Five years after deadly street protests toppled Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed leader, voters have a chance to offer a verdict on what’s come since. Dozens of challengers are trying to unseat President Petro Poroshenko. The incumbent is weighed down by plunging popularity amid a geopolitical tug-of-war that’s reignited Cold War tensions. Before the first-round vote, scheduled for March 31, Ukrainians are considering what their revolution accomplished, and where it’s fallen short.
1. Why is the 2014 revolution still an issue?
Ukrainians revolted with the aim of building a modern, transparent state whose fortunes were locked westward to the European Union and no longer to Russia, its neighbor to the east. The split enraged Russia, which wants to maintain influence in its former stomping ground and discourage similar unrest at home. Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, proclaiming a duty to defend the ethnic Russians who dominate the population there. Worse, in the eyes of many Ukrainians who longed for a transparent and accountable government, endemic corruption has endured.
2. Why is the president so unpopular?
The demonstrators who dislodged Poroshenko’s Russia-backed predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, knew the post-revolution path wouldn’t be smooth and were ready to accept short-term economic pain and Russia’s ire. They wanted one thing above all: meaningful steps to lock up crooked bureaucrats. In almost five years under Poroshenko’s leadership, no senior official has been convicted, and Ukraine’s corruption ranking has only improved moderately. Transparency activists are routinely harassed, with one dying in an acid attack. The president is being blamed for this state of affairs, seeing his popularity slip below 15 percent. Being a billionaire whose name popped up in the Panama Papers hasn’t helped.
3. How’s he trying to win back voters?
By taking a more nationalist tone in his campaign messaging. Gone is the “Living in a new way” slogan that helped him to the presidency in 2014; in its place is “Army, language, faith,” which hammers on three key themes -- the lingering conflict with Russian-backed fighters, Ukraine’s post-Soviet identity and the Poroshenko-backed establishment of a church independent of Russia.
4. Who are the main challengers?
Leading the pack is Ukraine’s most-watched comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who’s risen largely thanks to his lack of political baggage, though he’s surrounding himself with experienced reformers. Poroshenko is second, not far ahead of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who garnered worldwide attention as a leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution (and for her famous hair braid) before being imprisoned by Yanukovych. Of the more than 35 likely candidates, none is polling above 20 percent, meaning the March 31 election will almost certainly require a runoff, on April 21.
5. What issues separate the potential candidates?
No one with a shot of winning advocates shifting allegiance back to Russia from the EU. Rather, Poroshenko’s prospective challengers are pouncing on the persistent graft and financial hardship he’s overseen since taking power, with some making populist calls to cut utility bills and lower the interest rates on bank loans. The economy is an easy target, having failed to rebound strongly from the revolution-induced slump.
6. What would investors prefer?
After a year in which emerging markets like Argentina and Turkey were clobbered, the most important thing for Ukraine investors is that the new president maintains cooperation with the International Monetary Fund. Zelenskiy has said Ukraine should honor its commitments under a $3.9 billion loan approved to get the country through the election year. But candidates including Tymoshenko have suggested they’d put pressure on the central bank to ease borrowing costs and trim government-regulated utility prices, steps that could jeopardize aid disbursements. With Ukraine frequently named among the most vulnerable developing nations to potential financial stress, an IMF cutoff would risk triggering a crisis.
7. Why should the world care about Ukraine’s election?
The West is invested in Ukraine’s success. On top of the IMF’s support, billions of dollars have flowed from the World Bank and the European Union, while the U.S. has provided loan guarantees and military aid. Russia, meanwhile, is intent on gradually undermining Ukraine’s economy. Any destabilizing outcome of the election would offer fodder for Putin’s notion that uprisings bring only chaos.
--With assistance from Daryna Krasnolutska.
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