Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko hopes for re-election, but is lagging in polls. Photo: AFP/Sergei Supinsky

An uphill battle awaits incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in Ukraine’s March 31 presidential election as, despite his lagging popularity, he aims to rally nationalist-leaning voters in a bid to secure a second mandate.

With a modest 10.8% approval rating, victory looks distant. Yet Poroshenko is still among the front-runners in a presidential race tallying a record 44 candidates, none of whom are expected to secure more than 20% support.

Elected in the aftermath of the 2014 “Maidan Revolution” that overturned pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych’s corruption-plagued rule, Poroshenko – a billionaire businessman before entering politics – was entrusted with the difficult task of guiding Ukraine toward a new western-oriented, democratic path and away from Moscow’s orbit.

Five years have passed since tumultuous scenes of revolution unfolded in Kiev’s main square. While certain democratic, social and civic gains have been realized, the revolution’s outcomes are for many decidedly mixed.

Challenging mandate

Ukraine’s ambitious goals have for the most part failed to materialize. Despite some modest advancements towards European integration, endemic corruption is far from being eradicated and powerful oligarchs still influence the country’s fragile democratic institutions.

More than 10,300 Ukrainians have lost their lives in a low-intensity trench war still raging in the country’s eastern Donbass region, where Ukrainian troops are pitted against pro-Russian separatists defending unrecognized, self-proclaimed republics. Ukrainian forces have advanced further into the buffer zone that divides the warring sides in recent years as fighting continues with no solution in sight.

Since a controversial referendum in 2014 that formalized Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, the territory has become more fully integrated with Russia after a 19-kilometer bridge connecting the peninsula to the mainland was opened last year. A hapless Kiev officially designates the region as under “temporary occupation.”

Touting defiance of Moscow, Poroshenko has more recently embraced a nationalist, anti-Russian variant of right-wing populism that trumpets a campaign motto of “Army, Faith and Language,” which some see as a turn away from certain liberal and inclusive values he claimed to represent at the start of his mandate.

Many regard the president’s nationalist turn as a political gambit aimed at rallying his fractured nation against “Russian aggression” to buttress his low approval ratings ahead of polls that will see a disillusioned electorate queue to cast ballots.

In December last year, after a naval clash in the Azov Sea resulted in three Ukrainian vessels and 24 sailors being captured by Russian forces, Poroshenko pushed through a month-long period of martial law affecting regions bordering Russia in a testy show of readiness for direct confrontation with Kiev’s militarily-superior neighbor to the east.

Even the long-awaited independence of the Ukrainian Church from the Moscow Patriarchate, achieved earlier this year, was largely perceived as part of Poroshenko’s electoral campaign. The Ukrainian president depicted the religious schism in no uncertain terms as a geopolitical maneuver aimed at freeing Ukraine from Moscow’s influence.

Finally, Poroshenko moved to cement a pro-Western strategic course earlier this month as lawmakers in parliament approved amendments enshrining Kiev’s aspirations for membership of NATO and the European Union into the country’s constitution.

A weak field

Competing with Poroshenko for the hearts and minds of the pro-European, pro-NATO electorate is former prime minister and leader of the Fatherland Party Yulia Tymoshenko. A veteran of Ukrainian politics, Tymoshenko promises to take a stronger stance against corruption and implement ambitious economic reforms while also pushing back against IMF-backed utility tariff rises.

Ukraine won a new lending commitment from the IMF in December as speculation rose over how the cash-strapped nation would continue to service its US$11 billion debt load and finance a budget deficit. The fund required the government to raise household gas prices, which were increased by nearly one quarter in October.

As the struggle between Poroshenko and Timoshenko heats up, with the two accusing each other of buying votes, distrust in the political establishment could favor a third protagonist: political outsider and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky. Having recently overtaken both Poroshenko and Tymoshenko in several polls, he is now considered the race’s frontrunner.

Despite his lack of political experience, the Russian-speaking comedian – who stars in a popular satirical TV show – could emerge as a political insurgent with his promise to end politics as usual. His critics, however, accuse him of being a puppet of notorious oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, whose television channel broadcasts Zelensky’s show.

Poroshenko is likely to face defeat in case of a run-off against either Timoshenko or Zelensky according to analysts, some of whom believe the incumbent president would only stand a chance of winning in a run-off against former Energy Minister Yuri Boiko, who is ranked fourth in the polls and promotes a conciliatory approach with Russia.

Lame duck?

“If Poroshenko wins, it remains to be seen how he can reinvent himself and make the presidency viable so as to get the votes behind the bills he initiates in parliament,” Bohdan Nahaylo, a veteran journalist, author and former senior UN official, told Asia Times. “Otherwise, what can he do? He’ll be a lame duck.”

“He will have a daunting task because his first priority will have to be restoring trust and public confidence,” Nanaylo added. “And if the future will end up being an even greater mess, he could end up as president but even weaker than he is now.”

Nahaylo believes Tymoshenko has the financing, experience and economic clout needed to mount a strong challenge to Poroshenko, though he says she has to prove she’s not all empty promises. Another issue is that despite promoting greater integration with Euro-Atlantic structures, some regard Tymoshenko with suspicion because she is seen as being more amenable to forging political compromises with Russia.

“There’s a great deal of distrust, partly due to her own track record and its said constantly that she’s a ‘Putin ploy.’ Maybe Putin hopes that if Yulia gets in, he’ll be able to do business with her, but anything that would smell of capitulation would be deadly,” Nahaylo said. “You would have people in the streets and another Maidan.”

Anti-Russianism ongoing

Ukraine is expected to allocate a record-high $7.45 billion budget for defense and security in 2019, forecast to reach approximately 5.9% of the country’s estimated gross domestic product. “Almost five years into this conflict, we don’t see or hear the rhetoric of peacemaking. It’s still the rhetoric of war on both sides,” Nahaylo says.

Much of that spending will be concentrated on Ukraine’s ramshackle navy after November’s clashes with Russia’s Coast Guard exposed the vulnerability of Ukraine’s southern, coastal flank on the Black Sea. Ukraine’s captured sailors continue to be detained in Moscow and could face six years in prison if found guilty of illegally entering Russian territorial waters.

Ukraine’s naval command admits it is now unable to mount an adequate response to Russia at sea and has drawn up a development strategy with assistance from Western advisors. Russia’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, called planned US-Ukrainian multinational maritime exercises in the Black Sea “dangerous” and a threat to regional stability.

“Ukraine can talk a lot about beefing up its small boats out there, beefing up its rocket capacity from the shores,” Nahaylo said. “[But] at the end of the day, without Western support and tacit Turkish support, there’s no way Ukraine can get the upper hand there or even hold its own.”

Still, Ukraine does have some support from Western institutions. “The IMF has put forward a new lending commitment, the EU has given more money,” the veteran analyst added. “They don’t want to let Ukraine down at this stage because there’s a war going on.

“But it’s not because of Poroshenko, but despite Poroshenko. If he remains in office at the end of the day, many experts say he would use the next five years to block every initiative relating to transparency and accountability so that he doesn’t end up in jail five years down the road.”

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