KIEV, Ukraine — The threat of a Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine appears to have ebbed, and the critical presidential elections will be held across the country on May 25.
However, in two of Ukraine's eastern regions — accounting for 15% of Ukraine’s total population — voters are likely to be disenfranchised due to armed pro-Russian separatists who have seized control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Gunmen have systematically shut down local election commissions, preventing them from holding the vote by occupying their offices or stealing ballots and voter information from officials at gunpoint.
The election comes three months after anti-government Euromaidan protesters ousted former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. He fled to Russia overnight on Feb. 22, abandoning his palatial estate outside Kiev. On Sunday, 18 out of the original 23 candidates who entered the race will vie for the presidency.
Here’s what you need to know before Ukrainians cast their ballots.
1. Who's running
The oligarch — known as the "Chocolate King" for owning the country’s largest confectionery — is leading all polls days before Ukrainians choose their next president. Some surveys show the 48-year-old businessman and politician at or above 50%. Should he garner more than half of the vote in the first round of elections, there would be no second-round run-off. This, he tells crowds on the campaign trail, would be best.
Poroshenko is what many in Ukraine call a political chameleon. He helped found the Party of Regions, the political party of Yanukovych. He worked with Viktor Medvedchuk, who is thought of as the head of Russia’s fifth column in Ukraine and a close friend of President Vladimir Putin. But he was also a part of Orange Revolution President Viktor Yushchenko’s government, and was later appointed as economy minister in Yanukovych’s administration.
While many believe he has good business sense, his popularity now has less to do with him and more to do with the dubious character of other candidates, with whom Ukrainians believe they’d be worse off.
The 53-year-old former prime minister — known as the "Gas Princess" for her involvement in murky gas deals during Ukraine’s turbulent 1990s — is polling in a distant second behind Poroshenko.
Hailing from the industrial eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk, Tymoshenko, who often dons her famous peasant-style hair braid, rose up during the Orange Revolution in 2004 to 2005. Yushchenko appointed her to the position of prime minister in 2005 but ousted her later that year. She was tapped by him again to fill the position in 2007.
Their time together in office was plagued by infighting, which led to five years of little progress. In 2010, she lost a run-off presidential election to her arch nemesis, Yanukovych. Under his rule, she was tried and convicted of abusing her power while in office. She served more than two years in prison before being released after Yanukovych fled to Russia in February.
Upon her release, Tymoshenko, a fierce politician, gave a fiery speech to anti-government protesters on Kiev's Independence Square, the nerve center of the Euromaidan revolution. But in a sign that her time might be over, she was met with a mix of cheers and jeers.
Polling third in the presidential race is lawmaker and banker, Sergiy Tigipko. The 54-year-old is popular in the east due to his past alliance with Yanukovych and the Party of Regions. He was once the deposed president’s campaign advisor as well as an economy minister. After Yanukovych fled to Russia, Tigipko split from the Regions Party.
These attributes make him the favorite in the Russian-speaking eastern regions, but despised in Kiev and western Ukraine. He’s been very critical of the way in which Ukraine’s interim government has handled the upheaval in Donetsk and Luhansk oblast. He’s unlikely to receive more than 10% of the vote due to the fact that much of his base is likely to be disenfranchised.
The 44-year-old businessman and Party of Regions candidate is most popular in his native Kharkiv region, where he was recently governor, and in other eastern Ukrainian regions. If people in the east are able to vote, they will likely choose between him and Tigipko.
In Kiev and western Ukraine, where his campaign posters have been defaced, he has much less support. A former ally of Yanukovych — and perhaps the Kremlin’s pick for president — he railed against the anti-government Euromaidan protests and supported separatists who besieged the eastern regions of the country in April.
His campaign is believed to be bankrolled by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, who came out this week in support of a united Ukraine and berated separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk for trying to tear the country apart. Dobkin’s dubious connections to the Yanukovych government and actions during the country’s crisis have landed him on Switzerland’s list of more than two dozen Ukrainians whose assets are frozen.
Seventeen other candidates will be on the ballot this Sunday, but they are unlikely to garner more than a few percentage points combined. They included nationalists Oleh Tiahnybok from the Svoboda party and Dmitry Yarosh from Right Sector, as well as Dr. Olga Bogomolets. All three played big roles in the Euromaidan protests in December, January and February.
2. Why do the polls show Tymoshenko so far behind?
Tymoshenko is a divisive figure with a murky past and much of the electorate has grown tired and wary of her since she was imprisoned in 2011. She’s a seasoned politician who can deliver passionate speeches, but her sketchy track record has voters looking elsewhere.
Still, analysts say she could surprise on election day. If the former prime minister manages to keep Poroshenko from garnering the 50% of total votes he needs to win outright, she could force a second round, which is likely to be much more competitive. Only in that case would she have a real shot at victory.
3. What are the main issues?
An about-face by Yanukovych last November is what set in the motion the current unrest plaguing Ukraine. Days before landmark accords on association and free trade were to be signed by Kiev and the European Union, the former president backed out and turned to Russia for a $15 billion bailout to pull the country back from the brink of full-on default.
With the deposed president out of the picture and the EU and Ukraine’s interim authorities at the negotiating table, the deal is back on. The two have already put pen to paper, signing the association part of the agreement. But a significant portion of the country and acting authorities want more. Most of the candidates are on board with this, but none more than Poroshenko.
“My presidential program is the association agreement,” he told prospective voters at a recent rally in the southeastern city of Kryvyi Rih.
Last autumn, Ukraine’s economy was teetering on the precipice of total disaster. The government owed billions — and still does. The interim authorities in Kiev blame Yanukovych and his corrupt administration for stealing at least $70 billion from state coffers in just three years through myriad dubious schemes. They are working to reel the country back in, but they have their work cut out for them.
One reason why Poroshenko has risen to the top of the polls is because of his vast business experience and ability to cut deals with just about anyone. Many voters believe him to be the country’s saving grace.
Some 85% of Ukraine’s population resides outside of the restive eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. A majority of those people would like for Kiev to crackdown harder on separatists who have seized control there and are likely to block residents from voting on Sunday. A counter-terrorism operation meant to purge armed insurgents from those regions is in its fourth week has yielded little results.
Poroshenko and Tymoshenko have vocalized their support for further actions against the insurgents, while Tigipko and Dobkin have placed much of the blame for the tumult there on Kiev. When voters go to the polls on Sunday, many will have this in mind, analysts say.
4. What happened to "Dr. Ironfist"?
Vitaly Klitschko, the world-champion-boxer-turned-leader of Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (its acronym UDAR means "punch" in Ukrainian), had polled well ahead of the Euromaidan anti-government protests that began last November. He had taken a strong pro-European stance, spoke out against the blatant corruption that has plagued the country since independence in 1992, and he was a fresh face amongst a group of candidates derived mostly from the country’s old guard.
But he lacked charisma and original ideas, and his boxing metaphors wore out quickly. During the revolution he began to slip in the polls, and the popularity he once enjoyed fizzled. It came to a head on Hrushevskoho Street on Feb 18, when he attempted to stop a group of radical anti-government protesters from clashing with police. Speaking to them amid the chaos, he was taunted, and one man doused him with fire retardant.
As Poroshenko emerged as the new frontrunner, Klitschko saw his opportunity to occupy the head office slip away. Instead, he has joined the Kiev mayoral race, alongside up-and-coming lawmaker Lesya Orobets, whose presence on Maidan during the revolution was met with cheers, as well as Darth Vader, a candidate from the Internet Party of Ukraine.
Klitschko has run for Kiev mayor and lost twice. But polls show him with a slight lead over his contenders. He’s hoping the third time could prove to be a charm.
5. Are separatists going to vote?
Separatist leaders in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic have urged all residents in the region to boycott the election because they believe the territory no longer belongs to the country of Ukraine after a referendum on secession on May 11.
More than 90% of voters cast ballots in favor of independence, according to separatist election officials. They said more than 70% of the region’s population turned out to vote that day, while authorities in Kyiv said it couldn’t have been more than 30% of the population who voted. That aligns more closely to recent polls, which suggest that a mere 30% or less of the population in Donetsk region supports the separatist movement.
Leaders of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic went a step further than their neighboring separatists and completely banned the Ukrainian presidential elections from being held in the region. Their reason is the same: Luhansk is now independent of Ukraine.
But just to be sure voting doesn’t occur in those regions, gangs of armed, masked separatists have systematically stormed regional election commissions over the course of the past two weeks. In some cases, they have seized control of the buildings. Other times they have held election officials at gunpoint and ordered them to turn over ballots and voter registration information.
6. What about Crimea?
Although Russia has stayed put in Crimea after invading and annexing the region in March, authorities in Kiev are doing what they can to help residents of the Black Sea peninsula vote in the election. Those who can make it out of the region and into the mainland will be able to cast ballots in Khreson region to the north.
7. What does Putin think?
Earlier this month, Putin shifted his tone on Ukraine and said he would support the presidential elections. He even went as far as calling them a step "in the right direction." However, the only person who knows what Putin will truly do after the elections is Putin himself.
It's possible that he’ll recognize the election winner should the vote be free and fair. The simple reason he could do so is because whoever wins will have been voted into office, as opposed to the interim government, which overthrew Yanukovych in February. The Kremlin has called the acting government a “junta” and “putsch.”
But it’s more likely that Putin won’t recognize the vote, says Olexiy Haran, a political analyst and professor at Kyiv Mohyla Academy.
“We know what he [Putin] will say,” he told Mashable, adding that an overwhelming turnout of voters might persuade Moscow to recognize the results. "The more people who are able to vote, the better. They may vote for Dobkin… but it’s turnout that is important.”