Alexey Kravtsov/AFP/Getty Images

Ukrainian voters, seeking stability, favor ‘Chocolate King’ Poroshenko

Liberal politician hopes to exceed 50 percent required to prevent runoff after Sunday's presidential election

LVIV, Ukraine — With just three days left until Ukraine’s presidential election, Olya Hutsik said she has finally made up her mind whom to vote for on Sunday.

She supports Petro Poroshenko, also known as the Chocolate King of Ukraine, but not because she’s convinced he can revive the country’s economy or because she believes he’s the only politician who can bridge the gap between east and west in this deeply divided country.

Hutsik is voting for Poroshenko because he’s the front-runner in the polls, and if he manages to get more than 50 percent of Sunday’s vote, he’ll win outright and the country will avoid a second round of elections — something that’s happened only once in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history. A runoff election would be held on June 15.

“We just need a president as soon as possible,” she said. “We need to get this over quickly to calm the situation.” 

On Thursday, the need for an end to the crisis was heightened as news broke that at least 11 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in a firefight with pro-Russian separatists in the east. With now daily reports of military losses and increased violence in the east, Poroshenko’s campaign has taken a sharp turn toward convincing voters that ending the election with just one round of voting is the best hope for the country.

“It is absolutely vital to the survival of our country,” he told reporters in Lviv when asked if he thought he could win in one round on Sunday. “Every day we pay with the lives of several Ukrainian soldiers. We should end this uncertainty.”

Poroshenko is leading in recent polls for a presidential election that many Ukrainians see as a make-or-break moment for the country’s stability after six months of civil unrest. Whoever wins will be expected to take on the monumental task of uniting the country and fending off a potential civil war against pro-Russian separatists. Russian troops stationed on Ukraine’s eastern border further intensify the situation.

Many voters seem to be counting on Poroshenko, who had a 34 percent approval rating in the latest Kiev International Institute of Sociology poll. His main rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, trails behind at 6 percent. In total, there are 21 names officially on Sunday’s ballot, but all eyes are focused on these two candidates.

Undecided voters will play a major role in this election, however, as 25 percent still don’t know whom they will vote for on Sunday. Another 13 percent of those polled said they would not participate at all.

In the east, many voters will either boycott the vote, which they feel is being directed by a central government they don’t trust, or will be blocked from voting by armed rebels who have taken over district polling stations in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Every day we pay with the lives of several Ukrainian soldiers. We should end this uncertainty.

Petro Poroshenko

Presidential candidate

Poroshenko emerged as the front-runner in the campaign just after the interim government announced in late February that it would hold a special election to replace ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. The former president fled the country in late February after anti-government protesters violently clashed with government riot police, leaving more than 100 dead in central Kiev.

Poroshenko is not new to politics, having served as both a minister of economy and minister of foreign affairs. A fluent English speaker, he’s currently an independent member of parliament.

During the protests on Kiev’s central square this winter, Poroshenko frequently delivered motivating speeches on the Maidan’s central stage, and he became a face of the opposition pushing for Yanukovych’s ouster.

Like Tymoshenko, he is considered an oligarch and and amassed his estimated $1 billion fortune by buying up former Soviet-era confectionery factories and consolidating them into the Roshen candy company. He also owns one of Ukraine’s most popular independent television stations, Channel 5.

On the campaign trail in Lviv on Thursday, Poroshenko addressed a room full of business students, professors and local professionals about the painful economic and political reforms that Ukraine will need to adopt to keep the country from collapse.

Many of the reforms are conditions attached to a $17 million loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Whoever ends up being president will have to adopt tough, unpopular austerity measures, Poroshenko said.

“He has promised nothing but sweat and tears for the next several years, and people understand that it will be difficult,” said Yaroslav Hrytsak, a professor at Lviv Catholic University. “This isn’t as much about joining the European Union as it is about shifting our values to European standards, so people can live a life of dignity.”

He has promised nothing but sweat and tears for the next several years, and people understand that it will be difficult.

Yaroslav Hrytsak

Professor, Lviv Catholic University

Poroshenko is known as a Western-leaning, progressive politician. However, he has said he understands how to deal with the important and difficult relationship with Russia. His Roshen candy company has an estimated $1.3 billion in annual sales, and Russia is a huge market for his chocolates and other sweets. In addition, Roshen has a factory in Russia, which the Kremlin recently shut down over what it said is a trademark dispute.

Poroshenko has said he will improve relations with Russia in “three months.”

“He has factory in Russia, business with Russian market and has worked both sides of the political fence in Ukraine under Yanukovych and Tymoshenko,” said Konstantin Bondarenko, a political analyst with the Ukrainian Politics Foundation in Kiev. “In politics, he tends to [be] the balancing person between both sides.

“People see him as a sign of stability, and see a positive example of his company, Roshen, and that they think he will bring that example and build a big, successful company out of Ukraine,” Bondarenko added.

Orest Kryvotsky, 64, a sales manager from Lviv, waited in a crowd of several thousand Thursday evening to hear Poroshenko give his last official campaign-trail speech from a stage set up in a leafy central boulevard of this picturesque western Ukrainian city. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then part of Poland, the city center is full of Renaissance and classical architecture, making it feel more like Vienna and less like a former Soviet republic.

Many here, like Kryvotsky, are hoping Poroshenko will lead the country toward European integration. 

“The first thing he should do on Monday is call for parliamentary elections to get rid of the old guys,” he said. “Then he should call for a national referendum to ask if we should join NATO and the European Union.”

Kryvotsky would vote yes for both of those memberships, and he thinks the whole country should go west toward Europe, including Donetsk and Luhansk.

“Let them come here and see our city,” he said. “Then they will understand.”

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