Three months after ousting President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainians are finally preparing to head to the polls to elect their new leader. In the time since, the citizens of Ukraine have lived through the annexation of part of their country, the threat of Russian invasion, an economy hovering on the brink, and chaos in the East. Will the trek to the ballot box solve these issues? Time will tell, but here’s what you need to know ahead of the vote:
Why is Ukraine having an election now?
Last year, the Ukrainian government under Yanukovych was poised to sign a series of deals with the European Union that would have brought Ukraine more in line with the EU’s laws and put into place trade deals that would see Ukraine more in Europe’s economic favor than Russia’s. In a sudden reversal, however, Yanukovych backed out of the deal, leading to demonstrations in the streets of Kyiv. Those protests were quickly met with force and a swing towards neighboring Russia for support, both moves that only escalated the crisis. After three months of street violence, raging fires, and deaths on both sides, an agreement was signed between the demonstrators and Ukrainian government, but Yanukovych fled to Russia anyway. In the aftermath of his departure, the Ukranian parliament unanimously declared that he had vacated his seat and formed a new interim government to manage the country until elections could be held on May 25. Yanukovych has repeatedly decried the vote as illegal from Russia, but has so far not managed to convince many of the fact.
Who’s in the running?
There are currently 18 candidates running to take over for interim president Oleksandr Turchunyov, though many on the far right and left have been marginalized. The leading candidate is actually the owner of the largest candy manufacturer in Ukraine. At times called the “Chocolate King” or the “Willy Wonka” of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko has proven himself to be an astute politician as well over the years. As the New York Times points out, the billionaire has “served as foreign minister under President Viktor A. Yushchenko; as economics minister under the ousted president, Viktor F. Yanukovych; and as a longtime member of Parliament, including a stint as speaker.” Poronshenko’s platform of instituting needed economic reforms and openness to greater autonomy for regional governments — along with his having taken part in the protests that ousted Yanukovych, though not as a leader of the movement — has won him more and more support as the months have gone on.
The other candidate garnering the most attention is former prime minister Yulia Tymonshenko, whose popularity has waned since her peak in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution in 2005. While Yanukovych was in office, Tymonshenko was convicted of abusing her power during her time in office, a conviction that was only lifted after Yanukovych’s ouster. While her release and subsequent announcement of her candidacy was met with excitement, since then she has lagged in the polls behind Poroshenko. Both Tymonshenko and Poroshenko are noted for their broadly pro-Europe stance, though the latter grew up in a Russian-speaking household which could eventually win him support in the restive east. In contrast, Tymonshenko has been increasingly seen as an old-school politician rather than a reformer, and is generally loathed in Moscow these days.
The third most popular candidate for a time was former world-champion boxer Vitaly Klitschko, whose popularity surged as a leader of the protests earlier this year. Seeing his position in the polls, however, Klitschko dropped out to run for mayor of Kyiv instead, the third time he’s done so, in a election also due to take place this Sunday. That a shady fellow billionaire orchestrated the deal for Klitschko to step down and throw his support behind Poroshenko, however, has left something of a sour taste in the mouths of some Ukrainians.
Is Russia still making trouble for Ukraine?
Yes and no. The threat of all-out invasion of Ukraine appears to be fading as the weeks go on. Moscow has said — yet again — that it is pulling back its forces that have been massed on its western border to create “favorable conditions for Ukraine’s presidential vote and end speculations.” Speaking at an investment forum in St. Petersburg, which the White House pressured U.S. business leaders not to attend, Russian president Vladimir Putin himself said he would “respect the choice of the Ukrainian people” in Sunday’s vote. This is a swing from previous statements made as recently as Wednesday, when Putin said it would be more logical for the vote to be held after a referendum on a new Ukrainian constitution.
But at the same time, Russian-backed fighters are still operating in eastern Ukraine, where heavily armed groups in the regions of Donetsk and Luhank recently declared their independence from Kyiv after a series of “referendums.” And Russian state-owned natural gas company Gazprom has been steadily escalating the amount that it costs Ukraine to buy from them, demanding cash payments in advance of the next shipment in June and calling in overdue payments that Kyiv currently can’t afford.
How will the fighting in eastern Ukraine affect the vote?
According to a poll from Pew Research’s Global Attitudes Project, even in the east — which is broadly pro-Russian, compared to the west’s pro-Europe stance — 70 percent of respondents wanted to keep Ukraine whole and united. Despite the insistence from the leaders of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk” that they’re independent, the Kyiv-appointed regional governor of Donestk at least has insisted that the polls will be open for Ukrainians to take part in the national plebiscite.
But leaders in Kyiv have admitted that it will be impossible to hold free and fair elections when armed gunmen patrol the streets to intimidate voters. This is being borne out as pro-Russians are moving to close down election stations in the east, such as in Maiivka in Donestk. And just because the majority of eastern Ukrainians want to stay a part of Ukraine, it doesn’t mean they’re excited about the election in the east, as “just 19% say it will be fair, compared with 75% who say it will not.” Further, a recent poll from the Kiev International Institute of Sociology says that more than 60 percent of people in eastern Ukraine are “either undecided or not planning to vote in the election.”
And the fighting has only gotten worse in recent days after a seeming lull. A pro-Ukrainian militia on Friday stormed a government building that pro-Russian separatists were camped out in, killing at least one of the separatists. The previous day, 14 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a shoot-out with the separatists in Donetsk.
So what’s going to happen?
Since the announcement of the election, the Ukrainian Central Electoral Commission has been working non-stop to pull off the logistical feat that is a snap election in a post-rebellion country. A torrent of election monitors — including roughly 1,000 from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as American officials such as controversial congressman Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX) — have descended upon Ukraine, to bolster the legitimacy of the vote.
Should any of the candidates receive less than 50 percent of the vote, a second run-off election will be held between the top two candidates. According to the polls ahead of Sunday, however, it’s looking like a landside for Poreshenko, forgoing the need for a second round. Whoever wins will have a far more constrained role than Yanukovych, with reduced powers in balance with the prime minister and parliament.