In the lead-up to Ukraine’s March 31 presidential election, Russian state media has set its sights on incumbent Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
On his weekly current affairs program, Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week), Dmitry Kiselyov noted that according to Gallup, the American polling and “analytics” company, Poroshenko’s government has a 9% approval rating -- the lowest in the world.
By contrast, the average confidence in governments globally is 56%, he said.
“Therefore, we understand that when, in a week, we hear an announcement that Poroshenko went forward to the second round (of voting), to regain his office in a miraculous way, we’ll know that this victory was secured by the head of state with the most unpopular government in the world,” Kiselyov said.
He added that over 90% of Ukrainians believe corruption is widespread in the government.
Kiselyov said that Poroshenko will overcome these obstacles through “dirty election techniques,” as he is “preparing a gigantic falsification of the results.”
Kiselyov echoed former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who was ousted in the 2014 Maidan revolution, who said in February that “we must say definitely that the regime will be doing everything at whatever the cost to engage all the available resources, including administrative, and different technologies that will help rig the election, as it will be impossible for President Poroshenko [to win] without electoral fraud.”
Even before the voting, Russia’s ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party has introduced a draft parliamentary statement in Russia’s State Duma, titled "On non-recognition of the results of the Ukrainian presidential election."
Russian Influence in Ukraine
Some, including U.S. intelligence services, argue Russia is laying to groundwork to invalidate Ukraine’s election before it even transpires.
“Russia is taking steps to influence these elections, applying a range of tools to exert influence and exploit Kyiv’s fragile economy, widespread corruption, cyber vulnerabilities, and public discontent in hopes of ousting Poroshenko and bringing to power a less anti-Russia parliament,” read the January 2019 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community.”
By contrast, Konstantin Skorkin, a Russian journalist specializing in Ukrainian politics, wrote in the Moscow Times that Moscow does not appear to be attempting to influence the outcome:
“[Moscow] has little leverage over Ukraine other than military might,” he wrote. “In the post-Crimea reality, support from Russia is toxic to Ukrainian politicians, whereas attacks from Moscow serve as a ‘stamp of excellence:’ If Russian politicians oppose you, then you must be doing something right for Ukraine.”
However, Sofiya Kominko, a graduate student at the University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, wrote for the Atlantic Council that Kremlin meddling extends beyond electing a pro-Russian president:
“For the Kremlin, the aim of interference is clear: to disrupt Ukraine’s pro-Atlantic path by nudging in a candidate who will bring relations with Russia to a thaw. And such figures are already on the horizon. Presidential candidate Yuriy Boyko is open about his intention to soften relations with Russia. And while his chance of winning is slim to none, there are others like former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko who may be willing to cut a deal with Russia, or showman Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose lack of experience means that his tenure would be marked by utter chaos.”
She added that Russia-friendly candidates would prove useful in “blocking reforms,” with three parties “with a Russian-leaning orientation … geared up for parliamentary elections in the fall.”
Poroshenko, Legitimate Path to Victory?
So, is Poroshenko’s only path to victory through falsification?
Kiselyov correctly cited Gallup’s conclusions regarding the unpopularity of Poroshenko’s government and public perceptions of it being corrupt.
Gallup further reported widespread cynicism regarding the upcoming election: “Just 12% of adults in Ukraine in 2018 said they have confidence in the honesty of elections, representing a decline from the 26% who held this sentiment in 2014, indicating growing distrust toward the electoral system in the country.”
According to the non-governmental polling organization RATING, Poroshenko is currently in third place among Ukrainians planning to vote in the March 31 election, at 17.4 percent. He trails Batkivshchyna Party head Tymoshenko (18.8 percent) and Servant of the People candidate Zelenskiy (24.9%).
However, 39 candidates are running in the March 31 race, with For Life Candidate Boyko (10.2 percent), Civil Position Party candidate Anatoliy Hrytsenko (9.4%), Radical party candidate Oleh Liashko (5.8 percent) and Opposition Bloc candidate Oleksandr Vilkul (3.5 percent) rounding out the top six.
According to RATING’s latest polling, support for all remaining candidates runs below 2%, while every fourth person polled had not made up her or his mind. Nearly 50% percent of people said they would not vote for Poroshenko under any circumstances.
Another poll released on March 27 by the non-governmental Razumkov Centre found that 18.8% of those surveyed planned to vote for Zelenskiy, along with 24.8% of decided votes. But Poroshenko came in second in that poll, attracting the support of 15.7% of those surveyed and 22.1 percent of decided votes (Tymoshenkjo came in third, at 11.5% and 14.8% , respectively). A second place showing on March 31 would advance Poroshenko to the second round.
And so, inconsistent polling results, the large number of candidates in play and other factors provide Poroshenko with a potential legitimate path to the second round.
The Political Analysts
Writing for the European media platform EURACTIV, Balázs Jarábik said the fact that Zelenskiy’s support equals the number of undecided votes, coupled with the fact that “his own base is weak,” is an “advantage for Poroshenko.”
Jarábik says that while the “either Poroshenko or Putin” campaign message appears to be working, dirty tricks might also be afoot.
“To boost his image, and tarnish his opponents, the [Ukrainian] presidential administration is employing trolls, bots, and experts. Political opponents also claim that pressure is applied through the country’s special services (SBU) and the General Prosecutors Office (GPO), institutions directly under the president’s control,” wrote Jarábik.
But Jarábik argued that ultimately, with perceptions of Western support and a relatively loyal base, Poroshenko has a chance despite the unpopularity of his government.
“[Poroshenko’s] supporters are the most committed of the country’s voters. His campaign reinforces urbanites’ fear of chaos with the fiery Tymoshenko or the novice Zelenskiy. No wonder that 24 percent of Ukrainians actually think that the president will win,” he wrote.
Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at the advisory firm Teneo Intelligence, said in a March 25 note that there is a 60 percent chance that Poroshenko and Zelenskiy will face each other in a second round of voting in April, as Tymoshenko “has begun to fade.”
According to Kyiv Post chief editor Brian Bonner, the weakness of the anti-Poroshenko opposition, together with Poroshenko’s international support and status as a war-time president, a visa-free regime with the EU and a free trade agreement with the European bloc, could give the incumbent Ukrainian president a path to victory, just as anti-oligarchic/authoritarian sentiment, among others factors, could sink him.
Likewise, Konstantin Skorkin, writing for the Carnegie Moscow Center, said a Poroshenko victory is no longer an “impossibility.”
“Poroshenko’s rapid advance was possible because, today, the incumbent president is essentially the only noteworthy politician appealing to patriotic voters,” Skorkin wrote.
And so combining varying poll results with the independent analysts, Polygraph.info finds Kiselyov’s claim, that Poroshenko can win only through vote-rigging to be misleading.