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Praise for Ukraine’s democracy after first round of elections

On voting day. Photo:
Praise for Ukraine’s democracy after first round of elections

On March 31 Ukraine delivered what democracies dream of, a hotly contested but free and fair presidential election. Nearly 63 percent of voters turned out.

A striking 39 candidates ran for president, but the race boiled down to three; incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, veteran politician Yulia Tymoshenko and television comedian and political neophyte Volodymyr Zelensky (who plays a president in a popular Ukrainian TV show). Zelensky came in first with about 30% of the vote, Poroshenko second with about 16% and Tymoshenko third with 13%. Zelensky and Poroshenko face a run-off vote on April 21.

That everything ran smoothly was a surprise to some. In the run-up to the election, there was much discussion of possible election fraud and threatened violence—seemingly mostly from Russia’s press, which obsessed on the election. In the end, fraud was minimal and there was no violence.

Another concern was how much of the vote nationalist and pro-Russian candidates might get. But nationalist Ruslan Koshulynskyi received less than 2% of the vote, a marginal showing that other countries with stronger nationalist blocs might envy, such as Germany (12.6%), France (13%), Italy (17.4%), Greece (75), Hungary (19%) and even Sweden (17.6%). The result put the lie once again to claims–again mostly from Russia–of rising fascism in Ukraine.

Leading pro-Russian candidate Yuriy Boiko received just under 12% of the vote, largely in the eastern-most districts bordering the Russian occupied and supported enclaves. The vote suggests a problem with persistent distrust of Kyiv and disillusionment from five years of ongoing fighting that the next administration needs to address directly.

Not only was the election civil and transparent, it was innovative. An interactive map (courtesy: @AlexKokcharov) allowed anyone to track the vote by district in real time. Also, Ukraine’s civil society included a number of initiatives, such as this from the anti-disinformation network,, which worked tirelessly to ensure a credible process.

On April 21, if President Poroshenko wins, the obvious priority, after preserving the nation from Russian aggression, is the unfinished business of demonstrably tackling corruption with successful prosecutions, including of prominent individuals, for which he has been criticized for lack of progress.

If the inexperienced Zelensky wins on April 21, it is a plunge into the unknown, but a watchful electorate will be alert for failure to defend Ukraine against Russian influence and subversion or to tackle political corruption. Ukraine’s civil society is vigorous and outspoken, and its press is free and combative even if there are concerns that behind the scenes certain oligarchs control news content, especially television news content.

If corruption is not tackled, it will erode confidence in government, as any number of governments in the West can attest. In a cautionary tale, the wily and politically seasoned Tymoshenko came in third and fell out of the running because she is remembered as a shady deal-maker and for personal animosities. Ukrainians did not forgive her past conduct and she fell short. Other politicians should take note.

The presidential election will be followed by parliamentary elections in the fall that will be important in determining how free a hand the president has to govern.

In the meantime, there is not enough appreciation for the Ukrainian people, who have again demonstrated that they are not Russians to be pushed around by their leadership. Ukraine is proving itself to be among Europe’s strongest democracies and deserves considerably more admiration and support than it has received thus far.

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