Ukraine’s Presidential Election Proves the Country’s Democratic Spirit Is Alive and Well

KYIV, Ukraine—Ukrainians took to the polls Sunday and voted for
their next president.

After a bloody 2014 revolution to depose a pro-Russian president,
and after nearly five years of war against Russian forces in the country’s
east, many voters viewed the election as a landmark exercise of their
hard-earned democratic freedoms, and another step toward ditching Moscow’s

“These are the first elections in the history of Ukraine when we
are choosing the future of our country with our own hands,” said Andrey Kobzar,
a 41-year-old former staff sergeant in the Ukrainian army and a war veteran.

“I am glad that my country is moving in the right direction—toward
NATO, Europe, and the entire world community,” Kobzar said.

As of this article’s publication on Monday, with about 75% of
votes counted, Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky was well in the lead with
30.4% of Sunday’s vote.

Incumbent President Petro Poroshenko came in second place with
16.12% of the tally. For her part, Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia
Tymoshenko—once the contest’s front-runner—placed third, claiming 13.2% of the

Since no candidate won a majority on Sunday, a second-round runoff
between Poroshenko and Zelensky will be held on April 21.

Zelensky is a political outsider who plays the role of Ukrainian president in a popular TV show. His showing marks a sea change in Ukrainian politics, underscoring that the country’s voters are willing to consider candidates outside the pre-revolutionary political caste.

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In Kyiv, Ukrainian voters register for their country’s presidential election on Sunday. (Photos: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

However, with Poroshenko projected to gain the support of many
voters left up for grabs after Sunday’s vote, many experts predict the April 21
runoff will be a nail-biter.

“I support the current president because I don’t
believe that Zelensky is actually a defender of the Maidan’s values and goals,”
said Andrii Fedotov, a 29-year-old tech entrepreneur who lives in Kyiv.

Ukraine’s 2014 revolution is colloquially named after Kyiv’s
central square, the Maidan, where the uprising began.

Whatever the final outcome in April, many outside observers say
Sunday’s election was a milestone for Ukraine’s post-revolutionary, democratic

For one, pro-Russian candidates had next to no chance of success.
That alone is a sign of what many say is Ukraine’s irreversible divorce from

Also, going into Sunday’s vote, there was no clear favorite to win
the contest. The three front-runners had distanced themselves from the pack,
but the final outcome remains far from certain.

“The fact that it is election day and we do not know who the
winners of this election will be is a victory in itself,” said Daniel Twining,
president of the International Republican
Institute, a U.S. think tank.

Smooth Sailing

At Specialized School No. 87 in Kyiv on Sunday, voters lined up at
a registration counter and presented their IDs before they proceeded into
booths with blue and yellow curtains (Ukraine’s national colors) to privately
cast their votes. Once done, they deposited their completed paper ballots into
closely guarded, translucent bins. Police officers were on hand to observe the
whole process.

The mood at the voting site was calm, with no outward signs of
impropriety, interference, or voter harassment by outside groups. In fact, it
seemed to be business as usual.

Similar scenes occurred throughout the day at other polling places
across the capital and the country. National voter turnout was 63.48%, election
officials said, up from 60.29% in Ukraine’s 2014 presidential election.

On Sunday, Ukrainian security officials said they had deployed
135,000 police officers, National Guard troops, and other personnel nationwide
to safeguard the electoral process.

At least two police officers were assigned to each polling
station, officials said. Also, 2,344 observers from foreign and international
organizations were on hand to observe the vote.

Throughout the day there were reports of election law violations
at various polling sites—up to 649 nationwide by around 3 p.m., officials said.
Yet, election officials reported no evidence of “systemic” interference.

By and large, Sunday’s election went smoothly, abating rumors that far-right, nationalist groups might cause chaos, or that the old ways of ballot stuffing—a hallmark of Ukraine’s post-Soviet democracy—would re-emerge.

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A pro-Ukraine rally in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol during a period of heavy fighting in the summer of 2014.

“The Kremlin’s extensive efforts to influence
this election and paint Ukraine as chaotic and dysfunctional have failed,”  the
International Republican Institute’s Twining told The Daily Signal in an
emailed statement.

Leading up to Ukraine’s first presidential election after the
revolution in May 2014, a pro-Russian hacktivist group called CyberBerkut
launched a cyberattack against Ukraine’s Central Election Commission computers.

As of this article’s publication, there were no reports that
Sunday’s election had been similarly targeted. However, Russian agents used
social media to spread misinformation in the lead-up to the vote, according to
security experts and Ukrainian officials.

Twining said that Ukraine’s successful election could send a
message to pro-democracy movements in other post-Soviet countries.

“Genuine democratic elections in Ukraine’s wider neighborhood are
a rarity,” Twining said. “They also pose a real threat to the Kremlin. If
Ukrainians can choose their leaders and hold them accountable through
democratic institutions, why can’t Russians?”


Ukrainian voters had a choice of 37 candidates on
Sunday. There had been 39 originally, but two candidates dropped out after the
paper ballots had been printed.

Despite the crowded field, pre-election polls suggested that
Sunday’s election really came down to three candidates: Poroshenko, Tymoshenko,
and Zelensky.

Poroshenko, for his part, said his campaign’s chief opponent was
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Zelensky cast himself as an anti-corruption
reformer, and Tymoshenko promised a “new course” for Ukraine.

Some Ukrainians were frustrated that stalwarts of Ukraine’s
pre-revolutionary political scene—Poroshenko and Tymoshenko—were still on the
ballot. Therefore, they opted to break from orthodoxy and go with a political outsider
like Zelensky.

Poroshenko’s supporters, however, praised the incumbent’s
achievements and the consistent, if measured, progress he’s made in improving
the economy, building up the country’s military strength, and rooting out
systemic corruption.

Andrey Khomenko, 46, a Ukrainian IT specialist who lives in Kyiv,
voted for Poroshenko “because he has the strength to develop my country.”

Under Poroshenko’s watch, Ukrainians gained visa-free travel to
the European Union, and Ukraine’s newly unified, national Orthodox church
achieved independence from Russian control for the first time since the 17th

With an ongoing war and an unstable economy, many Ukrainians want
a steady hand at the helm of Ukraine’s government. For them, Poroshenko was the
safest, surest bet among the front-runners.

“I’m sure that our country is moving in the
right direction,” said Fedotov, the tech entrepreneur who voted for Poroshenko.

Poroshenko’s critics, however, say progress is too slow and that
the president has perpetuated the system of endemic corruption that the
revolution was meant to overthrow.

“After the Maidan there’s been a little progress, but also a
significant amount of backtracking. Not only the war—but top level corruption,”
36-year-old war veteran Yevhen Shevchenko told The Daily Signal.

For her part, Tymoshenko ran a populist campaign, promising things
like lower gas prices to make inroads with economically hard-off Ukrainians.

Tymoshenko’s storied political past appealed to supporters who
believe that Ukraine needs a leader well versed in the intricacies and the
exigencies of political reality—especially when it comes to dealing with
Russia—while the country faces war and economic turmoil.

Yet, like Poroshenko, the former prime minister is part of the old
guard of Ukrainian politics. She earned her nickname, the “gas princess,” due
to her role in negotiating energy deals with Russia. Based on her third place
showing on Sunday, Tymoshenko’s populist message ultimately fell flat.


In February 2014, protesters braved snipers on Kyiv’s central
square during a revolution to overthrow Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s
pro-Russian president.

At its heart, the revolution was about the country turning away
from Russia toward a pro-European, pro-Western, pro-democratic future.

More than five years later, the revolution’s overarching goals
remained on the minds of many Ukrainian voters who went to the polls Sunday.

“I voted for Poroshenko because he gave me hope for a better
future, with Ukraine as a part of the EU and NATO—that’s what we stood for on
the Maidan,” Bohdan Miroshnikov, 24, told The Daily Signal.

In the weeks after the 2014 revolution, Russian military forces
invaded and seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Then, Russia launched a covert,
proxy war in eastern Ukraine, carving out two so-called separatist republics.

After nearly five wars of constant combat, Ukrainian troops remain
entrenched along a front line in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. There,
Ukraine’s military continues to fight a static, trench war against a combined
force of pro-Russian separatists, foreign mercenaries, and Russian regulars.

So far, the war in the Donbas has killed more than 13,000
Ukrainians—roughly half of that number died after the February 2015, Minsk II
cease-fire went into effect.

And with 1.7 million people who fled their homes due to the
conflict, Europe’s only ongoing land war is also the Continent’s biggest
humanitarian crisis.

Miroshnikov, who now lives in Kyiv, was born in the eastern
Ukrainian town of Horlivka, which combined Russian-separatist forces continue
to occupy. He said ending the war was his top voting issue.  

“Only Poroshenko can solve this problem,” Miroshnikov said of the

Kobzar, the 41-year-old war veteran, said he voted for Poroshenko
because he believes the country has been moving in the right direction under
the president’s watch. Most importantly, he said, Ukraine’s military has gotten
much stronger.

“I voted for gunpowder,” Kobzar said, explaining his vote for
Poroshenko. “My choice is my commander in chief.”

Yet, veterans are not a single-issue demographic. For Shevchenko
(who worked as an undercover agent for the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of
Ukraine after his military service) the conflict with Russia was a top voting
issue—so, too, however, were corruption and judicial reforms.

Shevchenko didn’t vote for one of the top three candidates.
Rather, he cast his ballot for Anatoliy
Hrytsenko, Ukraine’s former minister of defense, who was also in the

“In my opinion, he’s the only candidate who is independent from
oligarchs and kleptocrats,” Shevchenko said of Hrytsenko,
who took 7.07% of Sunday’s vote, according to the most recent data.


Ukrainians’ attitudes toward Russia have hardened during the war.
In a recent poll, an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians labeled Russia as “the
aggressor country.”

On Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s central boulevard, street
vendors sell rolls of toilet paper and doormats adorned with the likenesses of
Putin and Yanukovych.

As part of its 2015 “decommunization laws,” Ukraine banned all
symbols of the Soviet Union and renamed all streets and cities that once had
Soviet-era names. Every Vladimir Lenin statue in the country has come down. Even playing the Soviet national anthem is now
officially against the law in Ukraine.

And, since 2014, Kyiv has rebuilt its military with the specific
objective of defending against a Russian invasion.  

Ukraine possessed only 6,000 combat-ready soldiers when the war
began in April 2014. However, in just a few years—and while fighting a
war—Ukraine has rebuilt its military into the second-largest in Europe, in
terms of manpower, comprising about 250,000 active-duty troops and 80,000

In Europe, only Russia has a bigger military.

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This year, Ukraine’s newly unified, national Orthodox church achieved independence from Russian control for the first time since the 17th century.

Besides the war, Ukraine faces some other tough challenges.

Ukraine remains the second-poorest country in Europe in terms of
per capita gross domestic product. The Ukrainian hryvnia’s value slid from
about 8 to 1 against the U.S. dollar in 2013, to its current value of roughly
27 to $1. Consequently, inflation is up and the average Ukrainian citizen’s
spending power is way down.

For Fedotov, who voted for Poroshenko, Ukraine’s economic turmoil
steered his decision at the ballot box on Sunday.

“The most important issue for me is economic development and
deregulation for businesses and investments, as well as securing private
property rights,” Fedotov said.

Ukraine also faces an ongoing demographic catastrophe.

Millions of Ukrainians have moved abroad for work. That trend,
coupled with chronically low life expectancies—particularly among men—and low
fertility rates, has set the country’s population on a steady decline since the
Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991.

On the anti-corruption front, one of the revolution’s rallying
cries, progress remains halting.

“Corruption remains a top voter
concern,” Twining said. “Ukraine’s next president must work with parliament to
pursue real reforms that boost growth and tackle corruption to make the country
more resilient to Russian subversion.”

A Win for Democracy

In the early months of the war in 2014, with Ukraine’s regular
army on its heels, everyday Ukrainians filled the ranks of irregular, civilian
combat units. They headed out to the country’s east, where they faced Russian
tanks, artillery, and the Kremlin’s regular troops in a land war to preserve
their country’s sovereignty.

At the same time, legions of volunteers collected and delivered
supplies to support the front-line troops—often at great risk.

It was a grassroots war effort, underscoring a widespread attitude
of self-reliance among Ukrainian citizens who were unwilling to wait for the
government to act in a moment of crisis.

Ultimately, the volunteer movement did more than
save Ukraine from a military disaster. It also paved the way for the country’s
democratic civil society to flourish in a way it never had prior to the war.

“There is always hope for a better future,” said Shevchenko, the
war veteran and anti-corruption undercover agent.

Across Ukraine, volunteers who once made
shell-dodging supply runs to the front lines are now refocusing on long-term,
pro-democracy projects, which they say are equally as important to Ukraine’s
future as the ongoing war effort. And a new generation of politicians who came of age
during the revolution and war are now pushing for change in ways previous
generations never did.

“Young people are accustomed to learning quickly, simplifying the
bureaucracy, working on results,” Oleksandr
Toporivskyi, the 28-year-old mayor of the western Ukrainian town of
Novovolynsk, told The Daily Signal.

“We strive to show that life in the community depends on everyone
… realizing their wishes together,” Toporivskyi

Many Ukrainians and outside experts agree that the momentum of
change is building, pushing Ukraine toward the democratic, Western-oriented
future its protesters, civil society activists, and soldiers have fought for
since 2014.

“The front line in the struggle between the free
world and Putin’s shadow empire lies in Ukraine—and the people of Ukraine are
clear which side they are on,” Twining said.

Source material can be found at this site.

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