Exploring the list of Ukrainian presidential front runners and their murky pasts

With only two months until the Ukrainian Presidential elections, a field of 31 candidates has been whittled down to four frontrunners. They include Yuliya Tymoshenko, Petro Poroshenko, Anatoliy Grytsenko, and Volodomyr Zelenskiy. Moscow-friendly candidate Yuriy Boyko also has a slim chance at making the presidential run-off, but his pro-Russian sympathies in pro-European country practically discount him from having any chance at winning the presidency. Poroshenko and Tymoshenko have been widely seen as the most likely candidates to reach the second round,  but recent developments may make their path to the run-off more difficult than expected.

Currently the polls predict voter turnout will be well above 70%. Tymoshenko consistently places first in the projections, with slightly over 20%—not enough to win without a second round (a candidate needs to get 50% + 1 vote to secure the position). Zelenskiy places second with around 13%. Boyko and Poroshenko are tied for third with 12%,  and Grytsenko is currently fifth with 11%. Because no candidate is anywhere close to the requisite 50%, various alliances and outside events may swing the election in unexpected directions.

Grytsenko and Zelenskiy’s chances explored

After announcing his retirement from journalism in favor of politics in June 2018, Dmytro Gnap was chosen as the Power of People party’s candidate last week. An atheist and ardent supporter of LGBT rights in a socially-conservative country, Gnap will be nothing more than a disrupter for more popular candidates. In his previous life as a muckraking journalist, Gnap focused on investigating and revealing government corruption and crime. His election campaign makes a similar pitch.

It is more likely than not, given polls numbers, that Gnap, Andriy Sadovyi and Svyatoslav Vakarchuk will throw their support behind Grytsenko. Sadovyi is a well-established liberal and pro-Western mayor of Lviv, while Vakarchuk is a progressive Atlanticist and Europhile, who was the millennials’ candidate of choice until he ruled himself out of the race last month. Sadovyi’s supporters are still waiting to see who he will back, but analysts believe it is likely to be Grytsenko. If all three politicians were to throw their support behind Grytsenko, it is possible that he could face Tymoshenko in a run-off over Poroshenko or Zelenskiy. Of course, whether those voters would transfer their support to a different candidate is another story.

Volodomyr Zelenskiy needs less serendipity to face off against Tymoshenko—recent polls suggest he is ahead of Tymoshenko and is now the favorite to win the first round. Instead, his campaign will be more about not making any more mistakes. He already has name recognition throughout Ukraine: he played the strong and well-liked president of Ukraine in the wildly popular TV series Servant of the People. Many experts have argued that he has the clearest route to facing Tymoshenko in the run-off, given current polling numbers and the likelihood that more voters will flock to his campaign as rivals drop out of the race.

Volodomyr Zelenskiy

Recent scandals have dented his standing in the polls however. An investigation published by RFE/RL from January 17 uncovered evidence that Zelenskiy and his partners own three private companies in Russia. The companies—Weisberg Pictures, Platinum Film and Green Films—all belong to a Cyprus-based shell company of which Zelenskiy is a co-owner. The most damning part of the investigation revealed that Green Films had received state funding from Moscow, raising questions about Zelenskiy’s true loyalties.

His closeness to unpopular Ukrainian oligarchs like banking mogul Igor Kolomoisky have also seen Zelenskiy come under close scrutiny in recent weeks.

Nevertheless, Zelenskiy has a real shot at victory in the upcoming elections. The make-up of his base overlaps with Poroshenko’s, which suggests he could potentially draw significant votes from Poroshenko in a second run-off against Tymoshenko. Although Poroshenko-Tymoshenko is still the most likely run-off scenario, there is a chance that Zelenskiy could face off Grytsenko.

Tymoshenko: ahead but without a clear path  

On January 22, Yuliya Tymoshenko was officially nominated as Batkivshchyna – or Fatherland’s – presidential candidate. She previously ran for the presidency in 2010 and 2014, losing the run-off in both elections.

Tymoshenko is running a populist campaign, centered around the idea of boosting living standards for middle classes while also increasing gas subsidies. She also seeks to amend the Ukrainian constitution to shift to a parliamentary system of government, a move that would dissolve the presidency. She is nominally pro-Western but has criticized Poroshenko’s Atlanticism on multiple occasions, such as when he scrapped subsidies on household gas tariffs at the IMF’s urging. Tymoshenko has the issue a cornerstone of her campaign, and  intends to slash gas prices by half.

Yuliya Tymoshenko

Gas, in fact, is what made Tymoshenko famous before politics In the mid-1990s, she was known as the “gas-princess,” and became one of the richest women in Ukraine through her dealings in the sector. As Ukrainian prime minister, she signed several gas deals with Russian president Vladimir Putin, including one that substantial hiked transit tariffs and import prices. Her links to  the Kremlin have long been the source of speculation.

She is the favorite to win, but will need to broaden her appeal for the run-off. Tymoshenko will have to find a way to garner the support of another group or two outside of her base if she is to win the presidency.

Poroshenko: the long shot incumbent

President Poroshenko’s chances have been explored in multiple previous SSU articles, most extensively here. He announced his candidacy earlier this week, stating:

“I would like to ask voters for a mandate to ensure the irreversibility of the country’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration, and our independence, as well as to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity, bring back peace, complete the construction of a strong state capable of providing prosperity to every Ukrainian.”

His campaign motto matches the three pronged trident of Ukraine: “army, faith, language.” His poll numbers continue to dip despite the imposition of martial law last month, which many saw as a political ploy to increase support for himself. Poroshenko’s road to victory looks bleaker by the day. But, there is hope. Incumbents have a very good record in Ukrainian elections, and incumbency confer both administrative and financial advantages on candidates.