From a medical doctor to a self-declared sexist and a career spy, many aspire for the country's presidential post, but three candidates stand out.
KYIV, Ukraine – Who will lead Ukraine? Will it be a comedian who already played a president on the silver screen, a widely detested “gas princess”, or the incumbent helmsman Petro Poroshenko, who failed to return Crimea and stop Europe’s hottest armed conflict?
At least 44 hopefuls are registered to run in the March 31 election in the ex-Soviet nation of 44 million, and their list is democratic diversity in action – seemingly, at all costs.
It includes far right veterans of war with pro-Russian separatists – and several pro-Moscow figures, a medical doctor who treated protesters during the violent Maidan protests that dethroned pro-Russian President Victory Yanukovych, a self-declared sexist, former space and tax officials, a career spy and a Cossack leader.
Most of them, however, are seen as colourful extras in a campaign dominated by a troika of poll favourites in deeply divided Ukraine, where approval ratings of 20 percent are seen as a major triumph – and a ticket to the inevitable two-candidate run-off in April.
For years, observers have compared Ukraine’s politics to a circus, but this time around, there is an official clown. The unexpected frontrunner is Volodymyr Zelensky, a small-framed 41-year-old who may prove that life imitates art in Ukraine.
In the Servant of the People television series, he plays a dirt-poor public school teacher whose desperate and obscene rant about Ukrainian politicians makes him a YouTube star and propels him to the presidency.
Zelensky predictably named his political party Servant of the People, and peppered his election campaign with comic gags. He released a mocking video of President Petro Poroshenko’s ‘political funeral’, and instead of presenting a campaign programme asked his supporters to write one for him.
Observers believe that he is consolidating throngs of voters dissatisfied with ‘real’ politicians.
“He should be taken very seriously,” Kiev-based political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told TRT World. “This is a Ukrainian version of [US President Donald] Trump, with a different biography, gist and style, but he is also a man outside the political system.”
Some Ukrainians like his anti-establishment style. “I’ve voted for clowns many times,” Ruslan Samoded, a 34-year-old entrepreneur from Kiev, told TRT World. “This time, I’m voting for a real one, because we have nothing to lose. Nothing.”
Some 23 percent of Ukrainians will vote for Zelensky, according to a combined survey by three independent pollsters released in late January.
And yet, some regard his campaign as a political ploy designed by oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns the 1+1 television network that broadcasts his satirical shows. “Zelensky is not a new face. He is a mask of Kolomoisky,” alleged one viral video.
But observers see him as an independent figure fully capable of cultivating popular support.
“One can say that he is Kolomoisky’s creature, but he can stand up on his own,” political analyst Mikhail Pogrebinsky told TRT World.
A distant second in the polls is Poroshenko with 16 percent – a significant improvement after spending most of 2018 outside the top five list.
The 53-year-old billionaire and media mogul dubbed “the chocolate king” because of his confectionary business came to power during the chaos and turmoil of 2014, when the Kremlin annexed Crimea and backed the separatist war that killed more than 10,000.
Poroshenko pledged to end the conflict, make Ukraine part of the European Union and NATO and crack down on 'cancerous' corruption.
“He made many promises that were impossible to stick to from the get-go,” analyst Fesenko said. “He is trying to compensate for his anti-rating by consolidating patriotic voters with bellicose patriotic rhetoric.”
But Crimea is still occupied, the smoldering war still claims lives, and the disruption of ties with Russia hobbles the economy, which is only kept above water by multi-billion Western loans.
Poroshenko’s victories include a visa-free regime for Ukrainians in the European Union and the establishment of an Orthodox Church independent of the pro-Kremlin Moscow Patriarchate.
Poroshenko and Zelensky toppled last year’s leader of polls – former premier Yulia Tymoshenko.
The 58-year-old earned her nickname “gas princess” after inking deals with Russia to supply natural gas – and was sentenced to seven years in jail for those deals after a trial orchestrated after her political nemesis Viktor Yanukovych became president. Freed in 2014, she replaced her trademark braided hair with a blonde mane and glasses.
Her election campaign is full of vague populist promises and jabs at Poroshenko – she sued his campaign managers in mid-February for allegedly plotting to pay 1,000 Ukrainian hryvnas ($37) for each vote cast in his favour.
Tymoshenko is slightly behind Poroshenko in most polls – while also topping the list of “populists and liars in Ukraine’s politics” compiled by Kiev-based think tank Vox Ukraine in February.
“Patent untruth can be found in 26 percent of Tymoshenko's statements,” Vox Ukraine concluded. “Her preferred rhetorical technique is to take correct statistical data and distort it beyond recognition.
For decades, Ukraine was polarised by a confrontation between Russian-speaking, Moscow-leaning eastern and southern regions and the Ukrainian-speaking north and west.
But these days, many more Ukrainians see Russia as the big bad enemy, and Poroshenko’s government actively uproots all things Russian – from TV broadcasts to the language of instruction in schools.
Moscow’s support base has also been decimated. Millions in separatist-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk can’t cast their ballots in March, and Poroshenko banned voting in Russia, home to about three million labour migrants from Ukraine.
But several Russia-friendly politicians are still running for president to test the political waters ahead of the October 27 parliamentary vote. One of them is Yuri Boyko, former vice premier and energy minister who heads the Opposition Bloc party.
“In theory, Boyko is the only one from this southeastern cohort who has a decent rating of about 10 percent and who can get to the runoff,” analyst Pogrebinsky said.
Boyko’s political antipodes are the far-right nationalists who volunteered to fight the separatists in 2014 and then formed militant, ultra-conservative groups that gained notoriety by attacking pro-Russian figures and Orthodox clerics, LGBT activists, controversial artists and ethnic minorities.
“The ultra-right could rather successfully utilise the war to legitimise themselves in the public eye,” hate crimes expert Vyacheslav Likhachev told TRT World.
However, their notoriety poorly translates into mainstream success. The most popular far-right candidate Oleh Lyashko of the Radical Party has a rating of less than seven percent.