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Monday, January 18, 2010

Ukraine's First Round Election Results Are In: Final Round To Be On February 7

The Central Electoral Commission of Ukraine has processed almost all of the ballot papers of the district electoral commissions this morning... Victor Yanukovych (the current opposition leader in government, who was alleged to have possibly tampered with the 2004 presidential elections by vote rigging) is the first round winner with 35-37% of the vote leading up to the second round February vote.

Acting Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko gained about 24% of the vote, and her Orange Revolution running mate Victor Yushchenko received about 5%. A final runoff vote between Mr. Yanukovych and Ms. Tymoshenko will occur on February 7, at which time the new President of Ukraine will be declared.

Current public polls and surveys conducted by local and international media sources appear to indicate a degree of cynicism among Ukrainian voters, and many of the polled voters have told the media that they view neither of the final two candidates as representing a major change from the status quo or "politics as usual." As Ukraine sits in the middle of a financial crisis and is working to strengthen/reinforce its ties to both Europe and Russia, both candidates appear similarly qualified to act in these areas, and neither appears to offer a competitive difference in terms of addressing corruption or fraud.

During the massive Orange Revolution in 2004, both Ms. Tymoshenko and former President Victor Yushchenko were widely embraced as a fresh wave of government cleansing and business market transparency. But since that date 5 years ago, many opportunities to deliver the promised improvements were missed and the Orange legacy in the eyes of many Ukrainians has faded. It has been replaced in part with a jaded public outlook toward political reform speeches and rhetoric.

Unfortunately across all party groups, several leading politicians have spent the Orange Revolution years engaging in self-defeating agendas of mudslinging, populist pandering and decision paralysis.  In absence of a unified political reform direction, the common men and women of Ukraine have not seen large improvements to their qualities of life or their prospects. 

Therefore the Ukrainian people have stopped expecting delivery on the lofty promises from the Orange Revolution or its associated figureheads... and this 2010 election will be about choosing a favorite between the two leading names rather than choosing between cultural ideologies or a "Russia versus Europe" direction debate. 

Voters have more modest views of what can be achieved now, and seem to hold politicians less accountable for their actions because they don't believe true accountability is possible in the near term realistically. Anti-corruption campaigns in Ukraine since 2004 typically have meant "attempting to undo the business interests of one's political enemies in the name of corruption" rather than sincere reform efforts against widespread elitism, fraud, graft or covert criminality.

The final February voting results will greatly depend on which region of Ukraine has greater voter turnout. If more voters show up to the polls in Eastern Ukraine then Victor Yanukovych probably will carry enough votes to become Ukraine's next President. If more Western Ukrainian voters participate, then the Prime Minister could win -- especially if she picks up some swing votes from recently defeated co-candidates from the first round. Much money will be spent over the next three weeks to mobilize these respective voter pools.

The developing back story is how Sergiy Tigipko's political block aligns in days leading up to February 7. He gained approximately 13% of the first round votes, he is a successful businessman and relatively fresh face that has gained fast traction with voters, and his endorsement could represent the swing block needed to safely clinch the elections by either Mr. Yanukovych of Ms. Tymoshenko.

However, several people who voted for Mr. Tigipko did so as a sort of "no confidence" vote against both the two leading candidates.  If he fails to align with either candidate prior to February, then it is possible that his supporters may largely abstain from voting in February. Surely both Mr. Yanukovych and Ms. Tymoshenko will be reaching out with personal entreaties to Mr. Tigipko's camp to try and get his vocal endorsement and mobilize his voter pool to their opponent's detriment.

It will be interesting to see which of Ukraine's two cults of personality wins the final vote in February.  The vote seems like it will be more of a personal popularity contest than a policy and government choice.  Both candidates are larger than life with their faces plastered on buildings and billboards all over the country.  Both are supported by massive business and political networks who will battle it out until the final vote is cast. Both represent a hopeful improvement to the former President Victor Yushchenko, who spent his final years focused on blocking his rivals rather than playing the role of a head statesman.

I will monitor all the voting news in the press over the next three weeks, and I will summarize the events as they unfold on a rolling basis.

Regards from Kiev,