Everything you need to know about the Ukrainian Elections

ECFR Explainer on the Ukrainian election

Andrew Wilson
Senior Policy Fellow

There is a lot riding on the vote for a new Ukrainian President on 25 May. The election is supposed to deal with a legitimacy crisis, stabilise the situation in the east and south, and stimulate economic and political reform. Russia, on the other hand, has campaigned to obstruct the vote and prevent progress on any of the above fronts. Whoever is elected, a successful process will at least change the fraught psychological atmosphere in Kyiv. A traumatic outcome will crash all recent progress.

Free, fair, and successful elections

OSCE and other observers will be on the lookout for electoral fraud, but the key question this time is obstruction of turnout, which is Russia’s main hope of sabotaging the election.

  •         Kyiv wants to try and allow Crimean voters to vote in neighbouring regions to its north, Mykolaiv and Kherson.
  •         Despite the separatist “referenda” on 11 May, Ukraine still hopes to organise the vote in the areas of Donbas it controls; the south and east of Donetsk and the north of Luhansk.
  •         Separatists may try and intimidate election organisers in regions that neighbour the areas they control.
  •         Provocations to intimidate voters elsewhere in the east and south are widely feared. Turnout will clearly be lower in the east and south. But anything close to 50 or 60 percent overall would be a success.

Order in the East

Kyiv hopes that it has contained the separatist revolt in the east not just to the two regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, but to those sub-regions controlled by the literal and metaphorical “family” of former President Yanukovych. However, there is a constant threat of trouble flaring elsewhere, possibly in “softer” neighbouring areas like Kryvyi Rih.

After the poor performance of Ukrainian forces earlier in the east, the government has incorporated volunteer forces, after accelerated training, into a National Guard under the Minister of the Interior and new battalion sunder the Ministry of Defence. These new forces mainly man the containment checkpoints. Regular army is used for more proactive tasks, but professional security forces (the SBU) are being held back. Heavy weapons are not being used. This is only a short-term strategy until the elections.

Russian special forces are in charge of command and control operations, and Russia is supplying weapons, but most forces are local – and are prone to conflict with one another. The Yanukovych “family” still finances the separatists, both from Russia and through its local networks and proxies. Kyiv’s first move after the election will probably be to act against these networks where it can, but direct action cannot be ruled out.

The round table National Dialogue negotiating process has had some success in isolating the more radical, and fractious, separatists.


The old regime still controls the balance of power in parliament, which was elected in 2012. Ukraine’s oligarchs have blocked many reform efforts, but Kyiv is relying on them to stabilise the situation in the south and east. The petrol and banking oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi is acting as kingmaker even beyond his own region of Dnipropetrovsk. Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, moved late as his native Donetsk descended into anarchy around him; he was seen to be sitting on the fence and seemed keener to protect his own interests than those of his region. Both have formed or financed their own militias, which are a doubtful asset for Kyiv. On 20 May Akhmetov belatedly called for strike action against growing anarchy in the Donbas.

Rinat Akhmetov CC/Wikimedia/Komul


Petro Poreshenko ©/Wikimedia/Michał Józefaciuk

Ihor Kolomoyskyi CC/Wikimedia/spradlive

Reform or Order?
The government in Kyiv is not as active as it should be. The conflict in the east is as much an excuse as it is a real obstacle to doing more. The threat of bankruptcy is now out of the way, after the IMF loan was agreed. There is a massive unfinished agenda in legal reform, economic revival, and real anti-corruption policy. Kyiv will have much more appeal in the east and south if it can score policy successes in pocket-book issues, more than cultural ones.

The Main Candidates

The Communist leader Petro Symonenko dropped out of the election on 16 May. Others may follow. Paradoxically, it is therefore conceivable that the front-runner, the chocolate entrepreneur and former Foreign Minister Petro Poroshenko could win in the first round, avoiding the tense wait of three weeks until round two.  On paper, Poroshenko is the most pro-European candidate. His campaign involves several unanswered questions, however.

·         Will his business interests affect his politics? They allegedly did so in 2005, when he headed a rival government as head of the National Security and Defence Council and constantly clashed with Prime Minister Tymoshenko. Will his chocolate factory in Russia and ship repair interests in Sevastopol affect his decision-making?

·         How will he govern? Poroshenko has only a small team in the current parliament. Under the current constitution, the government can continue after the elections, but there are good reasons to reform it, to reduce the role of the right-wing Svoboda party and bring in more representatives of the east.

The former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko is fighting to hold on to second place in the polls. She has not changed her political style since her release from prison, and has run an old-fashioned campaign, full of populist promises and deal-brokering with local elites.

Tymoshenko will fight hard after the election to preserve her positions in the government, in the legal sector and amongst local governors.

Serhiy Tihipko ©/Wikimedia/russavia


Yuliya Tymoshenko ©/Wikimedia/European's People's Party

Mykahilo Dobkin


The old ruling Party of Regions (Yanukovych’s old party) is effectively dead. Its candidate Mykhailo Dobkin is only running to preserve his local power in the north-eastern city of Kharkiv. Other fringe candidates or former candidates have been accused of direct support for the separatists.

Serhiy Tihipko, the multi-millionaire banker who split from the Party of Regions to run as an independent, is campaigning on the slogan ‘peace above all’ to maximise his vote in the east and south, where he may form a new party after the elections to try and take over from the Party of Regions.

The election will almost certainly demonstrate that Western media reports echoing Russian propaganda about rising support for Ukrainian nationalist or even fascists is wide of the mark. Oleh Tiahnybok of the right-wing Svoboda party (currently the junior partner in the ruling coalition) is losing ground. Dmytro Yarosh, one of the leaders of the Maidan protests, is catching up with him, but is only expected to win 2-3 percent of the vote. The one exception may be the notorious provocateur Oleh Liashko of the Radical Party,who is increasingly occupying the niche for a “decisive” nationalist candidate, but also playing into Russia’s hands with his rash publicity-seeking actions in the east.


Oleh Tiahnybok ©/Wikimedia/ВО Свобода



Dmythro Jarosh ©/Wikimedia/GLAVNIENOVOSTI1

Oleh Liashko

©/Wikimedia/Александр Якубович

Mayoral races will also be worth watching. In Kyiv the former boxer Vitaliy Klitschko, who leads the disintegrating UDAR party, is the favourite, but the nationalists (Liashko’s coalition again) hope to do well. In the regions, old guard figures and outright criminals could win key races, such as in Odesa.

After the Election

The other benchmark for success is that Russia does not use the election process as a reason to escalate its intervention once more. If any of the losing candidates cry fraud, this may give Russia the excuse it needs.

The separatists could look more isolated and fight more bitterly amongst themselves, or Russia could reinvigorate its support.

If Poroshenko wins, his formal powers under the current Constitution are limited. But he will try and form a broad-based government or informal coalition of support. If he fails, and if other oligarchs form regional coalitions against him, he could easily push for new parliamentary elections.

The West should be quick to respond to any requests for help from the new President. It also needs to help join the dots in the various international and internal negotiating processes. Kyiv is not keen on the OSCE road-map, which was largely drawn up without the Ukrainians and undermines national sovereignty by asking all sides to de-escalate in the same manner.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.


Andrew Wilson
Senior Policy Fellow