Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a Ukrainian comedian, is a contender in the presidential election. Photo: AFP/STR/NurPhoto

In Sunday’s hard-fought presidential election in Ukraine, a quiet revolution seems to have taken place, with a political outsider – Russophone showman Volodymyr Zelensky – appearing to have topped incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, a veteran politician and oligarch.

The two victors will duel it out in the run-off election on April 21. The losers were long-time Ukrainian presidential hopeful Yulia Tymoshenko, and, arguably, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who seeks to keep Ukraine weak and divided.

About 65% of eligible voters turned out to vote for 39 candidates. According to exit polls, Zelensky obtained just over 30% of the votes and Poroshenko almost 18%. The preliminary exit poll results did not produce any major surprises, other than Zelensky doing even better than expected and Tymoshenko doing rather worse.

Ukrainian spring

On the day Ukrainians put their clocks forward to mark the switch from winter to spring, the country’s 30 million voters were clearly calling for a change in the political and economic climate. The clear signal of that is Zelensky’s meteoric rise to political prominence.

The comic actor’s preliminary triumph reflects both the massive level of disappointment with a president seen as torn between his interests as an oligarch and his responsibilities as president, and the need for a political reset of a system that will open it up, reduce corruption and ensure fair play through the genuine rule of law.

“Poroshenko had everything going for him,” a voter who wanted to remain anonymous confided. “We believed in him. Now, he’s barely scraped into the run-off and has only himself to blame.”

The results from the first round appear to have killed the presidential hopes of Tymoshenko. A veteran campaigner, former prime minister and political prisoner under President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country in early 2014 after the EuroMaidan protests, Tymoshenko led in the polls for most of last year and was in with a chance of winning.

The best prepared and most active of the candidates, Tymoshenko somehow lost her momentum, Exit polls suggest she obtained only 14% of the votes. She said she has reason to believe the results were rigged and has told her followers she intends to contest the preliminary results.

However, she may have difficulty proving her case. There were no obvious violations of electoral norms and there was a genuine choice of candidates provided. This suggests that democracy, however imperfect, is alive and consolidating in post-Soviet Ukraine.

Foreign election monitors, including Cindy McCain of the US Republican Institute, confirmed their satisfaction with what they saw.

“The real winners are the Ukrainian people,” McCain, the widow of prominent US Senator John McCain, told Asian Times. “This is something that my husband hoped it would be.”

Locals agreed. “We have again proved to the world that democracy in Ukraine, despite Russian interference and aggression, is alive and holding its own,” a Ukrainian businessman commented.

Many candidates entered the race knowing they had no real chance of winning, but sought to promote their images before the parliamentary elections in October. Parties need to clear a 5% threshold to be represented in the new parliament.

Former Defense Minister Anatoly Hrytsenko did poorly, obtaining about 7% of the votes, while the former head of the state security service Ihor Smeshko captured 6.5%, but both were clearly candidates to be taken seriously in the coming months.

Hard right and ultra-nationalist groups had a bad day, getting only 2% of the votes.

The challenges ahead

When looking at the three frontrunners, the contrast in style and presentation was evident when they cast their votes on Sunday. Poroshenko and his wife, and Tymoshenko and her husband, all looked old school. Both made brief routine statements and did not engage with the press.

Zelensky, on the other hand, was casually dressed, relaxed and open. Apparently without security guards, he was mobbed by journalists outside and inside the polling station and reveled in the limelight.

He responded confidently to a bombardment of questions in Russian, Ukrainian and English with significant wit and diplomacy. Here he was re-enacting his role in the popular TV political parody series that helped make him a star – Servant of the People.

Whoever wins the second round will remain a lame duck president if they do not secure sufficient support in the forthcoming parliamentary elections to ensure their policy proposals are endorsed and acted on. So the real battle is not only about winning the presidency, but about securing enough backing in the next parliament to act as a viable leader, both on the domestic and external fronts.

This will mean success in securing allies, winning confidence and operating an effective campaign structure.

As president, Poroshenko retains certain advantages: access to the media, state budget resources and the ability to invoke his role as commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces engaged in a virtual war with Russia and Russian separatists.

Zelensky’s main asset is his image as an untainted newcomer offering change, with a particular appeal to the young.

For both, the challenges revolve around bolstering their credibility. Poroshenko is alleged to be a virtual godfather in the parallel world of the oligarchs and their clients, whose influence remains pervasive.

Seeking to put on a brave face, he acknowledged in a speech on Sunday night on hearing how the voting had gone that it was a signal from society, saying he would reflect on his “mistakes” and appealing to younger voters not to risk their future by backing an unknown factor.

For his part, an empowered Zelensky conveyed his determination to follow through on his success. He now urgently needs to cobble together a credible team, unveil at least the contours of a manifesto and to launch himself as a national leader and potential commander-in-chief.

If he plays his cards right and reaches out effectively, he has a very good opportunity to forge a potential majority coalition of democratic forces in the next parliament.

Bad day for Putin

The real loser of the Ukrainian presidential election was President Putin. Pro-Russian candidates, divided among themselves, managed to secure only about 14% of the votes.

Putin has sought to depict Ukraine as a failed state propped up by the West in which militant Ukrainian nationalists were making life difficult for Russophones and ethnic Russians.

Now that the elections appear to have gone off according to plan, and Zelensky, a Russophone Ukrainian of Jewish origin and a representative of Ukraine’s Russophone east and south, has emerged as the prime contender for the post of president, such claims ring all the more hollow.

Peter Dickinson, a well-known British analyst based in Kyiv and editor of Business Ukraine magazine, called the election “a significant victory for Ukraine’s exit from the Russian orbit.”

It is to be hoped that Poroshenko refrains from nationalist and exclusive rhetoric as he fights for his political life in the days ahead, and does not play into Putin’s hands by placing the unity of Ukraine and the relatively new and still fragile notion of a Ukrainian political nation at risk.

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