VINNYTSIA, Ukraine – The town of Vinnytsia, located three hours’ drive southwest of Kiev, was originally three separate settlements and was never meant to be a unified town, or so our local guide told us as we prepared to conduct our election observation mission there last weekend. Vinnytsia’s most famous denizen, President-elect Petro Poroshenko, perhaps had also not planned to be Ukraine’s next leader, but after a landslide victory on May 25, will now be inaugurated as Ukraine’s fifth president.
Three months ago not many would have predicted that Poroshenko could win Ukraine’s most crucial election since independence in the first round, comfortably beating his opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, by an overwhelming 54.7 percent of the vote to her 12.8 percent. Just six months ago, it looked as if the former boxing champion Vitaliy Klitschko was the frontrunner in a field crowded by leaders of the main political parties, including the current acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk. Yet in a few short weeks, Poroshenko became not only a viable candidate but far outstripped the majority of any other Ukrainian president other than Leonid Kravchuk in 1991.
The overwhelming vote of confidence in an election that brought a high turnout gives rise to optimism for Ukraine’s future. It is the first election where there was no handpicked successor by the previous government and the first where the winner gained the lead in all regions of the country where the election was held. This gives hope that Ukraine’s much publicized east-west divide will be overcome by a new united identity.
The protests on the Maidan, which began in November last year, rid Ukraine of a corrupt president, but also created huge challenges. The parliament that supported the former President Victor Yanukovych, and passed the package of authoritarian laws on January 16 sparking the violent turn in the protests, remains seated, even though what remains of the Party of Regions — the former pro-government party — has tried to reinvent and distance itself from the former president. Poroshenko needs to find a way to create a majority in parliament to support his reform program, which would best be accomplished by dissolving it and moving quickly to pre-term elections. The current version of the constitution, however, does not make it easy for a sitting president to do that.
The reforms that need to be undertaken are broad and much overdue. In addition to sweeping out corruption and changing attitudes about bribery in everyday life, the court system needs to be overhauled, decentralization launched, reform of the law enforcement bodies conducted, and regulations to strengthen the independence of the media introduced. Reforms are needed to change the electoral system, promote transparency and accountability in government appointments, and all the regulations needed to promote integration into Europe need to be undertaken.
People’s expectations are high, but unlike the Orange Revolution — the social uprising in Ukraine that toppled the government in 2004 — this time there is a broad understanding that people must be involved in the reform process and engaged in solving local problems. The civic groups that played such an important role on the Maidan have kept up their high level of activism and are proposing draft legislation, keeping up the pressure on various institutions of government to carry through the needed reforms. The activists working on the so-called “Reanimation Package of Reforms” have taken Poroshenko’s campaign slogan “To live in a new way” and have proposed their own: “To live with citizen’s control over an accountable president.” They understand that the window of opportunity to influence newly emerging policies and politics will not last long, but they are equally determined that there will be no “third Maidan.”
All of this would be quite enough even for an ordinary transition of power, but the challenges facing this new president are magnified by the aggression by pro-Russian separatists in the east through the military takeover of some towns in two regions on Russia’s border. Even though the eastern regions are far away from Vinnytsia, there was a sense of unease and apprehension around the voting last weekend. The head of the one of the district polling commissions told us the day before the election that three different security forces were being deployed to ensure the integrity of voting, and he himself had to cut short our meeting to go inspect a generator that was being brought in to provide power in case of an emergency.
Walking around Vinnytsia on the day of the election, all of the campaign posters are gone, but a miniature version of the iconic “EuroMaidan Christmas Tree” remains in one of the squares. People are ready for a Poroshenko presidency. Out in one of the villages, a group of older ladies sitting in a cafe celebrating their vote freely admit that they voted for him. The other candidates have not been truthful in the past they claim, and they have long memories.
Vinnytsia has already had a taste of reforms. The previous mayor of the city, Volodymyr Groysman, introduced a streamlined one-stop system into the local government — the shiny ATM-like machines are located on the ground floor of city hall — making formerly time-consuming administrative tasks easy to accomplish and less susceptible to bribes. He is now serving as deputy prime minister for regional policy in the interim government in Kiev.
A visit to Vinnytsia would not be complete without seeing the spectacular water fountain with its light and sound performance every evening that delights the crowds who come to see it. Through the flashing lights and water spray, the word “Roshen” is clearly visible on the side of a building that is the fountain’s benefactor, Petro Poroshenko’s chocolate factory. Taken from the middle part of his name, this is the logo of Poroshenko’s highly successful enterprise. He is mostly well liked and respected in his home town. He has created 4,000 jobs locally, which are paid well above the Ukrainian average, according to his staff. A visit to the newest state of the art chocolate production facility reveals gleaming new machines of the latest west European technology in a spacious and airy new building. If this enterprise is in any way a blueprint for the way the new president will run the country, then Ukraine has a brighter and sweeter future to look forward to, as long as it can heal and unify the wounds of the ongoing current strife in the east.
Nadia Diuk is a vice president at the National Endowment for Democracy and was recently a delegate for an election observer mission from the International Republican Institute for Ukraine’s presidential election.Top