Voters knew the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election on March 31 was a freebie, but they will make their vote count in the run-off on April 21. It was clear to the public that there would be no candidate who would receive 50 percent in round one, so Ukrainians were able to vote their conscience as well as send a message to the political establishment. The message was one of disappointment and anger directed toward incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. The incumbent received 16 percent, enough to make the runoff. Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy scored 30 percent, which slightly exceeded expectations. Now that the run-off will produce the next president, voters may be more circumspect this time.
Assuming Poroshenko and Zelenskiy’s voters don’t change their minds, 54 percent of the electorate is up for grabs. Zelenskiy needs just 37 percent of these voters to win, while the president must earn nearly two out of three votes. If we assume that votes for the pro-Russian candidates Yuriy Boyko and Oleksandr Vilkul will go to Zelenskiy based on the language issue, that adds 16 percent, putting the comedian at 46 percent. Votes from the Ukrainian speaking electorate add up to 38 percent, and it is among these votes that the president must get nearly 90 percent to win. Making the task more difficult for the president is the fact that no one who appeals to this electorate endorsed him. However, voters will think and vote according to their personal interests and values. For example, a Ukrainian villager in Ivano Frankivsk who voted for Tymoshenko in round one is likely to vote for Poroshenko in the run-off. It happened before. Look at the migration of Tymoshenko voters from the 2012 parliamentary elections to the Poroshenko camp in 2014. The votes are interchangeable among different pro-Ukrainian candidates, as that electorate will never vote for a perceived pro-Russian candidate. Thus, Tymoshenko voters from round one will vote for Poroshenko in the runoff. The only question is how many.
Voters want change and that bodes well for Zelenskiy and poorly for Poroshenko. The Ukrainian electorate has been in a foul mood for several years now. Just as the American electorate took a chance on Donald Trump in 2016 because they viewed him as the “change candidate” over the establishment candidate Hillary Clinton, the same dynamics work in favor of Zelenskiy. In times of prosperity, the public seeks candidates with great resumes and many achievements, but in times of change the public simply wants new faces. In addition, undecided voters typically break toward challengers by a two to one margin, once again favoring Zelenskiy. Thus for Poroshenko, if he doesn’t do something different fast, then nothing changes on election day. Further complicating Poroshenko’s ability to do anything different is presidential protocol. Ukrainian bureaucrats will work overtime to prevent the president from doing anything remotely different. Presidents come and go, but bureaucrats ensure their survival by enforcing strict adherence to protocol and tradition.
All of that being said, the race will likely narrow. Early polls taken just hours after polling stations closed on April 12 continue to show Zelenskiy with a wide lead. However, many but not all polls in Ukraine are tools to influence public opinion rather than actual sociology. More important, Ukrainian run-offs are typically close. Keep in mind that unrepentant Stalinist Petro Symonenko got 38 percent against incumbent Leonid Kuchma in 1999, and two-time felon Viktor Yanukovych got 44 percent against the tide of the Orange Revolution. In addition, some formerly fierce critics of Poroshenko have turned their firepower on Zelenskiy. The more scrutiny Zelenskiy faces, the faster his rating will decline. Thus, it is likely that the results will be closer than the polls predict.
Debates are no panacea for Poroshenko. Immediately after round one, there were calls from the Poroshenko camp for Zelenskiy to debate. Zelenskiy quickly upped the ante by agreeing and issuing his terms. The debate appears fixed for April 19. However, political debates are primarily about expectations, and the expectation is that Poroshenko will crush Zelenskiy in a debate.The reasoning is that Poroshenko knows the issues well, and Zelenskiy is perceived as a comedian with no real grasp of the issues. With this expectation alone, anything short of a total knockout in the debate will seem like a failure for Poroshenko. However, do not underestimate Zelenskiy. He is a professional actor and comedian who makes people laugh for a living. Using his wit, if Zelenskiy zings Poroshenko even once in the debate, the buzz will likely be that Zelenskiy won. This is the worst of all worlds for Poroshenko as the standard for him “winning” the debate is so high, it is almost impossible to achieve. Finally, debates sometimes influence close elections. However, no debate has ever massively changed public opinion in Ukraine. Plus, with the debate taking place only 36 hours before the polls open, whatever benefits the president receives from the debate will be minimal.
Brian Mefford is the director of Wooden Horse Strategies, LLC, a government relations and strategic communications firm based in Kyiv, Ukraine. He is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.