As Ukraine approaches the first round of its presidential elections on May 25, the Russian-led insurgency in the country has stalled. The separatists seized control in the small city of Slovyansk and at select locations in Donetsk and Luhansk, but efforts to establish a secure presence in Kharkiv and Odessa failed. The referenda held by separatists in the East have gained little traction, and numerous polls show that a large majority throughout the East want to remain in a unitary Ukraine. In Dnepropetrovsk, oligarch governor Igor Kolomoisky has kept the insurgents at bay and in Mariupol, oligarch Rinat Akhmetov unleashed his steel workers to prevent the separatists from taking control.
Under the threat of additional Western sanctions, the Kremlin is positioning itself to use the elections to step back from its ongoing aggression against Ukraine. After proclaiming loudly for weeks that the elections would have no legitimacy, the Kremlin did not block the dispatch of international observers by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Moscow’s recent statements are meant to provide flexibility. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself noted on one occasion that the elections could be a positive step, while on another questioned the legitimacy of having a vote before “constitutional reform.” And after weeks of pretending to do so, Moscow this week appears to have moved its troops back from the border with Ukraine.
All of this means that the outlook for a largely peaceful and orderly vote on Sunday is improving, and attention in Ukraine is turning from the disorder in the East to the prospects of the major presidential candidates. The wide lineup of candidates in the race is a sign of normalcy. So too is the fact that two of the top four candidates represent the East and come from ex-President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of the Regions: oligarch Serhiy Tyhypko and governor of Kharkiv Michael Dobkin. The leading candidate is the "chocolate king," oligarch Petro Poroshenko, who has held high positions under previous presidents Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko. Rounding out the list is the firebrand Yulya Tymoshenko, the leader of the Fatherland Party, who spent years as Ukraine's most famous political prisoner under Yanukovych.
Polls make Poroshenko the favorite with the backing of 48-52 percent of the electorate. This dwarfs the 10-13 percent showing for Tymoshenko and the 7-8 percent support for Tyhypko. Poroshenko’s strong position has two sources. First, he has worked with governments across the spectrum in his career, so he is not seen as an “outsider” anywhere in the country. Second, he is the only established politician in Ukraine whose reputation was enhanced by the crisis that began last November. His careful support for the protest on the Maidan strengthened him among reform voters without alienating voters in the East. His biggest weakness is that he has no political party, but he remedied that by garnering the support of Udar, the party led by former heavyweight boxing champion Vitaliy Klitschko.
Ukrainian law stipulates that to become president, a candidate must garner more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. Polls clearly give Poroshenko that possibility, but it is no sure thing. If he does not win in the May 25 vote, a runoff is scheduled for June 15, with either Tymoshenko or Tyhypko his likely opponent. At that point, an alliance between Tymoshenko and Tyhypko and their respective parties becomes a real possibility. The two parties agree to share the principal positions in the government if they win round two. These parties are the largest and best organized in Ukraine. In such circumstances, the race will be much tighter than the first round.
To increase his chances for a first round win, Poroshenko is stressing that a second round provides Russia and the separatists further opportunity to spread turmoil. Whether or not this argument resonates with the voters, it does have the advantage of being true. Putin’s objective remains to prevent Ukraine from establishing a stable democracy that looks toward Europe for economic cooperation and political inspiration. His chief lever for achieving this is to promote an insurgency in Ukraine’s East. The insurgents’ May 22 assault on a Ukrainian army outpost in Donetsk – with at least eight soldiers killed – is a nasty reminder that they still mean to prevent voter turnout. Yet polls indicate that nationwide the turnout will hit 70 percent, and even in the East should top 60 percent.
If that happens, the winner of the ballot will have legitimacy at home and abroad to address the country’s urgent problems. Whether the Kremlin will accept that is another matter altogether. That will depend on both the new president’s ability to consolidate control in Ukraine, and the West’s willingness to impose sectoral sanctions if Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine continues after the vote.