Everything You Need To Know About Ukraine’s Somewhat Surprising Presidential Election

A vote for Europe. And a Jewish candidate who outpolled the anti-Semites.

KIEV, Ukraine — Billionaire chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko claimed victory in early presidential elections Sunday after two election polls showed him winning 56 percent of the vote, well above the threshold to avoid a second round. Poroshenko immediately vowed to hold new parliamentary elections, defuse a separatist uprising in the east, move the country towards Europe, and restore relations with Russia. His election is an important step toward pulling the country back from the abyss, but it’s only part of a long process as Ukraine seeks to end the political crisis that deepened when previous president Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia in February after more than 100 died in violent protests against him.

1. Ukrainians’ vote was foremost a call to move the country forward.

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

The high turnout and landslide result was less a show of overwhelming love for Poroshenko than a desire to avoid a potentially divisive second round. Many of those who voted for Poroshenko said they saw him as the best of a bad bunch and wanted to hasten the foregon conclusion of his election. With the next round not scheduled until June 15, a clash would have undermined the eventual winner and given the conflict in the east three weeks to deteriorate further. Ukrainians have bigger problems to worry about — a moribund economy, the prospect of civil war, and the threat of Russian invasion, to name but a few — and want a new leader to start tackling them as soon as possible.

2. Poroshenko’s win was a vote for Ukraine to move closer to Europe.

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

After the trauma of the bloody revolution against Yanukovych — which began with protests over his spurning a deal with the EU in favor of Russia — no candidate could have gotten anywhere without pledging to move the country towards Europe. Poroshenko, however, is by all accounts a passionate believer in a European Ukraine. He speaks excellent English, is on close terms with the eurocrats of Brussels, and backed the protests from the moment they began. This all came at great expense to his own business of selling sweets to Russia, which was damaged by legal reprisals for his political stand.

3. But he still needs to convince Ukrainians he doesn’t represent the bad old days of back-room politics.

Though Poroshenko’s rise in popularity came on the back of his part in the protests, he represents many things Ukrainians united against. He’s a billionaire oligarch who has so far refused to say he’ll sell his influential TV news channel. He’s served in government under every president since independence, including the ousted Yanukovych. He’s cut deals across the country’s murky political spectrum, most notably one brokered by notorious pro-Russia oligarch Dmitry Firtash under which fellow contender and protest leader Vitaly Klitschko dropped out in favor of him. His supporters argue that pragmatist streak is what the country needs to deal with Russia and fix its moribund economy. But whether ordinary Ukrainians can stomach it is another story.

4. Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko is down, but not out.

Stringer / Reuters

The poor result for Tymoshenko, who failed even to force a second round, indicated Ukrainians’ wariness of a return to the messianic populism and machine politics she is indelibly associated with. Tymoshenko conceded the vote to Poroshenko with uncharacteristic grace, but don’t count her out just yet. The interim government is still packed with her close allies, many of whom may stay on. She also runs the best-organized party in Ukraine, Fatherland, and will undoubtedly remain a force going into parliamentary elections later this year.

5. Eastern Ukraine is almost totally cut off from the rest of the country.

Roy Gutman / MCT

As late as a week ago, advisors to the governor of Donetsk confidently predicted armed separatists there would disrupt the vote in a no more than a third of the province. On Sunday, only 20 percent of polling stations opened, none of them in the provincial capital, as poll workers faced violence and intimidation. Even fewer people managed to vote in neighboring Lugansk, known jokingly as “Luganda” for its isolation and lawlessness. Many of those in regions where voting did took place stayed away.

6. The region doesn’t have a political force that represents it either.

Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters

As recently as a year and a half ago, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions polled over 90 percent in many eastern regions, where it was seen as the only force representing the working-class Russian speaking population. But after Yanukovych’s flight it has become a mere shell of itself. Many key players either in Russian exile or out of the party; most of those who remain are despised by their own electorate, who gave candidate Mikhail Dobkin a dismal showing of about two and a half percent. The party is now such a toxic brand that half of its lawmakers have left, and many observers predict it may soon cease to exist. But no force has yet emerged to replace it as the voice of Ukraine’s east.

7. Many Ukrainians are furious with the government’s failure to quell the separatist movement in the east, judging by the surprisingly good result for fringe candidate Oleh Lyashko.

A relative unknown until recently, Radical Party leader Lyashko came a surprise third with eight percent of the vote. To contrast the government’s feeble attempts quell separatists in Donetsk, Lyashko formed his own vigilante militia to carry out gangland-style attacks on rebels. He even kidnapped and interrogated a leader of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic,” then proudly posted the result to YouTube.

8. Despite what you see on Russian TV, support for far-right groups is minimal.

David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters

Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh and Svoboda head Oleh Tyahnibok, both of whom lead nationalist movements widely considered violent and anti-Semitic, polled about one percent each — less combined than the total for the only Jewish candidate in the race, businessman Vadim Rabinovich. That should go some way to ending their status as far-right bogeymen Russia has used to smear Kiev’s interim government of a “junta” of “fascists” and “neo-Nazis.”

Russian state TV nonetheless claimed that Yarosh got 37 percent of the vote.

9. Nobody knows what kind of parliament Poroshenko will have to deal with after snap elections.

Stringer / Reuters

Poroshenko has vowed to hold snap elections for a new parliament as soon as possible, but it’s not even clear when elections might be or under what authority he can dissolve the current body. The key forces, Tymoshenko’s Fatherland and what remains of the Party of Regions, stand to lose heavily under a new vote and may work to prevent it or cut deals with fringe forces like Lyashko’s Radical Party. Poroshenko’s key ally there, Klitschko’s UDAR party, is well-organized but has consistently failed to make itself heard in the cut-throat world of Ukrainian politics. And, Ukraine being Ukraine, it’s entirely possible new parties may appear from nowhere in no time at all.

10. Russian president Vladimir Putin also has yet to reveal his next move.

Ria Novosti / Reuters / Reuters

Poroshenko’s landslide victory is a major message to Putin, who said that Ukraine’s government had come to power in an “armed coup” and refused to recognize it. As his victory began to seem inevitable in recent weeks, Putin publicly softened his stance, going so far as to indicate on Friday that he would “respect” the result of the election and work with Ukraine’s new president. But with Russia threatening to hike Ukraine’s gas bill to a level it can’t pay and at least tacitly backing the separatists in the east, Poroshenko will still have an uphill task on his hands.

11. Hundreds of protesters are still camped out on Independence Square in Kiev — and will be sure to grow if things go sour.

Claudia Himmelreich / MCT

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