KIEV, Ukraine -- An election is scheduled May 25 to elect a new Ukrainian president for a five-year term.
Originally scheduled for March 29, 2015, the date was moved following countrywide protests, after the former, pro-Russian president’s decision to reject closer EU ties.
The interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, belongs to the same party, Fatherland, as the current acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov — in power since Viktor Yanukovych was ousted on Feb. 22.
Major civil unrest in the pro-Russian areas of the country could make voting difficult, especially with pro-Moscow separatists having de facto control of several southeastern towns.
Moscow's annexation of Crimea — where the election is also happening, in principle — has deepened the worst East-West rift since the Cold War.
Due to security concerns, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry has divided the country into white, pink and red zones — corresponding, respectively, to safe, risky and violent areas of the country.
Special rapid-response units will be working in the most conflict-prone regions, and police will be deployed throughout the vote-counting.
With some voting commission buildings seized and many government offices occupied by rebels, the process will be challenging.
The Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has deployed 900 observers to monitor the election.
A tenth of the officials are from the U.S., and Washington has provided $11.4 million to make the poll “free and fair.”
With Petro Poroshenko leading by a large margin in polls, a total of 21 candidates are officially running.
Three dropped out but are still listed on ballots because they withdrew too late.
Seven of the candidates have been chosen by political parties, and candidates needed to nominate themselves to the Central Election Commission with a final registration deadline of April 4.
If necessary, a run-off between the two leading contenders will be held June 15.
Petro Poroshenko (UDAR-backed)
The wealthy businessman and independent politician is a former minister of trade and head of the council that runs the national bank.
Known as the “Chocolate King,” Poroshenko controls a large confectionery group called Roshen.
If elected, Poroshenko has said he would sell off his shares.
His other enterprises include car and bus plants, as well as Channel 5, a television station known to be critical of Yanukovych.
Often cited as one of the main financial backers of the Orange Revolution 10 years ago, Poroshenko is also a close ally of Viktor Yushchenko, president of Ukraine from 2005 to 2010.
Poroshenko has a huge lead over the other candidates in opinion polls, but if he does not earn a majority of votes, there will be a runoff.
Born near Odessa but raised in central Ukraine, the businessman has suggested joining NATO is not a good idea.
Yulia Tymoshenko (Fatherland)
The Fatherland leader is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a natural gas tycoon and widely respected populist with a trademark blonde braid.
The Orange Revolution icon was runner-up in Ukraine’s 2010 presidential election.
Like Turchynov, she was released from prison when Yanukovych was deposed.
Found guilty in 2011 and sentenced to seven years in prison for abusing power, parliament voted on February 22 to free Tymoshenko and allow her to run for office again.
With a support base in western and central Ukraine, especially Lviv, the All-Ukrainian Union Fatherland (“Batkivshchyna”) party supports “European values” and easing the business climate.
Fatherland has espoused higher wages, lower taxes and the creation of a new public construction company to build affordable housing.
The party has advocated an anti-corruption campaign against government officials.
Ukrainian membership in the EU is one of the group’s key goals.
Visa-free travel to the EU is another important aim.
Notably, the party seeks mutually beneficial free trade with Russia and better terms for gas imports.
One of the more active groups in the Kiev protests, the party has opposed Russia's influence.
Serhiy Tihipko (Strong Ukraine)
The self-nominated candidate is polling at second or third amongst Ukrainians, having served since 2012 as a vice prime minister.
After being expelled from the Party of Regions, Tihipko said the Strong Ukraine party would be re-established.
The Moldavian-born businessman-cum-politician has advocated making Russian the country’s second official language and supported Ukraine’s decentralization.
But he’s spoken against the separatist drive by pro-Russian armed groups.
Tihipko has criticized Ukraine’s foreign policy of creating a “cordon sanitaire” around Russia, suggesting this strategy has done damage to the country’s economic well-being.
He has prioritized national unity and economic growth over joining the EU.
He has also stated that, for the long term, European integration is worth more than working within the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
He has stated support for the legalization of prostitution.
The billionaire declared to the election commission a 2013 income of $22.4 million.
Mykhailo Dobkin (Party of Regions)
The former governor of Kharkiv oblast and mayor of Kharkiv city has long supported Yanukovych.
Dobkin reportedly accompanied both the former president and Kharkiv mayor Gennady Kernes to Russia, returning subsequently for a major pro-Russian rally.
He has even called for the capital to be relocated from Kiev to Kharkiv, and for a federal structure to be established.
Speaking for the Russophone population, Dobkin has questioned the legality of the interim government.
The exiled president also belongs to the Party of Regions, which aims to defend the rights of eight million ethnic Russians and speakers of the Russian language.
The party has more seats in parliament than any other party and has its strong electoral base in the southeast.
Some of the party’s members, including Oleksandr Yefremov, have called for parts of Ukraine to join the Russian Federation.
Although later expelled from the party, Oleh Tsariov has accused U.S. State Department-funded programs of “inciting a civil war” in Ukraine.
Oleh Tyahnybok (Svoboda)
At the helm of ultra-nationalist Svoboda, Tyahnybok hails from a family of Lviv doctors and is himself a physician.
He has a pro-NATO and anti-Russia stance, having made bold statements about taking Crimea back.
Politically, he has argued for the introduction of an ethnicity category in Ukrainian passports, and for a mandatory Ukrainian-language civil service test.
The All-Ukrainian Union Svoboda (“Freedom”) party seeks to withdraw from Russian organizations, and Tyahnybok reportedly believes Kiev should once again become a nuclear power to deter Moscow.
Opposed to Soviet-era social policies, the party played a major role in EuroMaidan protests.
The hard-right party is accused of anti-Semitism and homophobia, and is labeled by Russia as fascist.
Svoboda claims not to have received backing from Ukrainian oligarchs, and the party criticizes political dominance by wealthy business elites.
Batkivshchyna, UDAR and Svoboda originally agreed to work together and support one candidate.
Dmytro Yarosh of the extremist Right Sector group, known for its role in EuroMaidan protests, is also a candidate.
Oleh Lyashko (Radical Party)
From the northern city of Chernihiv, Lyashko is a member of parliament, where he is leader and sole member of the Radical Party.
Among the stances in his platform, Lyashko supports the introduction of a visa regime with Russia, and an EU ban on entry by Crimean residents with Russian passports.
He also supports banning the Communist Party and Party of Regions.
Lyashko has reportedly called for pro-Russian “saboteurs” to be put to death.
Olha Bohomolets (Socialist Party)
The Kiev-born, U.S.-educated doctor and musician is the head of the Institute of Dermatology and Cosmetology.
During EuroMaidan protests, she encouraged her medical students to take part in the protests.
On her personal website, she says, “Maidan is not just the address but a state of mind.”
Her candidacy was backed by the Socialist Party, formed by some ex-members of the Communist Party — banned after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Anatoly Hrytsenko (Civil Position)
A former defense minister, Hrytsenko’s pro-European party was previously known as Mighty Ukraine.
It was affiliated with Fatherland and UDAR but recently split with them “due to inability to influence the decisions.”
The party had announced a merger with the European Party of Ukraine after weak results in the 2010 local elections.
Before he fled the country, the dismissed former president from the Party of Regions was expected to run for his second, final term as president.
But in February, he said he would not take part, calling the poll “unlawful.”
The popular boxer affiliated with the UDAR party withdrew from the race on March 29, throwing his support behind Poroshenko.
He is running for mayor of Kiev in a local election on the same day as the presidential election, campaigning on pro-European and anti-corruption themes.
Among the candidates who withdrew — but whose names are still technically on the ballot — are Petro Symonenko of the Leninist, pro-Russian Communist Party of Ukraine, and Oleksandr Klymenko of the conservative, nationalist Ukrainian People’s Party.
The outcome of Ukraine’s election could determine the direction of Ukraine’s constitutional reforms and the extent to which Russian-speaking regions of the country might be granted more autonomy under a system of increased federalization.
Moscow is said to prefer a weakened central government in Kiev.
Potential long-term options for disputed areas include true secession from the rest of Ukraine and even full Russian annexation.
Several decentralization referendums have already taken place in regions outside Kiev’s control.
Crimea’s March 16 status referendum
The vote was held on March 16 by the legislature of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the municipal government of Sevastopol, which at the time were both technically part of Ukraine.
Official representatives of the Tatar ethnic minority called for a boycott.
In those polls — with disputed turnouts of 96.77 percent and 95.60 percent in Crimea and Sevastopol, respectively — voters elected to join Russia.
The results were deemed illegal by Kiev and much of the international community.
Thirteen members of the U.N. Security Council voted for a resolution declaring the outcome invalid, which Russia vetoed while China abstained.
Donetsk and Luhansk May 11 status votes
Polls in many locales organized by the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic aimed to legitimize independence from the central government in Kiev, amid ongoing civil strife.
With confusingly worded ballots, supposedely 89.07 percent and 96.20 percent of voters, respectively, voiced support for Donetsk “self-rule” and Luhansk “independence.”
No international government recognized the validity of the referendums, in which the true turnout level was disputed, even as Russia urged “respect” for the outcome.
While modeled on the earlier Crimea vote, these votes generated a comparatively ambiguous status for the southeastern areas with a high percentage of Russian speakers.
Source: Al Jazeera America