Elephants in the Room

Ukraine’s Election Will Test the Strength of Its Democracy

The outcome of the vote is not nearly as important as the quality of the electoral process.

Supporters of Ukrainian presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko at a pre-election rally in Kiev on March 29. (Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of Ukrainian presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko at a pre-election rally in Kiev on March 29. (Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sunday, Ukrainians go to the polls to elect their next president, in the second such contest since the country reclaimed its democracy from Russian interference in 2014.

This election isn’t just about who will be the next president of Ukraine. The integrity of the Ukrainian state itself is at stake—strong democracy will ultimately serve as the best guarantor of the country’s sovereignty and stability. Any backsliding in the democratic process would serve Russian President Vladimir Putin’s purposes by sowing division, leaving Ukraine vulnerable to further manipulation and halting its path to a European future.

Five years after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbass, Ukraine remains on the front line of Russia’s aggression toward the West. Russia has interfered in every election since Ukraine’s independence—supporting pro-Kremlin candidates, propagating fake and misleading news, and more recently through cyberattacks that threaten the integrity of the election process.

Unlike past elections in which the Kremlin actively sought to install a puppet through which to achieve its ends, Russia’s strategy this time is to sow enough doubt in the electoral process to challenge the legitimacy of the incoming president and corrode the Ukrainian public’s faith in the democratic process. An electoral process that fails to meet international standards for a free and fair contest would amount to an early Christmas present for Putin.

If democracy succeeds in Ukraine, the Ukrainian people will have shown the world that it can succeed anywhere—even in Putin’s own backyard. That’s why he cares so much. As the damage wrought by Putin’s kleptocracy begins to manifest increasingly in the lives of everyday Russians who must cope with the fallout of state plunder and irresponsible policies, the risk of a successful neighboring democracy could inspire ordinary Russians to question the status quo.

Despite Russia’s efforts, there are numerous encouraging signs pointing to the health of Ukraine’s young democracy. For the first time in years, no openly pro-Kremlin candidate is likely to win. The fact that pro-Russian candidates are not competitive indicates that the national consensus around Ukrainian sovereignty and pursuing a European path has solidified since the 2014 revolution.

The actor Volodymyr Zelensky, who plays the role of president in the television drama Servant of the People, leads in the polls. His closest contenders are currently neck and neck, as former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko seeks to outmaneuver incumbent Petro Poroshenko to secure a second-place seat in a runoff scenario against Zelensky. Recent data indicates that Ukrainians are taking an active interest in the election. With a record number of candidates, the outcome is far from certain—a rarity in Eurasia that should be seen as something of a victory in itself. Moreover, the expected high turnout reflected in International Republican Institute polling is an encouraging sign of popular engagement with and faith in the democratic process.

While their country continues to face persistent problems with corruption and daunting economic challenges, Ukrainians have made considerable progress in improving the quality of their democracy and defending their system against Russian interference. Transparency and accountability reforms at the local level are delivering concrete improvements from the bottom up, entrenching the practice and ethos of democracy throughout the country.

Yet much remains to be done to secure a healthy democratic culture and to build a system that responds to the priorities of the Ukrainian people. Incumbent president Petro Poroshenko is perceived as falling short in the fight against corruption. The perceived failure to effectively address corruption has fueled public frustration with national elites and contributed to the rise of outsider candidates like Zelensky, who has no background in politics and whose rise to front-runner status has been fueled by widespread disillusionment with the status quo.

Ultimately, the outcome of the election is not nearly as important as the quality of the electoral process itself. Without a contest that the Ukrainian people see as free and fair, the democratic gains made in the past five years will diminish, and commitment to democracy will slacken—playing into the Kremlin narrative that the Kiev government is unable to respond effectively to the needs of its people, and leaving Ukraine vulnerable to a renewed campaign of Russian interference. As a co-leader of one of the international election observation missions deployed this week to monitor the vote, I am proud to be part of the effort to support the Ukrainian people in this exercise in self-determination.

The United States, Europe, and the international community have a compelling interest in ensuring that Ukraine remains on the path toward a stable, prosperous and pro-Western future, which a resilient democracy can deliver. While the West stands with Ukraine in these elections, it is ultimately up to the Ukrainian authorities to ensure a free and transparent election, and to the Ukrainian people to hold officials accountable. Anything less than a legitimate process would be a setback in Ukraine’s democratic journey and a victory for the Kremlin. While it’s anyone’s guess who the next president will be, the stakes couldn’t be clearer.

Daniel Twining is the president of the International Republican Institute. Prior to joining IRI, Twining was Counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed in his articles for FP are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the International Republican Institute.

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