Two Ukrainian women walk past an armored personnel carrier in Kiev, Ukraine.

Two Ukrainian women walk past an armored personnel carrier in Kiev, Ukraine. Sergei Chuzavkov/AP

Ukraine’s Invisible Presidential Election

With the crisis in Ukraine's eastern regions dominating the headlines, the May 25 vote approaches, unnoticed. By Tom Balmforth

KIEV—U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recently said that Ukraine’s presidential election may be the most important in the country’s history. But you wouldn’t know it on the streets of Kiev.

With one month until polling booths open, the threat of war dominates headlines. Election leaflets are rare. Just one of the 28 presidential hopefuls—Mikhaylo Dobkin, a marginal pro-Russian candidate—has placed campaign billboards in the capital. And neither of the front-runners are spending much time on the stump. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has officially abandoned campaigning to turn her party into a “resistance” force. Petro Poroshenko, the chocolate mogul and favorite to win, has aired a TV ad—that he doesn't even appear in himself.

“This is probably the first time in the country when a presidential election campaign is essentially not happening,” said Ihor Tishchenko, a sociologist and founder of the Reiting sociological group. First of all, it’s against the backdrop of war. Second of all, the candidates are practically not campaigning.” Overshadowed by Moscow's annexation of Crimea and separatist brushfires on the eastern frontier with Russia, an eerie campaign twilight has settled over this country known for scrappy, mudslinging election cycles.

With the country frozen in post-revolutionary limbo until the May 25 election and facing the threat of war, many presidential hopefuls are trying not to stir the pot further as this traumatized nation waits for a polling day amidst threats from within and without. “Russia’s main goal is to destroy the elections and prove there is no authority here,” said 60-year-old Vasil Zolotoverkh, a resident of Chernobyl, who was on business in Kiev.

He spoke as Ukrainian authorities launched—and then abandoned—an operation against separatists in the east as Moscow ordered huge military drills on Ukraine’s border. Russia, however, is not Zolotoverkh’s only worry. “The alarming thing is that rivalry between the candidates themselves could disrupt the actual process,” he says of the election that, polls show, is essentially a contest between Tymoshenko and Poroshenko. “That is the real worry.”

The campaign had begun with signs of tentative post-revolutionary unity. On March 29, world heavyweight boxing champion and politician Vitaly Klitschko stood down from his bid for the presidency and threw his weight—and that of his UDAR party—behind Poroshenko. Poroshenko now has 32.9 percent of national support against Tymoshenko’s 9.5, according to an April 23 opinion poll compiled by four top agencies led by the “SOCIS” institute in Kiev.

And earlier this month, the front-runners crossed swords for the first time. On April 15, Yulia Tymoshenko declared she was turning her powerful Fatherland political-party base into a national resistance force to battle “Russian aggression” and forgoing a proper presidential campaign.

It drew criticism from Poroshenko who said Russia’s aggression is the purview of the national army and security services. The next day, flanked by venerable former security officials in the bunker-like conference hall of her party headquarters, Tymoshenko blasted her rival for campaigning. “Stop the trips to the regions with the dancing, the songs, and the circus bears and try to join in defending the country and use every opportunity,” she said.

Poroshenko and Tymoshenko were rivals for the prime ministerial post during the 2005-09 presidency of Viktor Yushchenko. Tymoshenko won that battle, but Poroshenko currently has a comfortable lead in this presidential race. Some polls show he has almost half the support of likely voters on May 25—nearly enough for him to win outright in the first round. Indeed, Poroshenko appears to be lengthening his lead without visibly campaigning.

Irina Bekeshkina, director of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and a leading sociologist, said Poroshenko’s rise in popularity stems from appearing moderate in contrast with Tymoshenko. “After Maidan and all theses events, society wants some kind of stability,” she said. “It doesn’t want radicalism. In this sense, Poroshenko is a compromise figure.”

Poroshenko has made several trips abroad and has held relatively few stump meetings with voters. He has aired a campaign segment on TV—and yet, typical of this shadow election campaign, it features Klitschko speaking rather than Poroshenko. Residents like Valentina Tyzhnevayeva, a 63-year-old pensioner from Kiev, expects the gloves to come off after May 9—when World War II Victory Day is marked and when many are expecting “provocations” from Moscow that could upset the tense situation in the east or undermine the elections.

For others like Vitaly Zakharchenko, 50, who acted as a security guard during the Euromaidan protests, the elections couldn't come soon enough. “I want the elections to take place sooner because then everything can then be resolved,” said Zakharchenko. “At the moment we have the same system we had under Yanukovych. There is embezzlement and theft. They give the impression they are working, but in actual fact they aren't doing anything.”

The psychological exhaustion Ukraine is experiencing could be good news for Poroshenko, says sociologist Tishchenko. “This is a question of psychology in circumstances of war and psychological, emotional exhaustion which we are observing, he says. “First there was Maidan; then there was war; people constantly feel threatened. Subconsciously people want calm and peace. Poroshenko’s image corresponds with this desire.”