Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and a former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his; view more opinions on CNN.
Europe is bracing for one expensive, long and exhausting election. A record number of 39 candidates are gunning for the top spot in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential elections Sunday.
Ukrainian voters will be greeted with a mesmerizing docket in the voting booth: a dermatologist, a trained spy, a former tax chief on trial over corruption, a self-proclaimed Cossack military commander of Ukraine, an anchorwoman, a comedian and a few filthy rich oligarchs. To round out the ballot is Illia Kyva, criminally convicted of bribery (but later granted amnesty) and who has a penchant for homophobic posts on Facebook and posting his naked muscular torso on Instagram.
Also remarkable is that there are three, rather than the usual two front-runners: the dinosaurs – known as the “chocolate king” (incumbent President Petro Poroshenko) and the “gas princess” (former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko) – and a professional comedian (Volodymyr Zelenskiy) are in a heated race to advance to the second-round runoff April 21.
About the only professions missing are a priest and yoga instructor – though some candidates are prone to stretching the truth and would probably claim some sort of divine powers given to them by the Heavenly Father.
Entry into Ukraine’s election campaign doesn’t come cheap for the average wage earner: A $90,000 nonrefundable down payment is required, leading to speculation as to how some of the dark-horse candidates managed to pony up. Some are believed to be “technical candidates” – politicians supported by oligarchs to drain votes away from opponents.
Questions aside on whether any of the candidates are presidential material, the colorful lineup, accentuated by spectacular campaign rallies, might come as a temporary relief for an electorate weary of five years of war with Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine’s occupied Donbas region – a conflict that has claimed an estimated 12,800 to 13,000 lives and displaced more than 1.5 million Ukrainians. The weariness extends to being deceived by the political elite of Ukraine since independence in 1991.
But, more importantly, Sunday might be seen by voters as a chance to install someone new who can deliver on the promise of the 2013/2014 Euromaidan revolution to eradicate corruption from daily life. So endemic is corruption that Transparency International has ranked Ukraine almost on par with Mali and Liberia – at 120 among 180 countries rated for perceived levels of public-sector corruption.
It isn’t just the scale of corrupt schemes but also the nauseating sense of impunity exhibited by many of their perpetrators. So much so that millions of Ukrainians have been voting on Ukraine’s future with their feet: At least 1.3 million have left to work abroad since 2015-2017.
Aside from the incumbent Poroshenko, one of the most recognizable faces to international audiences – especially for her trademark braids and sharp tongue – is Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister. The millionaire former gas princess has risen from political purgatory to become a presidential front-runner. She has come tantalizingly close to making the second round by promising cuts on utility prices, especially for households feeling the pain of a nearly 25% hike in natural gas prices in 2016. This is a winning strategy considering the average Ukrainian survives on a monthly salary of about $348 and pensioners on less than half of that. But there’s a risk that either she or Poroshenko would refuse to accept a loss, deny the results and mobilize supporters into the streets, given their personalities, as one Oxford Analytica contributor put it in a recent conference call.
While polls in Ukraine are notoriously unreliable, several have placed Zelenskiy ahead of his closest rivals. The TV star has no experience in governing – except for his fictitious presidential role in his comedy series – but he has a law degree and a business empire, mainly built on entertainment, estimated to be worth tens of millions.
Although Zelenskiy’s policies lack depth, his choices for his team of advisers are no laughing matter. They include some credible technocrats, including former Finance Minister Oleksandr Danylyuk; Aivaras Abromavicius, the former Economic Development and Trade minister; and lawmaker and anti-corruption campaigner Sergii Leshchenko.
Writes the sharp Ukraine observer Diane Francis: “He (Zelenskiy) may lack hands-on experience, but has a body of work and a platform that aligns with the people’s aspirations. He has also attracted an experienced reform team.”
Bohdan Nahaylo, the former director of the Ukrainian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, says: “Zelenskiy represents a total surprise, and a refreshing factor in Ukrainian politics. He was a joker in the pack. … In fact, he’s emerged as the front-runner. … I think it is not very serious to dismiss him simply as a clown. Clearly he’s a very intelligent character.”
As for the incumbent, Poroshenko, although he has earned plaudits for such signature accomplishments as Ukrainian Orthodox Church autocephaly and signing the Association Agreement with the European Union, at the ballot box, skeptical Ukrainian voters may remember him more for failing to eradicate corruption. Embarrassing revelations in the Panama Papers that he’d established a shell company as a tax avoidance scheme, and revelations of a secret 2017 family vacation to the Maldives, on which he is alleged to have spent $500,000, including for a private jet, have created the impression of a man more comfortable rubbing shoulders with the Davos elite rather than someone ready to deliver on the demands of the Euromaidan protesters.
Poroshenko has reportedly spent around $15.3 million on his re-election campaign.
“His greatest weakness is that he values money over everything else,” parliamentarian Mustafa Nayyem, the man widely credited with sparking the Euromaidan protests, told Reuters.
In trust surveys, Ukraine’s politicians have traditionally ranked at rock bottom – a March Gallup Poll showed that just 9% of Ukrainians have confidence in their national government, a world low. Having crowdsourced most of his policies on social media, Zelenskiy has made a key campaign promise of stripping the president, lawmakers and judges of immunity – a surefire way to ignite voters. So too will a pledge to run for just one term. Even if he doesn’t get the presidency his newly formed political party, Servant of the People, appears to be in strong position for the fall parliamentary elections.
As Ukraine is a crucial buffer state between Europe and an increasingly belligerent and aggressive Russia, what happens there over the next weeks and months should be everybody’s business as it turns another page in its slow transformation from oligarchic pluralism to real pluralism.
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After five years in power, propped up by billions of dollars in Western loans and assistance, and with no notable progress in either the war on corruption or bringing an end to the war with Russia, Poroshenko has demonstrated he is not the right man to fix the seemingly insurmountable problems of this nation of 44 million people.
Sure, Zelenskiy is an unproven leader. But after all, American voters managed to send an immigrant actor and former Mr. Universe (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento to manage an economy several times larger than Ukraine’s. And that didn’t terminate California – and that’s no joke!
Correction: This story previously misidentified a Ukrainian businessman as an adviser of Volodymyr Zelenzkiy. It’s been updated to remove this.