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Whoever wins Ukraine election faces an uncertain mandate and no easy path to peace

The presidential elections in Ukraine on May 25 were meant to offer the country the beginning of a way out of a protracted crisis. Some of the signs were quite positive. Presidential candidates were stressing…

No polling boothes opened in Donetsk. EPA/Photomig

The presidential elections in Ukraine on May 25 were meant to offer the country the beginning of a way out of a protracted crisis. Some of the signs were quite positive. Presidential candidates were stressing the need for unity and dialogue. Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, a powerful tycoon based in eastern Ukraine, took a strong public stance against the separatists there. An OSCE election observer mission has been put in place. And Russian president, Vladimir Putin promised to recognise the results and (yet again) withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine’s borders.

In one sense, expectations of a new beginning for Ukraine, were thus indeed not unreasonable. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed unlikely that any elections could be held at all. Russia had annexed Crimea and massed some 40,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern border, while well-armed separatists gained control in parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and held a referendum there in the hope to follow in Crimea’s path.

Unrest spread further across Ukraine, including to Odessa where dozens of people were killed following violent clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian demonstrators. Even the week immediately before the elections saw high levels of violence, with numerous casualties as a result of clashes between Ukrainian security forces and separatists.

Exit polls suggest a clear victory lead for “chocolate king” Petro Poroshenko with 56% of the vote – leaving former prime minister, Yulia Timoshenko, (13%) in his wake. If these numbers are confirmed, Poroshenko has cleared the 50% threshold required to win the election outright without the need for a run-off poll.

Mandate is unclear

Yet, the question is what difference this will make to Ukraine and Ukrainians. Poroshenko, popular though he may be at the moment because the general disillusionment that voters feel with the current political elite in Kiev, does not have his own political party – and neither has he so far articulated a clear vision for the future, a plan for reform or a set of policies to bring Ukraine out of its current crisis. It will be difficult for him to manage the deeply fractious political process in light of a deepening economic crisis and the continuing spectre of intensifying civil war.

The difficulties he faces in trying to deliver on Ukrainians' expectations for real and sustainable change are further compounded by the current constitution, under which most power is vested in the parliament where Poroshenko has yet to build a support base. This may change by the end of the year, but only if he manages to build a strong network of local political support across Ukraine ahead of new parliamentary elections and if he can sustain his current popularity.

Soldiers casting their votes in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine EPA/Sergey Kozlov

The other big challenge for whoever is eventually declared the winner in the presidential elections is the situation in eastern Ukraine. One immediate issue will be the new president’s legitimacy. Regardless of the endorsement of elections by the OSCE, EU, US, and even Russia, the winning candidate is unlikely to have received any votes in Ukraine’s eastern flashpoints. The central government did not manage to distribute ballot papers in Donetsk, Lukhansk and many other cities of eastern Ukraine.

The country’s central electoral commission formally allowed members of local electoral commissions in eastern Ukraine to stay home. While this may be a reasonable step given the security situation there and threats by separatists to disrupt any attempts to hold a vote, it also puts a question mark to Kiev’s willingness to engage with the east.

Moreover, it gives tactical advantages to most candidates, except Tihipko who would most likely have received support from the electorate in the eastern regions. The de-facto exclusion of around 15% of the population from the presidential elections will inevitably play into the hands of those seeking to justify further separation of the east from the rest of Ukrain. Local separatist elites and their presumptive supporters in Moscow will sooner or later question the legitimacy of the elections and their outcome.

Yet, much like the elite in Kiev, it is unclear whether local elites in the east have any clear plan for their next moves. As Moscow seems, at present, reluctant to incorporate the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, one would expect the separatists to engage in building something that resembles state institutions or parallel structures in the areas under their control. But they do not and merely seem to roam across the two regions and create instability.

This may work as a short-term strategy to position themselves for an eventual bargaining process among Ukrainian oligarchs over the re-distribution of the really big and attractive “cake” left behind by ousted president, Victor Yanukovych. This cake remains attractive to powerful players in Russia as well – and it remains to be seen whether they will seek to realise and protect their interests by stabilising or de-stabilising the current situation in Ukraine.

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17 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Williams

    Retired and still kicking

    Could we at least have a "little bit" of integrity in the disclosure statement for this article? Ms Tatyana Malyarenko has repeatedly worked for NATO and other western organisations and is NOT an unbiased on-looker in the events in the Ukraine. Mr Stefan Wollf at least vaguely shows his paid-for loyalties.

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    1. Peter Anderson-Stewart
      Peter Anderson-Stewart is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Medical scientist

      In reply to Peter Williams

      And purely in the interests of fairness, whilst we are at it, a disclosure that Russia seeks to increase the maximum punishment from three to four years imprisonment for "public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation."

      But it is perfectly all right to foment precisely that in Ukraine ...

      They really don't do irony do they?

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    2. Malcolm Riddoch

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Anderson-Stewart

      I thought it was the US supported neo-Nazi coup d'etat in Kiev that fomented the current destabilisation of Ukraine?

      Don't the current FBI, CIA and mercenary forces deployed on the ground to assist in the neo-Nazi Pravy Sektor and NazGuard security operations in the east amount to a NATO violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity?

      Do you understand the concept of irony?

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    3. Malcolm Riddoch

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Anderson-Stewart

      What conspiracy theory?

      The US has openly supported Tymoshenko's Fatherland party and their unashamedly neo-Nazi Svoboda and Pravy Sektor partners through the violent coup d'etat and on into the current deadly security operations in the east.

      This support is not denied as far as I know in any of the western mainstream media, however its implications are generally not investigated too far.

      If you want to suggest that the current crisis is solely a matter of Russian aggression then you might want to get your facts straight and not rely on ad hominem baiting for your pseudo argument.

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    4. Roger Tidy

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Anderson-Stewart

      Peter, I am sure that you, as a medical scientist, respect the forensic examination of facts, so here are some undeniable facts that, if evidence means anything, ought to help you modify your position.

      1. The final geo-political position of Ukraine has not yet been determined, which is why both the West and Russia have been competing for influence there.

      2. Russia attempted to keep Ukraine 'on side' by offering President Yanukovych an economic deal that, it hoped, would prevent Ukraine from…

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    5. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Peter Williams

      geez, sherlock, where'd you get that from, the part where they declare their interests? just tell me just what's wrong with their report. in your own words. what paragraph, what sentence in the report is biased, in your opinion. -a.v.

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    6. Peter Anderson-Stewart
      Peter Anderson-Stewart is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Medical scientist

      In reply to Roger Tidy

      So you would have been happy to let Yanukovych remain in power when a sizable proportion of the population didn't want him there?

      As for him being "democratically elected", well, that's kinda debatable ...

      Russia has been angling for the return, at the very least, of the port city of Sevastopol for quite some time and it has always been Putin's line that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of all time (although he does not want a return of the centralised…

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    7. Malcolm Riddoch

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Anderson-Stewart

      The fact that the butcher of Grozny is an authoritarian plutocrat doesn't change the fact that the current destabilisation of Ukraine has been triggered by US support for a neo-Nazi led coup in the parliament and their paramilitaries who are now attempting to crush dissent in the east.

      Your anti-Soviet bias would seem to be blind to the fact that the US plutocracy is every bit as corrupt as the global order it is attempting to dominate.

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  2. Malcolm Riddoch

    logged in via Facebook

    Might I suggest that this article would probably benefit from a wider analysis that also includes US/EU interests in Ukraine such as for example:

    1. The business elites in the EU and US supportive of the 'Chocolate King's' potential to act as an EU-Russian mediator given his extensive economic ties with the latter.

    2. The apparent related need for various EU political elites and moderates in the Obama administration to find a political compromise with Russia in order to stabilise the Ukraine…

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  3. Robert Tony Brklje
    Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    For a start let's nip the mandate lie in the bud. I am sick of hearing that political lie used over and over again, a mandate to carry out actions.
    The only time you ever hear that cow manure mandate lie trotted out, is when politicians knowingly take actions that the majority of the electorate oppose and the politicians want to force that lie on them.
    Want a mandate then hold a referendum on a particular issue and get the public to vote on it, then you have a mandate.
    When you elect politicians…

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  4. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    thank you again for your report. the citizens of the oblasts need to be able to elect their own governors. the president & rada will hold the east if they sincerely embrace real federalism for ukraine. in a real federation citizens in all oblasts would be able to elect their own leaders, leaders drawn from people in their own oblast, and not be subject to leaders appointed from kiev sent to govern over them. people who elect their own local leaders have a greater stake in the system compared to people whose local leaders are appointed by a far off authority with little or no local consultation. but the president has no power base in the rada and the rada shows no signs of being enlightened so i think ukraine will slide towards civil war as kiev continues to bombard villages with mortar & artillery and the americans slip mercenaries into the country. -a.v.

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  5. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    break free of the anglo-sphere guys, there are other sources than fox news. the german paper "bild im sontag" published this footage last sunday, 25 may. they (the german paper) says it shows american mercenaries from academi (the successor of blackwater) off-loading in lugansk. put your google translator on, or just watch the pictures [ http://www.bild.de/politik/ausland/ukraine/us-soeldner-von-blackwater-im-einsatz-34992896.bild.html ] -a.v.

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