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Exit polls that were taken during the first-round of the Ukrainian presidential election on March 31st indicate that comedian Volodymyr Zelensky has gained a sizeable lead over President Petro Poroshenko. Although there have been several reports of electoral violations by the Ukrainian interior ministry, international observer organizations stationed in the Ukraine say that the vote appears to have been legitimate. However, since there were 39 candidates on the ballot, none of the presidential hopefuls were able to receive the 50% electoral majority stipulated by the Ukrainian constitution. As a result, there will be a run-off election between Zelensky and Poroshenko held on April 21st.
Zelensky is a newcomer to Ukraine’s political scene, better known in the country for playing the part of president on the popular TV sitcom “Servant of the People”. His campaign has defied all traditional expectations: he has held no rallies, participated in few interviews, and concentrated less on advocating for political views. Instead he has focused on targeting young voters through specialized social media campaigns and targeting voters in the Russian-speaking East by defying convention and speaking both Russian and Ukrainian. AlJazeera reports that upon publication of the exit polls, Zelensky addressed his supporters by saying winning 30.6% of the vote “is just a first step towards a great victory”. Meanwhile, Poroshenko – forecast to have won 17.8% of the vote – responded by saying “I critically and soberly understand the signal that society gave today to the acting authorities”.
Although most of Zelensky’s political views moderate, he has taken a strong stance on Ukraine’s foreign policy. Today, the country is currently divided between those that support closer ties with Russia and those that would rather pivot toward the European Union. Zelensky has said that if he was elected he would work toward having a closer relationship with the EU by meeting a variety of economic benchmarks and by holding a referendum on the issue of membership when they had a realistic chance of being accepted. Although he realizes that EU membership is a far-off goal, he argues they “will [not] stop aspiring to join the EU” and they “must keep following the path and one day achieve it”. Zelensky’s platform also wants to ensure that Ukraine stands by the Minsk Agreement made between France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia. This is because Zelensky believes the international sanctions established by the EU against Russia would be lost if Ukraine tried to annul the agreement. Finally, he also wants for Ukraine to become a member state of NATO, a feat that many member states will likely reject. These stances are important to note because the foreign policy approaches adapted by the next administration will likely affect the country’s very existence over the next decade. Both an excessively weak and an excessively hostile approach toward Moscow could incite a Russian military response, which might not be effectively deterred by the West given the current political climate in the U.S.
Given the number of positive changes that Ukraine has undergone in the past 5 years, the near universal hatred of Poroshenko and the adoration of Zelensky are rather surprising. The prevailing opinions throughout the media and the public discourse claim that Poroshenko is incredibly corrupt and could even be worse than Viktor Yanukovych. whom Ukrainians ousted during the Euromaiden revolution in 2013. What many Ukrainians fail to notice is that Poroshenko was able to stabilize the country’s GDP, quell the insurgency of rebels in the southeastern provinces of the country, and remove Russian agents from the military all while bringing the country back from the verge of political collapse. Therefore, many international NGOs argue that Poroshenko is actually the logical candidate for Ukrainians to choose.
Since there is still almost a month more of campaigning between now and the run-off, it is difficult to predict which administration will ultimately prevail. Regardless of who is elected in April, the next president will struggle to meet the requirements for EU membership as well as face mounting tensions in the eastern provinces against Moscow-backed separatists. However, should Zelensky manage to keep hold of his lead, he could just prove to be the unifying force that Ukraine needs in these times of turmoil.