With 98.3% of ballots cast in the Ukrainian presidential elections counted, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is 14.3%, or a couple of percent points more than exit polls announced, behind Volodymyr Zelensky. Yes, there are many examples in the world history of elections when a much bigger difference was overcome in the second round. However, these examples are not appropriate for Ukraine now. Petro Poroshenko has almost no chance to be reelected and that is why:
1. Usually a candidate who came second in the first round wins the runoff thanks to public support from other key candidates or at least their voters. But in this case this is impossible. March opinion polls that slightly bridged the gap between Zelensky and Poroshenko showed that the electorate of such candidates will sway to Zelensky rather than the president. This applies to almost all of seven candidates who didn't get to the second round but who got more than 1%. This to a greater extent applies to the main chasers, Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Boyko. The only exception is the voters of candidate from the nationalistic party Svoboda, Ruslan Koshulinskiy, but he indicated that he wouldn't openly support Poroshenko, and his voters (1.62%) won't play a great role.
A situation where one of the former candidates will announce his support of Poroshenko regardless of his voters' opinion shouldn't come to reality either. Yes, Rinat Akhmetov, who is behind Oleh Lyashko (5.47%) and Oleskadr Vilkul (4.16%), will profit if Poroshenko stays in power, and the specifics of the second round would theoretically allow them to support Poroshenko partly saving their faces. Well, against all the odds, the country cannot be given to the hands of an unprofessional person, he could ruin the country, and we won't be able to change nothing at the parliamentary elections. Actually, this tactics would be reasonable if the difference had been smaller. And now it turns out that you cannot help Poroshenko and will spoil the relationship with the new president. The Ukrainian political scene is merged with Ukrainian business that doesn't oppose authorities until absolutely necessary. This is likely to be one of the reasons why no candidate has supported Poroshenko after the first round.
2. Theoretically, an agreement with a candidate, or rather people behind him, can be reached. This theory has recently been voiced in Russian media by director of the International Institute of Newly Established States Alexei Martynov. The essence of the theory is that oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy, who is behind Zelensky, will play into hands of Poroshenko so that not to be responsible for the situation in the country but so that later to get 30%-40% of seats in the Verkhovna Rada and to control it. But firstly this option contradicts the political style of Kolomoyskiy, who is a risky and inflexible player. Secondly, it is not real because of the current difference between Zelensky and Poroshenko. It is one thing to just ask Zelensky to shorten sail, which could help Poroshenko if they were close enough. And it is another thing to assist falsifications and to make supporters of the race leader not to vote which means deliberately disappointing them... But such apparent and unparalleled Zelensky's defeat (obviously with the candidate's direct engagement) will make voters disappointed in his party, the People's Servant, and he won't get control of the Rada.
3. Large-scale falsifications in Poroshenko's favor are a mere spook story. Yes, undoubtedly there were falsifications in the first round but their effect was limited judging by the results. And these results would demotivate those who perpetrated these falsifications and local authorities that worked in Poroshenko's support.
4. The escalation of the situation in Donbas could have theoretically led to martial law, but Poroshenko in fact failed to get the West's authorization for such actions, and there are impossible without such authorization. Both the president and Verkhovna Rada had a chance to eternalize themselves without imposing martial law. I previously wrote about this technology – group of Rada members asks the Constitutional Court to explain if the fact of Russia's aggression that is recognized by the law compels the president to introduce martial law. And legal provisions are written the way that the Constitutional Court would have had nothing to do but to say that it compels.
I suspect that the law on Donbas reintegration was adopted in search for such an option. The fact that no one went to the Constitutional Court indicate the extent to which the West controls Ukraine. It is not about rejecting Poroshenko. On the contrary, apparently we would not have got the tomos from the Constantinople Patriarchate without the American support, and Western media showed more sympathy to him ahead of the elections. But there is a deadline. The elections should be held on time, so that to give pretext to speak about "democratic Ukraine." That is why the West didn't like martial law late last year. Although Poroshenko is a preferable option, there are plenty more fish in the sea. Moreover, changing a person in power in post-Maidan Ukraine doesn't mean changing political regime.
5. Poroshenko will be mobilizing his electorate. But his first statements show that he is going to do that through his traditional anti-Russian rhetoric. This technology showed its limited capabilities in the first round and led to the opposite effect, the mobilization of voters in southeastern Ukraine. It is likely that a large part of them voted in the first round for Zelensky as the strongest Poroshenko's opponent. The same is likely to happen in the second round.
Poroshenko hopes that quite a lot of labor emigrants will come back home in Ukraine's Western regions as the elections day coincides with the Catholic Easter. But the president is losing 2.5 million votes to the race leader, while a 10% higher voter turnout in three Galicia regions (and these are the only regions where Poroshenko beat Zelensky) means that there will be additional 250,000 voters and not all of them will support the president.
Moreover, it's likely that relatives of many emigrants had already voted in their stead using their domestic passports in the first round. The turnout in Western Ukraine didn't differ much from the turnout at the 2014 parliamentary election, despite Minister of Interior Affairs Arsen Avakov's threats to bring to account members of elections commissions who gave ballots to relatives of those who are outside the country. The threats may come to reality right in between the two rounds, and the turnout in the regions that support Poroshenko will on the contrary go down even despite the arrival of the some number of labor migrants for the Easter holidays.
Finally, the difference in the number of votes given the absence of support of the president on behalf of former candidates may foster despair in some voters and they will simply not come to the elections.
6. One of the most popular arguments in support of Poroshenko's chances is that Zelensky's voters will see that he is actually "nothing" in between the two rounds and will get disappointed in him, and the key role here will be played by debates. Apparently, this scenario doesn't envisage that voters will cast ballots for the president; however, a large number of those who will stay at home will play into the hands of Poroshenko.
However, during the whole electoral campaign Zelensky's voters weren't particularly interested in his position on key problems. They believed that he was a decent person, and that was enough for them. It is hard to understand why they would suddenly open their eyes in between the two rounds. I suppose that this may happen but I cannot imagine that many people do so that Poroshenko's victory in the second round will be secured. Moreover, the traditional motivation of the second round – choosing lesser evil – will play against the president. In this case the elections will turn into the vote of confidence in Poroshenko, and the first round has already shown the extent of his resentment in Ukrainian society.
As for debates, both Ukrainian and American elections showed that they have little effect on voters' preferences. For example, it was expected that TV debates between the three opinion polls leaders were to take place on March 29. Only Tymoshenko came. She dropped out of the race. So, if Zelensky doesn't appear, it won't play greatly against him.
And if he comes, it is unlikely that Poroshenko will "beat" him intellectually. Such a scenario would be real, if the race leader made populist promises that one could have tried to rationally disavow, but Zelensky made no such promises. And one should not expect his uncertainty during the debates, as he is not just an artist but a comedian and could easily "snub into silence."