Peaceful Ukrainian election is a win for democracy

Peaceful Ukrainian election is a win for democracy
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In our world of declining democracy, Sunday’s Ukrainian presidential election stands out as a beacon of hope. With a turnout exceeding 60 percent, Ukraine voted overwhelmingly for bold change in a landslide for 41-year-old TV star Volodymyr Zelensky.

Incumbent President Petro Poroshenko garnered only a quarter of the vote. The high turnout is made all the more remarkable by the fact that voting places had to accommodate soldiers on the front lines and civilians crossing over from occupied territory in East Ukraine and Crimea.

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The two run-off candidates agreed on Ukraine’s Western direction with respect to the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and, in the first round, the one pro-Russian candidate garnered a miniscule share of the vote.

Sunday’s election demonstrated a stark antagonism against Russia after 13,000 Ukrainians died in the five-year conflict. Russia has lost Ukraine, probably forever.

Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinOvernight Defense: Ex-Ukraine ambassador offers dramatic day of testimony | Talks of 'crisis' at State Department | Trump tweets criticism of envoy during hearing | Dems warn against 'witness intimidation' | Trump defends his 'freedom of speech' Highly irregular: Rudy, the president, and a venture in Ukraine Biden responds to North Korea: 'I wear their insults as a badge of honor' MORE has refused to congratulate Zelinsky on his electoral triumph. He maintains the fiction that Ukraine remains an illegitimate state, created by an unlawful coup of neo-fascists at Maidan Square in 2014.

Putin has no choice. If the Kremlin recognizes that Ukraine has a legitimate government, his ongoing military operations in East Ukraine against Kiev must be themselves illegitimate, and his annexation of Crimea must be as well.

Ukrainians have made a huge wager by electing a political novice who pledges to overturn rampant corruption and create an independent judiciary. Elected on Sunday to a five-year term by an overwhelming majority, Zelenskiy offers no political experience other than playing an accidental president on TV.

Zelenskiy’s promise of “breaking the system” was the message the Ukrainian people wanted to hear. President Poroshenko’s claims of experience and ability to deal with Putin landed on deaf ears.

Remarkably, the defeated outgoing administration of Poroshenko is handing over power peacefully and in an orderly fashion. After a tough campaign of insults, false news and Russian intervention — parried rather well by Ukraine’s counter-cyber force — there is no talk of punishing the outgoing regime. Ukraine can be proud of its orderly transition.

Poroshenko announced that he was leaving the presidency but not politics. In Ukraine’s mixed presidential-parliamentary system, the political parties are tied to political figures and oligarchs as “blocs.” We have not heard the last of Poroshenko, who held Ukraine together since his election in 2004, under the most difficult of circumstances.

Despite his faults, Poroshenko guided Ukraine through an incredibly difficult period. The Ukraine he inherited had virtually no regular army and the forces it did possess were smashed during the Russian attack of August 2014. If Zelenskiy is smart, he will consult with Poroshenko before dealing with Putin.

The Ukrainian presidential run-off election had all the trappings and drama of a contested democratic process. The election campaigns used massive social media, private TV stations, and the election campaign culminated in a televised debate in the Olympic stadium two days before the election.

The proceedings began emotionally with both candidates kneeling in silence as a tribute to the deceased from war in East Ukraine as the crowd sang the national anthem. In a bizarre move, both candidates were shown giving blood to prove they were free of drugs.

Sunday’s election was among the most highly monitored of modern elections. Representatives of each candidate were stationed at polling places alongside foreign observers. Complaints from the field numbered only in the hundreds, and foreign observers characterize the election as clean.

The Kremlin has been watching closely from the sidelines. Its attempts to influence or cast doubt on both candidates with cyber attacks and false news did not seem to significantly affect the election outcome. If the Kremlin had a preference, it was for the inexperienced Zelinskiy, whom Putin may believe he can outmaneuver.

Russian network television devoted some 40 percent of news show time to the Ukrainian presidential campaign. The Russian people are naturally interested in Ukraine, where many have friends and relatives, and unlike Putin’s 2018 re-re-reelection, the Ukrainian election did not have a predetermined outcome.

Russian media characterized Ukraine’s election as a farce, a  never-ending mess and a contest between a comedian and chocolate magnate. 

Belittling its neighbor’s election may have been the Kremlin’s intent, but Russian viewers cannot miss the fact that Ukrainian contenders could register to run without being vetoed by a state-run “electoral commission.”

They would surely have noticed that the electoral outcome was determined by voters, who had a real choice of candidates. The reaction of the Russian people may not have been scorn but envy and jealousy.

I must confess that I expected Poroshenko to win, despite his weak first-round showing. As president, I expected him to marshal all the forces of the executive branch against the candidacy of Zelenskiy.

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His example would have been Boris Yeltsin in his 1996 race, which he began with a 3-percent positive rating. Money and the support of the “administrative apparatus” pushed him easily over the line. Poroshenko did not follow the Yeltsin precedent, and Ukraine’s democracy is the beneficiary. 

The election of Zelinskiy has given Ukraine a third rebirth after the Orange Revolution and the Maidan Revolution. Consider this the “Citizen President Revolution." Ukraine has demonstrated it is a democracy.

Can it now become a prosperous free-market economy growing at its potential 8-10 percent? Much depends on the success of the reforms Zelenskiy has promised. If so, Putin’s worst fears would be recognized — a prosperous democratic Ukraine on his western border. 

Paul Gregory is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the author or coauthor of 12 books on economic history, the Soviet economy, transition economies, comparative economics and economic demography.