Ukraine doesn’t cease to amaze me. It’s a very young democracy, having broken away from the Soviet Union in 1991 along with the other 14 that comprised the erstwhile Soviet bloc. They decided to have their own Constitution and became a parliamentary republic soon after. This Slavic nation with a very long history has seen its borders, especially on the western front change every now and then in the last few centuries.
Ukraine has a population of over 42 million (1st March 2019 ) and is the largest country in terms of landmass in the whole of Europe. It has faced two major civil revolutions in the decade and a half of the 21st century. The Orange Revolution in 2002 was one of a kind civil expression and in 2013 the Euro-maidan movement ousted then President Yankovich seen as a Russian stooge and sent a strong message to Russia to stop meddling in their affairs.
In 2019 the people of Ukraine have again ushered in a different kind of change, most emphatically. In the Presidential elections held in March – April they chose 41 year old comedian, Volodymr Zelensky, with no political experience to take over from incumbent Petro Poroshenko, the chocolate man elected to the post in 2014.
The Ukrainian President, as the Head of State, is mainly responsible for security, foreign affairs and international treaties and has a five year term. He does not have executive powers and does not report to the Rada or Parliament. The Parliamentary elections which elects the representatives are held separately and the winning party elects a Prime Minister who is responsible for all the internal affairs.
The Presidential elections has two rounds of public voting. In March 2019, Ukraine held the first round of the Presidential elections where almost 40 candidates staked a claim. Mr. Zelinsky with over 30 percent of the votes was a clear winner and Poroshenko came in a distant second with 16 percent. Clearly the country was divided in giving Poroshenko a second term or replacing him with a rookie like Zelensky.
On April 21st the run off between the top two candidates from the first round was held. Few days prior a public debate between Zelensky and Poroshenko was held in the football stadium as per law. The candidates also have to undergo a health and drug test. Though Poroshenko, a seasoned politician with a masters in international relations and an ex-Foreign Minister put up a brave show, it did little to tilt the public mood in his favor.
Zelensky rallied the youth, through social media and his comedy shows, one of which he actually played a President doing wonderful things for the people. Zelensky has a long track record of comedy shows, right from his student days and hit the national television scene over a decade ago. He has a successful business in the entertainment industry and hence great visibility in the country.
While Poroshenko is credited with strengthening the army, and the cultural identity of Ukraine by spreading the use of the Ukrainian language over that of Russian which was used by a large section of people, especially the older generation. He presented the case of Ukraine’s security vis a vis Russian aggression on its eastern borders at the United Nations and drew world attention to how precarious its position is without the support of the world. But in the areas of corruption, administrative reforms, replacing old policies with fresher more transparent ones he was found wanting. As a man with a chocolate empire he was considered an oligarch and a crony capitalist.
Zelensky has promised to fight corruption and reform internal policies and systems. However, he is seen as being soft towards Russia and has the public support of a pro-Russian oligarch who has funded his campaign. The Ukrainian youth fed up with the slow pace of change have clearly put their trust on rookie Zelensky and sent a message that the old guard better change or quit.
The world has watched with interest the last two Presidential elections. The whole process has been peaceful and very well conducted. For a country that came into its own less than three decades ago from a communist past the elections has shown to the world that Ukraine is seriously democratic and the public sure makes their views clear and loud. Ukrainians living all over the world could cast their vote at the local Embassies and Consulates. Citizens residing in a place where they are not registered could enroll themselves prior to the poll to vote there. There is no need to have a mark on their person, like in India, to show that they have voted.
I happened to walk around the neighborhood on April 21st and saw a number of Voting Centers, mostly held in government schools or offices. Large numbers of people turned up with toddlers, babies and their dogs to cast their vote. I too went along with my son in law and saw with my own eyes how well the whole process was conducted. Below are some pictures from the final Election Day.