Barely a year remains to the first round of the next presidential election, which means that the heated phase of the election campaign is getting underway in Ukraine. This time, the race should be especially rough. For the first time in Ukrainian history, at least five candidates have about equal chances of making it into the run-off. The last poll published by KIIS at the end of March showed a significant rise in the ratings of populist politicians. In first place, as in all recent polls, is Yulia Tymoshenko with 24.6%. Oleh Liashko is in second place with 15.5%, and third is Anatoliy Hrytsenko with 12.5%. Both of their ratings have risen lately. President Poroshenko is currently only fourth with 9.8%, and close behind him are two pro-Russian claimants, Yuriy Boyko at 9.8% and Vadym Rabinovych at 9.5%. While Tymoshenko’s lead keeps growing steadily, the differences between the other five are within the margin of error.
Meanwhile, the Poroshenko team thought for the longest time that its main objective should be to prevent Tymoshenko from making it into the second round and to bring in a more convenient rival for the president. Now it’s facing a rather different challenge. If things continue as they are, Poroshenko himself might be the one who doesn’t make it into the run-off.
Slowly but inexorably, Tymoshenko has been building up her ratings and moving towards political gold, the presidency. Yet her ratings today are nothing like what she had 10 years ago, when Viktor Yanukovych and Party of the Regions were her rivals. But today her rivals are also not the same. Public confidence in the old political guard has fallen considerably, and no one new has come to replace them. Rumors about the presidential ambitions of popular rock musician Sviatoslav Vakarchuk so far remain just talk. And even if he did decide to run, his chances of winning are very poor. In order to win the presidential election, he would need a great team and an organization with reach across the entire country. Even the most honest and charismatic candidates cannot win the presidency by themselves.
This is where Yulia Tymoshenko is sitting pretty: her team and party are in excellent shape. Batkivshchyna has not only has viable branches in most oblasts, but factions in those oblast councils and in the municipal councils of large cities. This gives her both administrative “leverage” that, while it’s not on the level of Poroshenko’s, can still play a decisive role. All of Tymoshenko’s headquarters are already on combat alert. One year before Election Day, Batkivshchyna is actively engaged at the local level and is doing everything to ensure that its leader becomes Ukraine’s next president.
Tymoshenko herself has not changed her tactics and is in no hurry to increase her media presence. The same messages come from her lips on every channel, over and over again—unreasonably high utility rates, the thieving government, “impoverishment and genocide”—and so far this has been enough. Experienced Facebook users can laugh as much as they want at this primitive populism, but their votes are not the ones Tymoshenko’s team is counting on. Her rhetoric is aimed at completely different people: her target audience is pensioners and those approaching pensionable age with relatively low incomes. And Tymoshenko talks to them through the television set, not on social nets, which is why her approach is bringing results.
So far, all the best efforts of her rivals to knock Tymoshenko’s support down a peg or two have been without success. Nor have they been able to find anything especially incriminating against the leader of the pack, either. Over more than two decades in Ukrainian politics, Yulia Tymoshenko has managed to wriggle her way out of uncomfortable situations like a master and the latest scandal was no different. When the press began to report that Tymoshenko had paid Avenue Strategies Global LLC, a US lobbying firm belonging to one-time Trump advisor Barry Bennett, US $700,000 to provide “strategic consultations” and lobby its interests, she immediately dropped the American lobbyists. Although this kind of practice is common around the world and is not something criminal, Batkivshchyna swiftly declared that the US $700,000 was contributed by enemies of their leader on purpose to cause a scandal and that she herself knew nothing at all about such a “gift.”
“This is complete nonsense,” Batkivshchyna MP Ivan Krulko told journalists when the story came out. “Yulia Tymoshenko is being accused of all kinds of things. But a lot of rumors and myths are circulating about her that have no basis in reality. You shouldn’t take this kind of fake seriously. The closer we get to the election, who knows what people will come up with.” Meanwhile, Tymoshenko’s press service issued an open letter in which the Batkivshchyna leader officially notified the US company that its services were no longer needed.
“You know quite well that this contract was signed without my knowledge,” the letter stated. “Having looked at some of the details of the agreement, I must inform you that, under Ukrainian law, I don’t have the right to accept such an expensive gift. Once again, I’d like to thank you for your concern and inform you that it is impossible for me to work with Avenue Strategies, with whom a contract was sign in my interest, but without my knowledge or approval. Hoping for your understanding...”
An attempt to blow up a scandal over the alleged financing of Tymoshenko’s 2010 presidential run by Muammar Qaddafi proved equally ineffective. After this claim appeared in an Arabic paper, the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko (BPP) immediately tried to make hay out of it. MP Volodymyr Ariev, who was previously elected to the Rada on the Batkivshchyna ticket, wrote a request to NABU to confirm whether or not Tymoshenko had received money from Qaddafi. However, even if this financing did take place eight years ago, proving anything is almost impossible now. And it’s unlikely that it would have much of an impact even so. Voters have notoriously short memories and events from so long ago don’t interest Tymoshenko’s base. In the 2000s, Tymoshenko made mistakes on a much grander scale. Take the corrupt machinations in the coal industry, which Tymoshenko had entrusted to Natalia Korolevska. Still, even these unpleasant episodes have been wiped clean from the memories of Batkivshchyna supporters.
The current Administration has far more problems on its hands than Tymoshenko right now. Given Poroshenko’s low ratings, Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko and Premier Volodymyr Groysman might even consider the challenge. The KIIS poll showed that Groysman has more than 4% support already and by next winter, he could well pull up to the incumbent. If either Groysman or Klitschko decide to run, Petro Poroshenko’s chances of a victory will go down substantially.
What’s more, Poroshenko’s relations with Narodny Front (NF) are also falling apart. Talks about joining forces in the current coalition prior to the election have reached a dead end. And now rumors are circulating within BPP that the coalition partners could wrong-foot the president. According to insiders, NF leaders Arsen Avakov and Arseniy Yatseniuk are talking with Tymoshenko about supporting her candidacy. Both were previously on her team and part of her political bloc. Indeed, at one point Yatseniuk led the faction in her place while she was in jail. However, the only thing that the NF team might offer the most popular Ukrainian politician is more administrative leverage during the election. After all, the MIA oversees order at election polls, which means that, for Tymoshenko, Avakov is a very valuable ally. Other than this, NF is unlikely to represent much value for Tymoshenko, as the party’s ratings are nothing to brag about.
If nothing changes prior to the elections, and the chances of this are shrinking rapidly, Yulia Tymoshenko will most likely win. Time is in her favor. With every month, the current Administration can see its ratings sink, and so far the Poroshenko has not been able to reverse this trend. The only thing that might improve the standings of the team in power might be a major breakthrough closer to the finish line. So far, there’s little evidence of this kind of breakthrough and their opponents have plenty of reason to justly criticize the current government.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj