Serhiy Leshchenko, a lawmaker from Poroshenko’s faction, said earlier that investigators from the Prosecutor General’s Office had prepared an appeal about three years ago, suspecting Boyko of participating in a criminal organisation that ran fraudulent schemes involving the liquefied natural gas projects of notorious Ukrainian gas oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko. However, heads of the prosecutor’s office have allegedly refused to sign the appeal and file it with parliament.
Meanwhile, local political experts believe that Lyovochkin needs to secure support for Boyko's candidature from the nation's largest oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who partly controls the Opposition Bloc, if he's to have a chance.
On the top of that, Lyovochkin needs to prevent Vadim Rabinovich, a populist pro-Russian politician, from participating in the 2019 election campaign.
Pro-EU; pro-Nato; vulnerable to criticism over alleged corruption with as Ukraine’s defence minister
Hrytsenko is a former defence minister (from 2005 to 2007), who, despite his high ratings, is very vulnerable to criticism and possible corruption accusations.
The politician was one of the defence ministers under whose watch the Ukrainian army suffered catastrophic decline, leaving it unable to stop Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, the Kyiv Post wrote in August.
In 2014, the Prosecutor General’s Office launched several criminal investigations against top defence ministry officials allegedly involved in selling off UAH1.8bn worth of weapons between 2004 and 2015. The biggest sale allegedly took place during the time Hrytsenko was defence minister in 2005-2007, prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko’s spokeswoman Larysa Sargan claimed in 2016.
Hrytsenko denies any wrongdoing and claims that accusations are an attempt by Poroshenko’s circle to destroy a political rival.
In September, the politician said that he does not see “any competitive pretender that can beat me in the sound round vote". "I see the main opponents are disappointment, not readiness to vote and lack of trust and believe in our people,” he added during the 15th YES conference.
Hrytsenko added that Civil Position’s main priorities are rights and freedoms of humans, their property rights, market competition, and no monopolism by oligarchs.
Pro-Russian; anti-IMF; populist politician
Rabinovych, a former businessman and the incumbent lawmaker in the nation's parliament from the Opposition Bloc, heads the For Life! political party. He took part in the 2014 presidential election as a self-nominated candidate but received only 2.25% of the vote.
The politician has won a reputation of being a populist due to his bitter criticism of the former governor of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) Valeria Gontareva, and the IMF.
In January, he attacked the IMF, saying that "we deforest our lands because of IMF dictates, we are destroying our health and killing pensioners" because of Western pressure. He also suggested that Ukraine should not pay back IMF loans, and claimed that some European countries "are looking at us like predators", according to Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor-in-chief of the UkraineWorld civic non-government initiative.
pro-EU; pro-US; anti-IMF; populist politician
Oleh Liashko, populist leader of the Radical Party, also often comes out with strong anti-NBU and anti-IMF rhetoric. Meanwhile, the fact that oligarch Akhmetov's media empire actively spreads Liashko's messages across the country points at the fact that the billionaire supports Liashko as a political figure.
The Radical Party parliamentary faction announced its exit from the ruling coalition in September 2015, following Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna and the pro-Western Samopomich faction headed by Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi.
Pro-EU; pro-Nato; pro-US; Reform-minded non-politician
Sviatoslav Vakarchuk is the dark horse in the race and the frontman of Ukraine's iconic rock group Okean Elzy. Vakarchuk is already one of the most popular non-politicians in the country. He recently released a song hinting at a possible run for the presidential post in next year’s elections, but has yet to confirm his intent to run.
On September 15 he added that he is not going to tolerate the situation, when a couple of generations of Ukrainian politicians “steal”.
According to opinion polls, Tymoshenko would be ultimately defeated in the second round by Vakarchuk if he were to run in the poll.
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