Bad weather can change everything in Ukraine elections, — Olga Onuch

On Sunday the 31st of March 2019, Ukrainians are going to the polls to elect a new president. 39 candidates are on the ballot, including a man who plays an ordinary person who gets elected president on television, and now he’s running for president in real life. Marta Dyczok discusses the campaign with political scientist Professor Olga Onuch

Show hosts

Marta Dyczok,

Oksana Smerechuk


Olga Onuch

Bad weather can change everything in Ukraine elections, — Olga Onuch
Bad weather can change everything in Ukraine elections, — Olga Onuch

Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. We’re bringing you our feature interview with interview host Marta Dyczok who talks to political scientist Olga Onuch about the elections for President of Ukraine. The candidates, their ratings, their strategies – Olga Onuch tells us what she has been observing as Ukrainians prepare to go to vote.

FEATURE INTERVIEW: What is likely to happen on election day? Political scientist Olga Onuch speaks to Marta Dyczok about public opinion polls, voter concerns, and more.

Dyczok: On Sunday the 31st of March Ukrainians are going to the polls to elect a new president. It’s been a really interesting campaign; there are 39 candidates on the ballot, including a man who plays an ordinary person who gets elected president on television, and now he’s running for president in real life. I’m Marta Dyczok for Hromadske Radio, and with us to talk about this is one of the world’s leading experts on Ukraine, Ukraine’s politics, Professor Olga Onuch. She is a Senior Lecturer, which is like Associate Professor of Politics at Manchester University. She’s also an Associate at Nuffield College, Oxford, and of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. She was also a Research Fellow at the Davis Centre at Harvard University; has many publications, books, and articles on Ukraine; does extremely interesting research, including some on this recent election. So, thank you very much for finding the time to speak to us, Professor Onuch.

Onuch: Thank you, thank you for having me.

Dyczok: Let’s start with the big picture. it’s been a long campaign, and there’s been a lot of international attention to it, but just let’s do a quick recap of what were the main issues, and who are the main candidates in this election.

Onuch: Well I think the interesting thing to think about here, what were the main issues during the actual campaign vs what were the main issues for Ukrainians over the last year, right? The election campaign wasn’t really focused on issues as much as it perhaps should have been. Certainly, there was a lot of mention of corruption, there was a lot of mention of the war. But the actual policy propositions that were being lobbied by the various candidates are all over the place. Lots of populist rhetoric, lots of empty promises. Much of the same that we’ve seen in some of the previous elections. So that was a little disappointing I think, and it shows us, or it helps us understand why we are where we are today. Which is almost in a complete deadlock in terms of the top three candidates. So, although Zelensky is leading in the polls –

Dyczok: I’m going to interrupt you. Can you just recap who the top three frontrunners are?

Onuch: Yes of course, I was just going to do that. So the top three candidates would be Zelensky who is leading in the polls at about 27.7%. That’s data taken from the last joint survey by KIIS, Rozumkov, and Rating Group, where they put together all of their surveys so it’s about 15,000 people that were surveyed. And the statistical error, sampling error here is under 1%, so it’s about not 0.8% which is extremely good, so these numbers are quite robust. So he –

Dyczok: So, these are the top polling organizations in Ukraine that have been –

Onuch: In Ukraine.

Dyczok: Thank you.

Onuch: And Zelensky, yes has 27.7%, he’s leading. And he is followed quite closely by both Petro Poroshenko, the current President of Ukraine with about 16%, and Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister of Ukraine with also just about just over 16% for both of them. Now if we look at some other polls the numbers are slightly different, but more or less they show the same thing. That Zelensky has a lead, but the lead is not huge in any respect. It’s still within this place about 7-8% that, depending on the turnout, can really change dramatically in terms of the outcomes. And Yulia Tymoshenko and Petro Poroshenko have been in a dead heat almost the entire actual campaign since the beginning of this year. They are statistically tied, and they have been so only until the last surveys. There was one that finished by Razumkov Centre on the 26th of March, and then one that was conducted by KIIS on the 22nd of March. And both of those put Poroshenko in a very, very slight lead ahead of Tymoshenko, by about 2%. And that is statistically significant.

Olga Onuch Image Hromadske Television on YouTube

Dyczok: Can I ask you – s

orry to interrupt – can I ask you about a few other candidates who have not been receiving very much attention in international media? And these are the candidates that represent the pro-Russian positions in Ukraine’s political spectrum. A few polls that I saw earlier in the month were showing that (Yuriy) Boyko and (Oleksandr) Vilkul, these are people who come out of the political party of the previous president, are actually polling in the top ten. So, could you speak a little bit about those candidates, because they’re not in the top three, but they’re still sort of in leading positions.

Onuch: Well actually, Boyko makes it into the top five. Which is –

Dyczok: Ah, even higher than I realized.

Onuch: Yes, so I was going to move to him next. He polls consistently at about 10% now. So –

Dyczok: I’m sorry, I’m going to interrupt you again. Can you remind our listeners a little bit about this candidate?

Onuch: Boyko is representing pretty much the old Party of Regions party that now is defunct. He is perceived to be the main pro-Russian presidential candidate in this campaign. He has recently taken several meetings with high profile, both pro-Russians, Medvedev, including in the meeting with the Russian –

Dyczok: The Russian Prime Minister.

Onuch: Prime Minister. Former (Russian) President. So, he’s clearly seen as, representing this continuation of a very particular wing of the Party of Regions. And the problem with his polling, it’s about 10%, this is coming from a subset of voters that are highly unlikely to turn out in large numbers, and they are predominantly in the east of the country and in the south of the country. And we know that they have not turned out for the past two elections in 2014. And they are also among the people who are reporting both high numbers of not being interested in the elections, not seeing the elections as changing the potential outlook for Ukraine, maybe even making the elections bringing negative outcomes to Ukraine, and they’re just unlikely to turn out in large numbers. So, we’re probably going to see perhaps a slightly lower outcome for Boyko.

Dyczok: On election night.

Onuch: On election night, yes. Which I think is going to signal, or it’s going to support these feelings that people in the South and East, as well as the internally displaced people that have been forcibly displaced because of the conflict in the far east of the country. They have now been reporting in several studies, including by ZOiS, studies on the internally displaced, and Elise Giuliano’s work, and several other people that have reported on, specifically looked on the easterners and on IDPs or internally displaced people. And they have found that these people feel like they are left behind, and that their votes don’t matter, that Kyiv is not listening to them. That certainly Poroshenko, the current President, is not representing, is not representing their interests. So, I think they will be even less motivated to turn out, seeing that their top candidate is in fourth place and highly unlikely to enter into the runoff for the second round. And the other candidates that they may have supported as you mentioned are just not even going to make it even into the top five.

Dyczok: You’ve raised two really important points there that I’d like to jump in on – one is the voting rights of people who have been displaced. And what you said was very interesting because they are the ones who left the Donbas area where the war is going on. So why would they be perceived as supporters of the old regime if they have already been displaced? Because that seems sort of counter-intuitive, no?

Onuch: Well, their political preferences may still align with what we would consider pro-Russian political preferences. The IDPs are not any more, I mean they are slightly more likely than those who stayed behind to have different political preferences. But I don’t think that shift has been as profound as you would expect or perhaps as some are expecting. Yes, there is some socialization of internally displaced people when they do move to the Centre or to the West of Ukraine. The majority have moved actually to other eastern parts of Ukraine –

Dyczok: As close as possible to their homes. That’s right. 

Onuch: Yes, but also it’s, they are the ones who are, in several surveys that I’ve seen dealing with IDPs, and again, ZOiS in Berlin has done a few, and several people have done really great qualitative research as well, that we keep seeing that they feel like the state has forgotten about them, that the state does not care, that the parties and politicians and parties currently in power are not taking care of their interests, and are not concerned about them. So, I do not see that they have been courted in any way by either Poroshenko or Tymoshenko, or Zelensky. Maybe Zelensky is this wild card that maybe – we don’t have great data on IDPs in terms of the polling leading up to the election, it is a particularly difficult, as you know yourself, you’ve done research on this, particularly difficult group to capture.

Dyczok: But it’s about two million people, so this is not insignificant, so it’ll be interesting to watch, because this is another thing I wanted to ask you, and you’ve already answered that, like some of the factors that are likely to influence the outcome on Sunday. Things like voter turnout, and I mean, I don’t know what your research has shown, but polls sometimes are unpredictable. And there’s been a lot of polling that’s been done, a lot of detailed polling. But is there – you’re an experienced election watcher, so how likely do you think that there will be some sort of surprises on Sunday?  

Onuch: I mean, surprises are possible. I don’t think that we’re dealing with, you know, maybe what we were dealing with in the ’90s in Ukraine where the polls were inaccurate or manipulated, or unprofessional to a certain extent. Certainly, when we look at both the work of – especially the work of KIIS I would say, but Razumkov, and their consortium with also the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, this is a highly professional group of people, and their polls are absolutely excellent.

Dyczok: Oh, I’m not questioning the polls, sorry to interrupt. It’s just we’ve seen surprises in elections, in the United States, nobody expected that Trump would be elected, right? The polls weren’t showing. So, I think the polls are accurately capturing public opinion as it is, but I guess it’s impossible to know. So, I’m not going to push you on that but I’m just curious –  

Onuch: No, but actually I would like to say something about just that, because I recently had this exact conversation with my colleague here at my department, and my PhD student. And the polls in the case of the 2016 (US) elections were showing exactly what happened at the national level in terms of a popular vote, which is why it’s important to understand how voting will take place in Ukraine. They did show that there would be a Trump win, sorry, a Hillary win, and she did win the popular vote. And if anyone bothered to look at the polling by state, and even state-wide polls specifically, they would have seen that this pattern was far less predictable, and a tie, like in the case of Ukraine. So, this is where it gets really important. The IDPs, whether or not they will have – whether or not they will be able to vote, and whether or not they will have – they will be able to get their registration set up in time or they have done that in time –

Dyczok: Well they’re legally entitled to vote, it’s just a question of whether they, as you said, whether they did go through the procedure of registering and whether they will turn out on election day.  

Onuch: So that first thing is, have they registered in the numbers that would be sufficient for them to have this impact in the election? The second thing, are they going to turn out? And based on what we know, that I don’t believe that registration has been as high as people would have liked it to be. Which is highly problematic, right? It’s not a direct disenfranchisement of a large voting population, but there is something seriously problematic happening there, and they’re highly unlikely to turn out. And amongst those who are saying they’re not turning out, they are more likely to be in the East and amongst the IDP population, when data on IDPs is available, which I stress, it’s not.

Dyczok: It’s hard to get that data. Let’s switch gears here a little bit. The election campaign’s been a very long and interesting one. Have you seen any dirty tricks during this campaign, things that people have been doing to try to discredit the others, and maybe something that we, we’re seeing as the election gets closer: are we seeing an increase in tensions and sort of nasty smear campaigns, or perhaps things like… 1+1 will be airing that show “Sluha Narodu” which stars one of the candidates. Is this illegal, is this a dirty trick? Are you seeing sort of what the election campaign’s been like? 

Onuch: So, overall, I mean, that’s an interesting question. I don’t think this election has been particularly problematic in those terms as compared to some of the previous elections in Ukraine’s history, and certainly in the two years leading up to this election there has been a consistent and focused attack on the presidency of Petro Poroshenko by his opponents on both sides of the political spectrum. But yes, certainly showing “The Servant of the People” TV serial where, TV series where Zelensky is a high school teacher that, unbeknownst to him, is elected to the presidency which was actually quite a popular series.

Dyczok: Yes, I know, I actually tuned in and watched it, it’s not bad. I can see why it’s popular. But, like, I just wonder how many people will realize, is this a TV series or is this the candidate on television, I mean electorates are not that sophisticated, right?  

Onuch: No.

Dyczok: And this seems to me like a sneaky thing to be doing to try to improve his ratings even further.

Onuch: Not even sneaky. I think it should be outright, I mean, I think there should be legal questions about it. I mean I’m not a legal scholar in terms of elections and this does not break the rules per say.

Dyczok: It does not. It does not break the rules but it’s sneaky. 

Onuch: But there’s a clear issue here and, you know, the show is also available online to watch so if people wanted to watch it they could do so at any time. Of course, one of the major channels to do this in the days right before the election is particularly problematic. I, yes, this is hugely problematic. It is likely to increase his numbers a bit, but I don’t think this is going to be a major shift. This is not going to be a- I mean, he already has the name recognition. He’s an incredibly popular actor and comedian, very well known. When we think of political science theory, a lot of his, a lot of the reasons why people are backing him is because he’s not the other two top candidates.

Dyczok: Yes, he’s the outsider. 

Onuch: He’s the outsider candidate, they have very high levels of disapproval, and the other thing is he has name recognition. So, if Hrytsenko, for instance, who we have not yet talked about today, who is-

Dyczok: Sure, let’s talk about him now. 

Onuch: Yes, this is my big surprise that he’s still polling at around 8 or 9 percent.

Dyczok: I’m going to ask you to just remind our listeners who this is.  

Onuch: Right, so. Anatoliy Hrytsenko. He is a former military officer and he is perceived to be part of the opposition, the United Opposition, in parliament. He has recently received the backing of other one-time presidential candidates, and he is seen as part of the opposition against Poroshenko, specifically, in parliament. He is widely supported in the west of Ukraine and he is perceived to be a pro-Ukrainian candidate and also fiercely opposed to Russian annexation of Crimea, and Russia more broadly in its constant involvement in Ukrainians’ politics and the conflict in the East. He is a tricky candidate because he’s quite conservative and he doesn’t appeal to the cosmopolitan urban elites as much and, which we have now in Ukraine, and he doesn’t appeal also to young people in the same way that-

Dyczok: Oh, he’s not charismatic at all. 

Onuch: At all.

Dyczok: I mean he’s very smart, but he’s a slightly stuffy older man who’s repeating old messages. So, I’m surprised at his popularity and that the other candidates sort of decided, let’s unite behind him. Because I think his win-ability is low. 

Onuch: I don’t know if his win-ability is low, to be perfectly honest. In runoffs, if he got to the second round he would stand a chance to win against Poroshenko, and against potentially Tymoshenko, although it would be quite a close race. He would not win against Zelensky, according to the various calculations. But he does not have the same name recognition, even though he has been in politics a long time, that Zelynsky does. There are a lot of people that might have turned to Hrytsenko if he was more charismatic, and if he had a higher profile. Because his actual platform does align with a lot of the people who are looking for an alternative. And he is not an oligarch, or an oligarchic candidate, right? And Zelynsky is.

Dyczok: Can you speak a little bit to that point? Zelynsky as oligarchic candidate.

Onuch: Well, he is perceived to be entire backed by Petro Poroshenko’s perhaps arch nemesis, currently in Ukraine, entirely financed by a particular oligarch and his financial group.

Dyczok: Who is also the owner of the TV station where this show airs. So, there’s been quite a lot of attention on that point. You’ve mentioned a few times that no-one is likely to win in the first round, that there is likely to be a second round. For non-experts, could you briefly explain Ukraine’s electoral system? What does this mean there’s going to be a second round? And who’s likely to win? 

Onuch: In the first round of presidential elections if no candidate receives 50% of the vote or higher, then there is a run-off. The top two candidates, who received a plurality of the vote, which could be under 20% of the vote each, they go to a second round. This happens within a month of the first round, and then the voters choose between these two candidates. Juan Linz, a famous political scientist once wrote about the perils of presidentialism, that it’s particularly divisive, because the winner wins all. But in these kinds of systems, like in Ukraine it’s particularly problematic. Because the top two candidates may only net something like 30% of the general electorate’s favour. That means the broad majority of the voters…

Dyczok: Is not represented. 

Onuch: Is not represented. And would rather somebody else. And then they are forced to choose between two candidates that they did not particularly like in the first place. Which, I think, merits a lot of conversation in Ukraine, specifically in the case of this year’s election, where you do have the top candidate likely to net maybe around 20%, and a second candidate around 16, 17 or maybe close to 20%. That will mean that at least 60% of the voting population, of voters who did participate, not including those who weren’t motivated enough to go out to the polls, but of those who participated, they will not have a choice between somebody that they actually preferred.

Dyczok: Well, I think you’re right, political systems are complicated, and they’re not necessarily that democratic. As you said, in the US election the popular vote went to one candidate, and power went to another candidate. Let’s talk a little bit about foreign dimensions here. The Russian capital, the Kremlin, has been watching this election, they’ve been making statements about it. There have been statements coming out of Washington. What’s the foreign dimension here? What’s the bigger picture outside of Ukraine? What are people thinking? Is there any interference in this election? 

Onuch: I mean, as far as direct interference into the electoral process, at this point I don’t think that at this point the OSCE has seen anything like that in particular. Other than the obvious direct interference, which is the ongoing conflict in the eastern provinces of Ukraine. This has been constant, and there has been some campaigning specifically in the Ukrainian controlled territories of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces where there has been some campaigning, that has been the spreading of fake news and this sort of thing that has been ongoing for the past years. So, there is very little to show that there is particularly direct targeting in the last few months of the election. There have been as we know there have skirmishes in the seas, in the straits, we know that there is ongoing various movement in terms of the conflict in the Eastern provinces. So, there are these things, but they have been ongoing for five years, so there is nothing to show that there is a particular escalation of this. No there have been some suggestions that radical right-wing organizations are getting funding and support from Russia as well, as far as I know this is very difficult to confirm.

Dyczok: Well yes.

Onuch: But the possibility is there and beyond that I don’t think that particular foreign context has changed much. So, we know that Russia is an aggressor state when it comes to Ukraine, we know that this conflict has not reached any real resolution in the last few years, and we know that whilst there has been ongoing support from the EU from NATO and from specifically the US, and also Canada specifically – we know that this has not been enough in terms of changing the dynamics on the ground. But I don’t think, I mean, although the war is one of the top priorities for Ukrainian’s clearly the top concern, so is corruption. And so is basic economic deprivation that has hit particular parts of the country in ways that we have not seen since the 90’s. So, this is something that I think has been a missed opportunity amongst all of the candidates, not speaking about these things in a more pragmatic and practical way. The corruption not on the grand-scheme, the millions and billions that have been ciphered around the world and exchanging pockets and all this what millionaires and billionaires are doing in Ukraine, but the everyday corruption. Having to pay to go to use school, pay for your exams, pay to get basic care in a hospital.

Dyczok: So, it’s the low-level corruption that affects people on a daily basis that I think is where a lot of the dissatisfaction comes from. Professor Onuch, let me ask you another question, while the elections campaign, or the election itself will be on Sunday and Ukraine as you have pointed out is a country at war, do you see any kind of, any danger on election day? Do you see any sources of tensions that could escalate? Has that been part of the campaign, are people talking about this, is this something to worry about?

Onuch: I think there is no actionable evidence that there is a particular threat on election day. But this being said, I know that the Ukrainian government has deployed various security services across the country for the purpose of the conducting of the elections. The OSCE has a massive presence as do individual country missions to Ukraine, some of the largest we have seen even when comparing it to the 2004 elections.

Dyczok: And these are election monitoring, international election monitoring teams?

Onuch: Yes, and so I think if anything does arise we will very quickly know that it is happening. There have been concerns over specifically radical right actors and how they might disturb elections in parts of the country. Again, this is not based on the people that I have spoken to, this is not something that is actionable, that it is it perceived as a threat that is so significant that a particular series of actions need to be put in place…

Dyczok: That’s very reassuring. So, there are tensions there but nothing terribly worrying. Professor Onuch you’ve been doing some of your own surveys and research can you tell us a little a bit about that or is it too early? 

Onuch: It is a little too early because we are actually going to get back the data on Friday…

Dyczok: What are you collecting?

Onuch: So, we are collecting, actually it is part of a really large project where we are studying what motivates and mobilizes people to either engage in their politics through voting, or through protesting or leave the country through migration.

Dyczok: Oh, my Goodness that sounds fascinating!

Onuch: Thank you well we think so. And it is part of a multi-country project so we are studying the national populations and the migrants of Ukraine, Poland, Morocco and Brazil and their migrant travels to countries within the EU.

Dyczok: So, will have to have you on after once the data has come in and we will have a special show on that. But just to sort of wrap up this pre-elections sort of curtain raiser is there anything that you would like to add cause, I asked you a number of things but maybe I missed something?

Onuch: No, I think that the main message here is that there will be a lot of people doing various vote calculations in their mind a lot of voters over the next few days. They might not be voting for who they actually would rather vote but in order to ensure another candidate not getting into the second round. Which is going to be interesting for all of us to watch and the data that we are collecting is going to help us understand that better. And people really need to pay attention to who is likely to turn out and whether in the next few days and maybe the 1+1 showing of ‘Servant of the People’ will do this. Each of the top three candidates now really needs to mobilize their electorate and this is slightly different electorates. So, for Zelensky these are younger people, these tend to be also young men, specifically. And they tend to be less educated, and they tend to be in Center-Eastern South of the country. If his team is able to mobilize enough of these individuals then he is probably going to have the same result as in polling. When it comes to Petro Poroshenko, he has been courting the pensioners for the entire campaign which is a really great strategy, if you know something about voting behaviour. Because the elderly and pensioners are actually very likely to turn out they are actually more likely to turn out than younger people. So, he is polling particularly well in the Center and in the West of the country so perhaps his gamble, on what I think is quite a clumsy campaign slogan about the military, the language and faith of the country, that could work if on election day they are able to mobilize enough Westerners and Central Ukrainians, specifically those who are older. And when it comes to Yulia (Tymoshenko), she polls particularly well in in the Center and amongst women, and we also know that women are more likely to turn out to vote in Ukraine than men. So, again if she is able to in the last three days to mobilize that base she also then has a higher chance to get into the second round, so this is what it is all going to be about. Bad weather can change everything.

Dyczok: I was about to say let’s hope for good weather, because that also has a very important impact on voter turnout. It sounds like it is going to be a really interesting day for Ukraine, we will be watching carefully for the results. Thank you very much for your interesting analysis, we’ve been speaking with Professor Olga Onuch from Manchester University, I am Marta Dyczok for Hromadske Radio and thanks for listening!


‘Give Me Your Hand and We Will Fly!’ These are lyrics from a song by Шосте Чуття, which means Sixth Sense. A band from L’viv. As Ukrainians prepare to head to the polls, perhaps the SIXTH SENSE might help with the right choice. Here’s the Remix / Lemy Dance Version of Дай мені руку. Enjoy!


Next week we will be bringing you another topical interview with our host Bohdan Nahaylo. So be sure to tune in for a new episode. And we’d love to hear from you. Write to us at: [email protected] I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.

Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Caitilin O”Hare, Oksana Smerechuk, Leah Wagner and Alexandra Wishart. Music selected by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineers Adam Courts and Andriy Izdryk. Web support by Kyrylo Loukerenko. E-mail distribution Ilona Sviezhentseva. Special thanks to 94.9 CHRW Radio Western.