Elections, presidential

Image - Viacheslav Chornovil voting at the presidential elections in Ukraine in December 1991.

Elections, presidential. Following the precedent set by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Boris Yeltsin in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR), the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic likewise introduced a law on the office of President in July 1991. The President of Ukraine is directly elected by a majority of voters for a term of five years. In case of no clear winner, a second round is held with the top two contenders competing. A majority of votes is required for election. A candidate for the presidency must be a citizen, at least 35 years of age, have command of the Ukrainian language, and have resided in the country for the past ten years. Presidential elections in Ukraine have been held regularly, except for the extraordinary circumstances in 2014 (see Euromaidan Revolution) and during the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2024. The President of Ukraine is limited to two terms of office; only one, Leonid Kuchma, has managed to be re-elected to a second term.

Ukraine’s first presidential election was held on 1 December 1991, simultaneously with the referendum on independence. The winner, with 61.6 percent of the vote, was the former speaker of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR and previously the chief ideological official of the Communist Party of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk. His closest competitor, at 23.3 percent, was the former dissident and human rights campaigner Viacheslav Chornovil whose support was concentrated in the far west of the country while Kravchuk’s spanned the rest. Another former dissident and human rights advocate, Levko Lukianenko, came third with 4.5 percent of the vote. Electors appeared to have been swayed by Kravchuk’s stand on independence as distinct from the national democrats’ narrower appeal to ethnic identity.

Public dissatisfaction with reforms and the pace of change forced Leonid Kravchuk to hold early presidential elections in the summer of 1994. His main competitor was his former Prime Minister, Leonid Kuchma. Kravchuk led Kuchma on the first round with 38.3 per cent to 31.2, but on the second round they changed places—Kravchuk obtained 45.1 per cent to 52.2 for Kuchma. Other candidates participating in the first round were Socialist Party of Ukraine leader Oleksandr Moroz (13.3 percent), economist Volodymyr Lanovy (9.6 percent), and three independents—Valerii Babych, Ivan Pliushch, and Petro Talanchuk. Kravchuk prevailed in western Ukraine drawing on the national democrats’ vote while Kuchma dominated in the more populous east, center, and south. Of the two candidates, Kuchma appeared to offer more stability by continuing good relations with the Russian Federation. Overall, the result was a blow to the nationalist, national democrat, and national communist portions of the electorate.

Thirteen candidates competed in the 1999 elections, some of them sponsored by wealthy donors to draw voters away from other leading contenders. The campaign was characterized by administrative control of the media, misuse of state resources, and obstruction of opposition candidates’ campaigns. In the first round, the incumbent, Leonid Kuchma, obtained 36.5 percent of the vote; leader of the Communist Party of Ukraine Petro Symonenko came second with 22.2 percent; and Socialist Party of Ukraine leader Oleksandr Moroz was third with 11.3 percent. In an echo of the Russian presidential election of 1996, the electorate was presented with the spectre of a return to Soviet communism if they failed to retain the incumbent. The tactic worked and Kuchma won 56.3 percent of the vote in the second round to Symonenko’s 37.8.

The 2004 presidential election triggered the Orange Revolution in which public protest over the falsification of the second round of voting led to its nullification by judicial decision and a repeat second round. In the first round, held on 31 October, out of 24 contenders the official results showed Viktor Yushchenko with a slight lead over Viktor Yanukovych, the outgoing president’s favorite—39.9 percent to 39.3. The second round on 21 November produced an official result of 49.5 percent for Yanukovych and 46.6 for Yushchenko, obviously at variance with exit polls. In the third or repeat second round, on 26 December, the results were 52.0 percent for Yushchenko and 44.2 for Yanukovych. Having been supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych’s loss contributed to the subsequently increasing strain on relations between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

Viktor Yanukovych succeeded in attaining presidential office in 2010, when, in a field of 18 contenders, he led on the first round on 17 January with a plurality of 35.3 percent. His nearest rival, Yuliia Tymoshenko, trailed behind with 25.1 percent. In the second round, on 7 February, Yanukovych increased his percentage to 49.0, with Tymoshenko not far behind at 45.5. She demanded a recount as had been ordered in 2004, but was denied. The bifurcation of the country apparent earlier was reproduced in this election with western and central oblasts voting for Tymoshenko while the east and south voted just as strongly for Yanukovych. At the extremes, in the second round, Luhansk voted 89.0 percent for Yanukovych while Ivano-Frankivsk did the same for Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko’s campaign was deliberately sabotaged by her former Orange Revolution ally, Viktor Yushchenko, the incumbent, who obtained 5.4 percent in the first round and urged the public to vote against her in the second.

In the wake of the Euromaidan Revolution which culminated in the unexpected flight of President Viktor Yanukovych to shelter in the Russian Federation, pre-term presidential elections were scheduled for 25 May 2014. Twenty-one candidates entered the race, but the front-runner, Petro Poroshenko, easily triumphed on the first round with 54.7 per cent of the vote. Yuliia Tymoshenko, recently released from jail, came second with 12.8 per cent. The perception of Poroshenko as a competent manager and self-made man able to combat corruption and clientelism, as well as to loosen the oligarchs’ grip on politics, contributed to his victory. It was a vote for stability and consolidation; Poroshenko led in every electoral district, overcoming the hitherto geographic polarization of the country.

Petro Poroshenko fully expected to be re-elected to a second term in 2019, but his showing on the first ballot on 31 March in a field of 39 contenders was second place with 15.9 percent of the vote. Tymoshenko ran third with 13.4 per cent. A relatively unknown TV entertainer and producer new to politics, Volodymyr Zelensky, took first place with 30.2 percent. In the second round on 21 April it was not a close race—73.2 percent for Zelensky, 24.4 for Poroshenko. Zelensky’s campaign was notable for its lack of specifics on ideas and policy but, with its emphasis on replacement of the old and discredited political elite, voters were able to identify a wide range of their own aspirations embodied in him. He won majorities throughout the country, again overcoming the traditional east-west divide; his support was especially strong in the centre and south. Making unprecedentedly extensive use of social media, Zelensky appealed especially to youthful voters. His political campaigning was more of an exercise in public relations in which his team of media people was expert. Poroshenko departed from his original platform to campaign instead on the conservative slogan of ‘Army, Language, Faith,’ failing to address the electorate’s main concerns: the economy, corruption, the war with the Russian Federation, and political unfairness.

In 2024, the Russian Federation illegally conducted at gunpoint in occupied areas of Ukraine its own presidential elections which were not recognized internationally.

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Bohdan Harasymiw

[This article was written in 2024.]

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