The Slatest

Ukraine’s Election Has Bribery Accusations and a Politically Inexperienced Actor Topping the Polls

 Yulia Tymoshenko
Presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko attends an interview in Kiev, Ukraine, on Feb. 28.
Gleb Garanich/Reuters

When Ukrainians cast their votes in the upcoming presidential elections on March 31, they’ll be faced with a peculiar choice: Tymoshenko or Tymoshenko or Shevchenko or Shevchenko.

Of the 39 candidates officially vying for the Ukrainian presidency, two pairs of candidates have identical last names. While Ihor and Olexandr Shevchenko only share a surname, Yulia and Yuriy Tymoshenko have a lot more in common and are players in what one party leader told Bloomberg is the “dirtiest and most shameful” election in Ukrainian history.

The Tymoshenkos also share first and middle initials (Y.V.) and the same job title (People’s Deputy of Ukraine, the official title of all members of the Ukrainian Parliament). Yulia is by far the more high-profile of the two, having served as prime minister twice, run for president twice, and been imprisoned twice. Yuriy, on the other hand, is a political unknown, an independent MP previously unheard of in national politics. Yulia and Yuriy are not related, and their shared surnames appear to be a coincidence.

These commonalities could lead to confusion at the ballot box and cost Yulia valuable votes, according to a lawsuit filed by one of her supporters before the Ukrainian Supreme Court. (The court ruled that the lawsuit was not grounded in existing evidence.) Yulia herself has openly accused the incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko, of using Yuriy to strip her of votes. “This is what they expect, in such a fraudulently humiliating way—to take some percents from me in the elections and transfer them to a person who has nothing to do with the presidency,” she said during a TV talk show in February. The latest poll by a Kiev-based agency shows Poroshenko at 13.25 percent and Yulia Tymoshenko at 9.5 percent.

Yuriy Tymoshenko maintains that he is a genuine candidate and says Yulia was the one sent to upend his chances of victory. “I hope that our voters are wise enough and it will be so easy for them to understand where is Yulia and where is Yuriy,” he told Reuters.

The election became even more absurd when two men were arrested on March 6 for attempting to bribe Yuriy with about $185,000 to drop out of the race. One of the men worked for pro-Russia presidential candidate Yuriy Boyko in 2014—and, you guessed it, Boyko’s running this year, too. The man claims the whole arrest was planned by the current presidential administration and the prosecutor general—the man who indicted him for bribery.

He says Yuriy Tymoshenko had asked him to help pay off a loan he took out to cover his presidential registration fee, and when the accused brought Tymoshenko the money, he was arrested. Why the president would orchestrate a fake bribing of a low-polling candidate—the same one that Yulia Tymoshenko claims he hired to upset her election—is unclear.

To top it off, neither of the Tymoshenkos nor the sitting president is leading in the polls. The man who’s projected to earn more than 20 percent of the vote, far outpacing the runners-up, is Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Zelenskiy’s only experience in politics comes from playing a high school teacher turned president in Servant of the People, a popular Ukrainian TV show. That’s also the name of his newly formed political party.

Ukraine is no stranger to dirty elections. Back in 2004, then-candidate Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned by dioxin, and the majority of the West believes that Russian security forces were behind it. (Yushchenko recovered and went on to win a highly contested election.) But no matter who wins next week’s vote, the drama will likely continue well into the second round, scheduled for April 21.