Five years after Ukraine’s “EuroMaidan” or “Revolution of Dignity,” the country is again deciding its future – but this time through the ballot box rather than on the streets.

The presidential election on 31 March is shaping up to be a three-horse race, and is ushering in a period of intense political competition that has significant repercussions beyond Kiev’s domestic turf. The election and the political reconfiguration that will follow is also testing the maturity and resilience of Ukraine as a state.

The result will be important for the country’s foreign creditors, its supporters and its neighbors, for Ukraine is not just the front line in the new confrontation between resurgent Russia and the West. While it sees itself as a bulwark for the rest of Europe, Ukraine also offers an alternative model for Russia itself – that of a democratic, post-Soviet country where elections are legitimate and where leaders can change.

Russia vs Ukraine

The country has come a long way since 2014, when months-long mass protests turned bloody, prompted the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and confirmed the country’s western orientation. That affirmation of Ukraine’s European self-identification, and its rejection of a corrupt presidential administration prepared to accept Russian political, economic and cultural hegemony, triggered a strong and unexpected response from President Vladimir Putin.

In the same year, in the name of defending Russian speakers, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and pro-Russian separatists attempted to seize large chunks of Ukraine.

The resulting war in eastern Ukraine between Ukraine and Russian-backed forces has, so far, killed some 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 10,000 civilians, while an estimated 2 million people have been forced to flee their homes. Despite international condemnation of Russia, and the imposition of sanctions, the conflict simmers on and Crimea remains occupied.

The imminent presidential election, to be followed by parliamentary elections in October, provides the Ukrainian population with a chance to say if it has been happy with the way the country has been run since the 2014 revolution, and whether the incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko, deserves a second term.

Significantly, the presidential campaign has not questioned Ukraine’s pro-European orientation – embodied by a national desire to eventually join the European Union and NATO. Rather, the public focus has been about how the country has been managed – or mismanaged – by Poroshenko and his team.

Three-horse race

The president despite his successful projection of himself as a war leader and defender of Ukraine’s interests abroad, has been mired in numerous corruption scandals. An oligarch himself, he has apparently lacked the political will to dismantle the oligarchic system, curb corruption, open up systems and complete reforms aimed at creating a genuinely independent judiciary and the rule of law.

Although 38 candidates are standing in the presidential election, it is essentially a three-horse race between Poroshenko, veteran politician and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and a political newcomer – actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky. The latter was initially the joker in the pack but in recent weeks has surged ahead of the others in polls.

Zelensky’s opponents – and particularly supporters of Poroshenko – dismiss him as an inexperienced clown.  The young artist has yet to present his program or to unveil his team – leaving himself open to ridicule. His chances of winning against experienced pros Poroshenko or Tymoshenko will depend on his being able to upgrade his standing.

He has at least one powerful ally. Oleksandr Danyliuk, who served as the deputy head of Poroshenko’s administration and was then was appointed Finance Minister before He being sacked in May 2018 after blowing whistles.   The Western-educated reformer who has personally encountered the corruption pervading the system that Poroshenko has presided over, says he is prepared to give Zelensky the benefit of the doubt, and to help him as an advisor.

“Zelensky is about change, and that is what the country needs,” Danyliuk says. “Other leading candidates are veteran politicians who can offer only old ideas although in new packaging – and most importantly, with no hope of escaping from corruption.”

Voters would may well support a change agent. “Ukraine is a rich country – just look at its resources!” said Tetiana Danylenko, a 40-something parking attendant.   “We deserve better.”

Why will she vote and what does she expect from the election? “I want to see real change in Ukraine,” she says.  “They’ve started, but corruption flourishes and is an impediment.  I want to see industry, work, jobs – Ukrainians staying here and not forced to leave as economic migrants. I want a better future for our children who, like me, love their country, but will be tempted to leave because of harsh realities.”

The question is who can deliver this.

Comedian vs politicians

Poroshenko, in the eyes of many, has failed and has compromised himself as an oligarch reluctant to tackle corruption and to open up national systems.  His program is vague; in his campaign, he has been playing up patriotic feeling under the slogan: “Army, Language and Faith” – referring to the military, to Ukrainian, and to a local Orthodox Christianity that has been freed from Moscow’s control, respectively.

Tymoshenko has developed the most elaborate alternative reform strategy with the help of respected specialists. Her promises include constitutional reform and shifting real power from the presidency to the parliament.  But the serious side of her pitch as a presidential contender has been marred by a reliance on populism – be it challenging the ongoing reform of the health sector or promising to reduce tariffs on household utilities.

Until recently, Tymoshenko was the front-runner, but she has seen her lead vanish as Zelensky has overtaken her and Poroshenko has caught up. According to the polls, the last chance for the veteran female politician to become president seems to have slipped away – but if her party does well in the October parliamentary election, she can be expected to bid for the post of prime minister.

Zelensky brings risks but also presents new opportunities to revamp political and economic life and restoring public confidence.  As the representative of a new, savvy post-independence generation, unconventional, creative and outwardly unassuming, Zelensky offers the prospect of engaging the younger generation as it seeks to ensure a way forward that corresponds with their post-Soviet mindset and expectations.

A Kyiv-based foreign businessman told Asia Times that he would prefer Poroshenko to win in order to ensure continuity and avoid uncertainty. “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know,” he said. But he acknowledged that his young staff are “sick of the present situation” and want “change and new faces.”

That indicates they will all vote for Zelensky.

Despite what is at stake, there are surprisingly few jitters in the commercial sector. Bertrand Barrier, a French lawyer in Kiev says business in 2018 was excellent, and that he does not expect the election to change things. “Investments in renewable energy, for instance, are booming,” he said. “In other sectors, too, investors are continuing to look for opportunities.”

An Asian businessman was also unperturbed. Bhanu Sahni, an Indian entrepreneur who has been working out of Kiev for many years, told Asia Times:“I hope the new government realizes that it’s important for Ukraine to promote business and make it easier for both sides to pursue it.”

The campaign has seen bitterly fought with the usual dirty tricks and mud slinging. But despite the influence of the oligarchs through the media and financing, it looks like a genuine democratic competition and the outcome will remain uncertain until the very end.

Perhaps the most worrying feature in the campaign has been the tendency on the part of the presidential camp to demonize Zelensky as a Russophone, and to implicitly suggest that his sense of Ukrainianness is suspect. That ploy risks undermining national unity and reopening regional and linguistic fissures in a nation that bestrides a deep and blood-filled geographical fault line between east and west.