The Ukrainian Political Miasma

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The political situation in Ukraine continues to percolate with a confusing mixture of laggardly reform, continuing corruption, a morale-sapping war of attrition, endless finger pointing, gloomy forecasts, and here and there, the odd ray of promise and hope that there are people in Ukrainian politics and the government that actually have the welfare of the Ukrainian population at heart. Regrettably there are not enough of them to satisfy Ukrainians’ high expectations of real and rapid change.

President Poroshenko is now, more or less, mid-way into his term of office, and if current polls are accurate, it will be his one and only term. Poroshenko won the 2014 election with some 55% of the vote and a 64% approval rating. The most recent polls have his approval ratings hovering somewhere around 10% – 14%.

The country’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, seems to be stuck in a deep rut when it comes to attacking the endemic corruption present at all levels of government, and unable to muster the necessary majorities required to enact the aggressive laws needed to bring Ukraine up to European standards of transparency, integrity and effectiveness. This should not be a surprise, considering that only 20% of its members can be categorized as true reformers, while the rest are a hodge-podge of oligarchic controlled power blocs more dedicated to self-interest than to good governance.

While most experts agree that Poroshenko stands little chance of winning the next Presidential election in 2019, there is little consensus on who would replace him. There is of course, no shortage of contenders vying for the position, but few that would excite either the interest or support of a weary electorate. Surprisingly, the strongest candidate at the moment, is the perennial Ukrainian shield maiden, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Aggregating the most prominent polls carried out during 2016, we see that Tymoshenko would garner about 17% of the vote and Poroshenko would come in second place with about 15%. Amongst the also-rans would be Yuriy Boyko of the Opposition Bloc (successor to the Regions Party) with 10%, Oleh Lyashko of the Radical Party with 8.5%, Lviv Mayor Andrii Sadovyi with 8%, and Anatoliy Hrytsenko of the Civil Position Party with about 6%. Should these ratings hold and the race came down to a run-off between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, the polls say that Tymoshenko would win handily with the vote splitting 63% to 37% in her favour.

As strange as it may seem, the prospect of Tymoshenko becoming President is very real, even though the vast majority of Ukrainians do not like her in the slightest. The real problem is that there are no credible popular alternatives. As in most of Ukraine’s past Presidential elections, it may come down to a choice of who is the lesser evil.

There are some interesting potential dark horses that have emerged recently, though it is hard to assess whether they would be able to garner the necessary support to take on Poroshenko or Tymoshenko. Foremost of these is Mikheil Saakashvili, who resigned as Governor of Odessa this past November and announced his intention to create his own party with a strong anti-corruption platform. There is also Nadia Savchenko, the political bull in the china shop, who has left the Batkivshchena Party and looks likely to try and build her own political power base, though her erratic behavior since returning from captivity in Russia has raised serious doubts amongst many Ukrainians about both her mental state and her true loyalties.

With two years left to go before the next presidential vote, there is also the very real prospect that the powerful and wealthy oligarchic king makers will coalesce and select a front man to run for them and protect their interests as they have done for the past several decades. With deep wallets to buy and bribe in what is likely to be a crowded field, they may once again engineer the election to their benefit.

What is sorely lacking is a political leader that can energize and mobilize the huge well of discontent and frustration currently dominating Ukraine, and turn it into a true reformist political force that can bulldoze the current corrupt establishment forces and lead Ukraine out of the morass that it has been stuck in since its independence. Ukraine needs another Khmelnitsky to ride to the rescue.