The presidential election in Ukraine scheduled for March 31, 2019 will be the third one for Yulia Tymoshenko. She placed second in the 2010 and 2014 presidential elections, but this time there is a good chance for her to break the unfortunate tradition.
Tymoshenko had always been the second in various ratings ahead of the previous presidential electoral campaigns. Now, starting from early 2016, she has been the first in the vast majority of rantings. She has improved her positon in terms of several important aspects in recent months. According to a poll of three well-established sociological agencies (the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, the Rating Group and the Razumkov Center) published about a month ago, Tymoshenko's rating (based on the opinion of voters who already made the decision) has for the first time exceeded 20% amounting to 20.7%. Of course, the figure is not impressive but the distance from other competitors has grown.
Two aspects are much more important. After Petro Poroshenko lost the leading positions in ratings a relatively large number of voters have still thought for a long time that he was likely to become the next president. Starting from this August, a relative majority of voters has considered Tymoshenko as the most likely winner in the presidential race. In my opinion this certainly will give her several additional percent of support, as some people who don't have definite political preferences always vote for favorites.
Opinion polls earlier showed that Tymoshenko was winning in the second round only if she competed with Poroshenko or a candidate associated with south-eastern Ukraine or anti-Maidan, Yuri Boiko or Vadim Rabinovich. She was slightly behind all other leaders of the ratings in these schemes. Now Tymoshenko is ahead of Anatoliy Hrytsenko and Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The data shows that Tymoshenko's anti-rating, which is often called the main aspects preventing her from being elected, has a limited effect. 27.5% of voters would vote for her under no circumstances, and this figure for her is much higher than for other real candidates except for Poroshenko. However, Tymoshenko has vast electoral reserves. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Rating Group in October and whose results were published on December 3, 14% of all Ukrainian voters are ready to support her, at the same time 25% of respondents have a positive attitude to her, whereas 64% perceive her in a negative way. The figures are not impressive. But the voting in the second round means choosing a lesser evil, and all other politicians who are currently members of the Ukrainian parliament or hold positions in the executive branch of power had a much worse balance of positive and negative attitudes.
The absence of a media company and the weakness of local party mechanisms that have allegedly not recovered after the party de facto split in 2014 are among obstacles to electing Tymoshenko as president. But it is wrong to speak about local party organizations this way. The Batkyvschina party led by Tymoshenko has 8,900 deputies in local councils of various levels and they were all elected no earlier than in autumn of 2015. Yes, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc is ahead of her by 160 deputies, but other competitors have at least twice as little deputies in local council as she does. Thanks to a network structure Batkyvschina is capable to nominate candidates even at village councils’ elections.
By the way, Tymoshenko's party has always enjoyed the largest support in villages and small towns, as voters are more active there. Probably, this is the reason why the results of Batkyvschina or Tymoshenko herself was much better than opinion polls had shown – the only exception is the 2014 presidential election – and this aspect should also be taken into consideration when making forecast about the election outcome.
As for media outlets owned by Ihor Kolomoiskiy, one of Ukraine's leading oligarchs, they are playing on Tymoshenko's side. She has for a long time been advertised on TV. Her billboards pledging to halve gas tariffs have now joined TV advertisements. This a painful topic for the majority of voters, as given the recent tariff hike, which the government of Volodymyr Groysman said would not be the last, gas prices have grown 230% in U.S. dollar terms while the heating tariff has soared 400% compared to the pre-Maidan times. No surprise that according to the aforementioned poll of the three pollsters, growing public utilities tariffs are the personal problem of 59% of Ukrainians, while just 28% said the same about the Donbas war.
It can frequently be heard that Tymoshenko's weakness is that Poroshenko imposes his agenda which is the fight against "the Russian aggression" to people. He has been doing so for more than four years now and even more actively lately. But ratings of Tymoshenko, who mastered the topic of public utilities tariffs, have been growing all this time. And it will be possible to speak about changing the public, not media agenda only after the conflict with Russia will become a more significant personal problem than growing prices for gas and heating. Opinion polls conducted in November and December have yet to be published, but I think that priorities of Ukrainians have changed considerably during the martial law.
Of course, nationalistic voters are strong in Ukraine, and "repelling the aggression" is much more important for them, but Tymoshenko is not that unconditionally unacceptable for them that they would stage another Maidan not to let her in power. She either helped Poroshenko with his initiatives or declared even a more irreconcilable position. For example, Radical Party leader Oleh Lyashko let himself congratulate people on the Victory Day on May 9, while Tymoshenko has a new calendar of memorial dates and she celebrates only the Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation for Those Who Lost Their Lives during WW II on May 8.
One says that Poroshenko may purge organizations and media linked to Tymoshenko. This scenario cannot be fully denied; however, the president's moral readiness for outstanding actions, to which his predecessors did not approach, does not necessarily mean that he would resort to them. The parliament's adjustment of Poroshenko's martial law initiative and the fact that no incidents happened during the half period of the martial law prove this. And the extension of the martial law would mean rescheduling the presidential election, which looks possible only in case of a big war in Donbas. The sooner the election is, the more likely that state officials will themselves torpedo Poroshenko's adventuristic ideas, if the current rating gap persists. The same could happen to oligarchic media loyal to Poroshenko. It does not necessarily mean that they would switch to Tymoshenko's side, they are more likely to be neutral. But this would be enough. As to the West, its neutrality is obvious. Politicians there are not happy about Tymoshenko, but her victory is not considered as an unacceptable scenario.
This article focuses mainly on Tymoshenko's chance to win the Ukrainian presidential election rather than her views on the Donbas conflict and relations with Moscow. Many politicians change their declarations and adapting themselves to the reality after they come to power. Russia may pin certain hopes on this, just as on the level of mutual understanding that the Kremlin had by the end of her second term as prime minister. However, mutual understanding was in a different geopolitical reality, and Tymoshenko's current statements don't nourish these hopes. Her position on Donbas is rather clear, although there are some unclear details. She thinks that the Minsk Agreements had already played their role and speaks about the victory rather than peace. However, it is clear that this involves the diplomatic victory as a result of talks between the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum also involving Germany and the EU. Russia should make concessions under the West's pressure and Ukraine would get back Donbas with no special status and Crimea.
Moscow hopes that Tymoshenko's rhetoric could theoretically change if she comes to power, but in fact two things put a barrier to such a change. Firstly, Tymoshenko desperately needs the support of the West that has great capacity to change power in Kyiv. This means that primarily the West should support the settlement, and this does not look real until the global trend changes from escalation towards a new cold war to détente.
Secondly, if public utility prices go down, Tymoshenko would get a great deal of people's trust. It is in fact possible as cheap gas produced in Ukraine now absolutely meets the demand of Ukraine's people and budget organizations. However, this measure is populistic for the West, as it thinks that the price of domestically- and internally-produced gas should be equal because the difference in prices breeds corruption. The easiest way to repel such reproaches is to state that Ukraine allegedly protecting Europe from the Russian aggression and that situation in which Ukraine found itself in should be understood. Moreover, the current possibility to meet with demand of people and budget organizations by domestically-produced gas is largely a result of the Kyiv's energy blockade of millions gas and heat consumers in Donbas.