ZOiS Spotlight 21/2020

Covid-19 buys time for the Ukrainian president

by Gwendolyn Sasse 27/05/2020
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a visit to a mobile army hospital where an additional 50-bed unit has been opened for Covid-19 patients. © imago images / ITAR-TASS

Big crises like economic recessions and wars frequently trigger ‘rallying around the flag’ effects that benefit incumbents. The Covid-19 pandemic may well belong to this category of crises, at least in some countries. States are currently enjoying greater general visibility as actors—as reflected in the implementation of border controls, an enhanced role for executives, and a political rhetoric that emphasises the safety of citizens. At the same time, a pandemic is likely to reveal state weaknesses, for example a lack of institutional capacity, resources, and communication skills.

Ukraine is an interesting case study in this respect, as the country has been experiencing an overlay of crises, including the ongoing war in the eastern Donbas region. What is more, the approval ratings of president Volodymyr Zelenskyi who won a landslide victory with 73 per cent of the vote in the second round of the 2019 presidential election, had been gradually eroding before the pandemic began.

Support for the president’s handling of Covid-19

To help trace the attitudes of Ukrainian society towards those in government, new data have been collected as part of the joint project Identities and Borders in Flux (IBIF) with the participation of ZOiS. On 22–24 April, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology conducted a nationally representative phone survey among Ukrainians—excluding those in Crimea, which Russia annexed in March 2014, and the non-government-controlled areas of the Donbas.

According to this survey, about 55 per cent of the population thought that Zelenskyi had been handling the Covid-19 crisis ‘very well’ or ‘fairly well’. This opinion held irrespective of the region of Ukraine a respondent was based in. Those who approved of the president’s approach also reported a greater fear of Covid-19.

Women, younger respondents, and those with higher incomes were more likely to back Zelenskyi's management of the pandemic. The fact that the young proved more supportive than the old is somewhat counterintuitive, given that older people have generally been at greater risk during the pandemic.

The growing importance of local government

Another noteworthy trend in the data was the high level of trust in local government. Fifty-six per cent of Ukrainians approved of the handling of the crisis by the heads of cities, villages, and newly created communities—with no significant geographical variation across Ukraine. Trust in local authorities had already increased gradually in the years before the Covid-19 outbreak during the country’s ambitious decentralisation reforms. This trend is continuing during the current crisis.

By comparison, a larger share of about 40 per cent of the population found it hard to say how Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, had handled the pandemic. He only took office in March 2020, so his policies are harder to assess. But this figure also confirms two wider trends: at the national level, the government is overshadowed by the president; and from a citizen’s point of view, local government provides a more concrete reference point than the national executive.

Approval ratings are not the same as voting intentions

The views on how well the president is handling Covid-19 suggest a rallying effect in Ukraine, but this effect has its limits. Approval of the president’s management of the pandemic is distinct from people’s voting preferences.

Zelenskyi is still the most popular presidential candidate: 28 per cent of Ukrainians said they would vote for him if an election were held now. About 9 per cent stated a preference for his main rival, former president Petro Poroshenko, and around 8 per cent supported Yurii Boiko from the Opposition Bloc. This means that voters have not found a viable electoral alternative to Zelenskyi.

According to the survey, women, younger respondents, and wealthier people were more likely to express their intention to vote for Zelenskyi. In contrast to opinions of the president’s crisis management, voting intentions revealed regional variation. On the whole, respondents from western Ukraine were significantly less likely to prefer Zelenskyi than respondents from the centre, south, or east of the country.

However, it should be kept in mind that general voting intentions are not directly comparable with the decisive second-round run-off in the 2019 election. Rather, current voting intentions suggest a return to the status quo ante, mirroring polling trends before last year’s vote.

Socioeconomic vulnerabilities

Our survey also provides a glimpse into Ukrainians’ living standards through concrete examples of what respondents’ households could or could not afford. Nine per cent of the population identified with the lowest socioeconomic category and described themselves as struggling to even buy food. Twenty-two per cent saw themselves in a position to cover daily expenses while finding it hard to afford clothing. Another 28 per cent said they had the means to cover basic needs but had to save for larger household items, such as a TV or a refrigerator.

These figures underline the extent of socioeconomic vulnerability across Ukraine at the outset of the pandemic. At least a third of the population is bound to be hit particularly hard with the imminent socioeconomic impact of the crisis.

In sum, our data suggest that the pandemic’s unifying effect in Ukraine is limited to a temporary freezing of Zelenskyi's approval ratings. He has been more popular than Poroshenko was throughout the first year of his presidency.

However, Zelenskyi's popularity had been declining gradually before the pandemic, and the socioeconomic consequences of Covid-19 are likely to reinforce this trend. By comparison, trust in local institutions appears to continue to grow. The effects of the crisis on perceptions of state capacity therefore diverge between the national and local levels of government.

Gwendolyn Sasse is the Director of ZOiS. This text was written in cooperation with the IBIF-project partners Henry Hale of George Washington University, Volodymyr Kulyk of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and Olga Onuch of the University of Manchester.