Eight days on and the results were finally confirmed: Petro Poroshenko has been declared the victor of the Ukrainian elections with 54.7 percent on a nation-wide turnout of 60 percent. Significantly, the president-elect won a majority in every single oblast (region) including in the East where voting took place in limited form amidst bloody fighting and chaotic scenes. He now heads to Warsaw, his first foreign trip, for the 25th anniversary of the elections that were the beginning of the end of authoritarian Communist rule in Central-Eastern Europe. His inauguration is planned for Saturday, after which many hope a new chapter begins for Ukraine.
As an election observer in Ukraine, visiting polling stations and following developments on the ground, it’s hard to overstate how different the election that brought Poroshenko to the presidency was compared to the many that preceded it. As so many times before, thousands of polling station commissions were impressively assembled and hundreds of international observers fanned out across the country (Russians conspicuously not among them). But for the first time in years it was not a contest between East and West, Blue versus Orange, pro-Russian versus pro-Western. In direct consequence this also was not an election about money changing hands, nor about the abuse of power, which it has so cynically often been before For a country portrayed as irrevocably divided and corrupt, the conduct of the election and the clear result themselves are a good sign for Ukrainians.
What else did the election demonstrate?
- That the Kremlin’s portrayal of a country “run by fascists” has little basis in fact. As much as Russian state media has tried to make out that he had mass support, the head of ‘Right Sector’ Dmytro Yarosh, vilified in Russia as the militant wing of the Maidan protests, won all of 1 percentage. Nationalist party Svoboda head Oleh Tyahnybok won a similar percentage. Graphs have been trending on social media comparing this result with that of many nationalist-populist parties in the EU.
- That Ukrainians have modified their expectations of their leaders. Unlike his predecessors, Poroshenko is not a defender of any one group of Ukrainians and their interests, nor has he promised the world. He was the man most likely to be able to bring stability: voters knew not to expect any saviour. Conversely Tymoshenko’s rallying cries seemed from another age.
- That the East-West divide (a common portrayal of Ukraine) is in fact far more illusory than is often presented. For all the statistics and colourful maps, there are no majorities who want to secede and language does not dictate a Ukrainian’s self-identity. Although checkpoints, manned by “self-defence” volunteers and police, criss-cross the South East, the populations have been stubbornly defiant and (outside of Donetsk and Luhansk) it feels on the whole perfectly safe. In Odessa and Kharkiv it was peaceful during the election and it has remained calm since. In Dnipropetrovsk, another “Russian-speaking” region, it seems the model of Ukrainian patriotism. Blue and yellow flags festoon cars and shopping centres. Bill boards and t-shirts declare there is one united Ukraine. “The majority of us may speak Russian”, I was told, “but we’re Ukrainians and proud. And do not understand what they are doing in the East… we want to go to Europe”. Yes, it will be hard, they said, but what other course was there for Ukraine?
After months of an interim government and instability at its frontier, there certainly seems to be more optimism and confidence in the air after the May 25. Although deadly clashes continue daily in Donetsk and Luhansk and international observers remain in captivity, the Ukrainian military at last no longer seems on the back foot or ready to give up as in Crimea. Newly elected Kyiv mayor Vitaliy Klitchko feels confident enough to ask for the barricades to come down in the capital. People want to get on with life.
Now the hard work of reconstruction begins, however, and the government is having to deal with multiple crises: urgent economic reform, a looming energy crisis and rebuilding trust in the political class (most visibly by voting in a new Parliament come the autumn). Overshadowing this all is the fighting in the East, with new fatalities and destruction every day. Until this ends Ukraine will be in crisis mode and unable to start afresh. Yet it is hard to see it ending well soon.
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