Ukrainian voters today braved frigid temperatures to narrow the field of presidential contenders to Viktor Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko.  These two candidates will face off in a run-off on February 7.  This outcome was consistent with pre-election polls and conventional wisdom.  However, according to numerous exit polls, Tymoshenko seems to have polled better than expected helping to narrow the gap between her and Yanukovych.  The results give her a basis to claim momentum heading into the run-off.  Former central banker Sergei Tyhypko’s surge at the end of the election campaign delivered him the #3 spot, positioning him as an important deal-maker.  Both leading camps are by-and-large content with the conduct of the elections as are international observers.  Despite some allegations of fraud and complaints with mobile voting, neither side is expected to contest the vote.

Tymoshenko’s confidence and rhetorical skills position her well to project a sense of momentum coming out of the run-off, while her underdog status helps highlight her image of a relentless fighter.  Her challenge is to widen her lead in the center, consolidate disenchanted backers of the Orange Revolution in the west, and hope for lower turnout in the east and south.  Her campaign needs to aim to collect as many of the third candidate voters as possible – a solid majority of the electorate which backed Tyhypko, Yatsenyuk and Yushchenko would put her over 50%.  Yet much like each of these leaders, their constituencies have reason to doubt her and may stay home.  Tymoshenko’s greatest political liability is that she is running as the incumbent in the wake of nearly a 15% decline in Ukraine’s GDP in 2009 and looming IMF restrictions.  It is a testament to her political acumen that, with such a record, she is even a competitive candidate.

The key challenge for Yanukovych is to dispel the perception that he is unable to motivate a majority of Ukrainian voters.  Following the reversal of the fraudulent election in 2004, Yanukovych has demonstrated a remarkable ability not only to survive as the leader of the Party of Regions, but to maintain the loyalty of a solid 40% of Ukrainians, primarily in the east and south.  Yet many view this stable support base as a ceiling rather than a floor.  His challenge is to ensure high turnout in his base, be competitive in the center, and hope for lower turnout in the west.  In this regard, Yushchenko has been a key ally; his campaign’s sole focus on destroying Tymoshenko raised her negatives in the nationalist constituencies in the west, where she needs to run strong with high turnout on February 7.  Yanukovych’s campaign will likely seek to reinforce the image of a Yanukovych presidency as offering a steady, predictable hand on the economy in turbulent economic times, underscoring his record of impressive growth rates during his tenures as prime minister.

The third place candidate (and erstwhile campaign manager for Yanukovych in 2004), Sergei Tyhypko, benefitted from frustrations with Ukraine’s political establishment by positioning himself as the only viable alternative.  Exit polls suggest he will garner 13.5% of the vote, the high end of what pre-elections polls indicated, and a complete surprise given his weak performance last fall.  While not sufficient to score an upset and enter the run-off, Tyhypko is well-positioned to leverage his voters for influence, especially as he drew key constituencies in central, eastern and southern Ukraine.  While Tymoshenko is running strong in the center, Yanukovych is dominating the east and south.  Tyhypko has already indicated that he will not endorse either Yanukovych or Tymoshenko; he may be angling for an important post after the election, such as speaker of the Rada or even prime minister.

Yushchenko’s dismal results were predictable and are a sad conclusion to his political life in Ukraine.  His final political act was fueled by personal animosity against his erstwhile Orange Revolution partner.  While Yushchenko’s campaign amounted to an effort to sabotage Tymoshenko, she will work to pick up his slice of the voters.

The disappointment in the race is Arseniy Yatsenyuk, former foreign minister and speaker of the Rada.  This 35-year-old boy wonder was well-positioned to assume the mantle of change, capitalizing on the frustrations with Ukraine’s establishment leaders.  Yushchenko, Tymoshenko and Yanukovych have dominated Ukrainian politics arguably since 1999, and given their track record, Ukrainian voters seemed open to alternatives.  Polling at 15% last year, Yatsenyuk was poised to capture the narrative of handing leadership to the next generation.  But he ran a poor campaign, sending mixed messages on policy and appearing cocky yet lacking the requisite stature to be a president.  Yatsenyuk is still young enough to recover.  And Yanukovych, Tymoshenko and Tyhypko all personify the possibilities of political comebacks in Ukraine.  While Yatsenyuk is not likely to play a major political role in the near-term, Tymoshenko will need to win over his voters to best Yanukovych.

Damon Wilson is Vice President and Director of the Program on International Security at the Atlantic Council.  He was responsible for Ukraine policy at the National Security Council from 2004-2009.  He is also a Senior Advisor to the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council.

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