ZOiS Spotlight 12/2019

The mood in Ukraine’s Donbas ahead of the presidential election

by Gwendolyn Sasse 27/03/2019
„Many candidates – one president“: election poster by current President Petro Poroshenko in Kostiantynivka, Donbas. n-ost, Alex Alexandrov

With only a few days to go until the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election on 31 March, the result is impossible to predict. A significant number of voters are still undecided and there is considerable uncertainty over how many younger voters will turn out on election day. The comedian and political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskyi, most popular among younger voters and in the south-east of the country, has been ahead in the polls. The chances of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko progressing to the second round have remained stable, while incumbent president Petro Poroshenko appears to be gaining some ground on the final stretch.

In this closely contested election, all eyes have been on national trends or macro-regions rather than on individual regions. Issues relating to the war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas area that began in 2014 have played a prominent role in the election campaign, in particular in Poroshenko’s electoral rhetoric. But what do the people for whom the war is part of their daily lives think of Ukrainian politics? Do they intend to vote, and if so, for whom?

The traditional electoral weight of the Donbas is reduced without the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which are not under government control and will therefore not take part in the election. Yet the region is still of particular importance in Ukrainian politics. Regional attitudes map the immediate challenges the new president will face with regard to the population that lives close to the front line and in the south-east more generally.

The influence of war

In March 2019 the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) surveyed 1,200 respondents in the government-controlled areas of the Donbas. The level of electoral interest, as recorded in face-to-face interviews, was high: 73 per cent of respondents said they intended to vote in the presidential election—a high figure compared with the 47 per cent who reported having voted in the last presidential ballot in 2014. In 2014 the security situation on the ground had limited access to polling stations. Nevertheless, the regional population’s experience of the war and politics since 2014 appear to have had a mobilising effect.

Of the respondents who intended to vote, 24 per cent were still undecided about who to opt for. The top choices were Zelenskyi (21 per cent) and Yuriy Boyko (16 per cent), the former head of the Opposition Bloc, which represents the political forces of the south-east that partly regrouped after the 2013–2014 Euromaidan anti-government protests and recently split again. Boyko is now associated with the so-called Opposition Platform—For Life. The support for Zelenskyi and Boyko illustrates that on the one hand, the Donbas electorate hopes for change, however imprecise Zelenskyi's political profile is; but on the other hand, the region’s voters uphold an older tradition of supporting a loose bloc of regional political and economic interests in partial or full opposition to Kyiv’s political agenda.

The Donbas electorate is characterised by a diversity of political preferences. According to the ZOiS survey, Tymoshenko and Poroshenko can currently count on about 7 per cent of the regional electorate each; Oleksandr Vilkul, the current head of the renamed Opposition Bloc—Party of Development and Peace has about 6 per cent. This overall distribution marks a shift from 2014, when a clear majority of respondents who participated voted for Poroshenko (35 per cent), followed by Boyko (13 per cent) and Tymoshenko (11 per cent).

Disappointment in the current government

This trend is confirmed by the survey answers about trust in politicians and institutions. Most respondents were highly critical of Poroshenko: 66 per cent of those questioned said they did not trust him at all; a further 20 per cent ‘mostly do not trust’ him. Lack of trust in the government and parliament were similarly high, underlining the extent of alienation from politics in Kyiv. Trust in local politics was somewhat higher: 48 per cent of respondents expressed full or partial trust in local councils and mayors, while 52 per cent said they ‘do not trust at all’ and ‘mostly do not trust’ them.

The Ukrainian army was ‘mostly’ or ‘fully trusted’ by about 51 per cent of respondents and therefore remains the institution that enjoys the highest level of trust. The volunteer battalions, by comparison, are seen mostly critically, with 68 per cent of respondents not or mostly not trusting them.

Implications for the parliamentary election

In Ukraine’s constitutional system, the parliamentary election this autumn is even more important than the presidential ballot. The outcome of the latter will have a significant impact on the result of the former. Political parties or blocs that capture real or imagined interests of the south-east have a realistic chance of securing a significant number of seats in the legislature.

As of March 2019, 74 per cent of respondents in the Kyiv-controlled Donbas are intent on voting in the parliamentary election. Only 42 per cent of respondents reported having voted in the last parliamentary election in 2014. Back then, the political forces traditionally associated with the south-east were severely weakened by the Euromaidan. Of the survey respondents who plan to vote in this year’s parliamentary election, 15 per cent said they would vote for the Opposition Bloc, and 12 per cent for Zelenskyi's (as yet non-existent) party, followed by the Opposition Platform—For Life (8 per cent). Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party stands at 6 per cent, and Poroshenko’s bloc at about 5 per cent.

The Donbas electorate seems ready to vote. The region’s experience of war and people’s disappointment in Poroshenko’s presidency have mobilised the population. The electorate’s political views combine a wish for something new but sensitive to the concerns of the regional population (Zelenskyi) and a return to something familiar based on a diffuse conglomerate of regional and oligarchic interests (Boyko/Vilkul). The latter might also reflect a pragmatic hope for peace through a different approach towards Russia.

The survey data show that whoever wins the presidential election will have to engage with a diversity of preferences in the Donbas if the victor hopes to prevent a coherent opposition bloc from forming in the run-up to the parliamentary election.

Gwendolyn Sasse is the director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS).