Ukraine's Invisible Presidential Election

With Crimea and Ukraine's eastern regions dominating headlines, the May 25 vote approaches, unnoticed.
A man enters a polling booth during Crimea's independence referendum in March. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

KIEV—U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recently said that Ukraine’s presidential election may be the most important in the country’s history. But you wouldn’t know it on the streets of Kiev.

With one month until polling booths open, the threat of war dominates headlines. Election leaflets are rare. Just one of the 28 presidential hopefuls—Mikhaylo Dobkin, a marginal pro-Russian candidate—has placed campaign billboards in the capital. And neither of the front-runners are spending much time on the stump. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has officially abandoned campaigning to turn her party into a “resistance” force. Petro Poroshenko, the chocolate mogul and favorite to win, has aired a TV ad—that he doesn't even appear in himself.

“This is probably the first time in the country when a presidential election campaign is essentially not happening,” said Ihor Tishchenko, a sociologist and founder of the Reiting sociological group. First of all, it’s against the backdrop of war. Second of all, the candidates are practically not campaigning.” Overshadowed by Moscow's annexation of Crimea and separatist brushfires on the eastern frontier with Russia, an eerie campaign twilight has settled over this country known for scrappy, mudslinging election cycles.

With the country frozen in post-revolutionary limbo until the May 25 election and facing the threat of war, many presidential hopefuls are trying not to stir the pot further as this traumatized nation waits for a polling day amidst threats from within and without. “Russia’s main goal is to destroy the elections and prove there is no authority here,” said 60-year-old Vasil Zolotoverkh, a resident of Chernobyl, who was on business in Kiev.

Supporters of Ukrainian politician and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko attend a March party meeting in central Kiev. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

He spoke as Ukrainian authorities launched—and then abandoned—an operation against separatists in the east as Moscow ordered huge military drills on Ukraine’s border. Russia, however, is not Zolotoverkh’s only worry. “The alarming thing is that rivalry between the candidates themselves could disrupt the actual process,” he says of the election that, polls show, is essentially a contest between Tymoshenko and Poroshenko. “That is the real worry.”

The Democracy Report

The campaign had begun with signs of tentative post-revolutionary unity. On March 29, world heavyweight boxing champion and politician Vitaly Klitschko stood down from his bid for the presidency and threw his weight—and that of his UDAR party—behind Poroshenko. Poroshenko now has 32.9 percent of national support against Tymoshenko’s 9.5, according to an April 23 opinion poll compiled by four top agencies led by the “SOCIS” institute in Kiev.

And earlier this month, the front-runners crossed swords for the first time. On April 15, Yulia Tymoshenko declared she was turning her powerful Fatherland political-party base into a national resistance force to battle “Russian aggression” and forgoing a proper presidential campaign.

It drew criticism from Poroshenko who said Russia’s aggression is the purview of the national army and security services. The next day, flanked by venerable former security officials in the bunker-like conference hall of her party headquarters, Tymoshenko blasted her rival for campaigning. “Stop the trips to the regions with the dancing, the songs, and the circus bears and try to join in defending the country and use every opportunity,” she said.

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