KYIV – Europe recently experienced two watershed elections, with very different outcomes. Whereas Ukraine’s presidential election has been widely hailed as the end of the beginning of Ukraine’s political transition, the European Parliament election has been lamented as the beginning of the end of the idea of an ever-closer union. The polls, both held on May 25, not only provide insight into the mindset of the respective electorates; the behavior of each electorate also offers important lessons for the other.
Ukraine’s election was shaped by an acute awareness of the risks facing the country. Following the “Euromaidan” revolution – which brought about the demise of President Viktor Yanukovych’s government – and a four-month interim administration, this election centered on change. Yet Ukrainians’ chosen president, Petro Poroshenko, is the very embodiment of the establishment, having served as Economics Minister under Yanukovych and Foreign Minister under his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, not to mention his position within the country's traditional economic elite.
This is not as surprising as it might seem. Ukrainians were making a sober decision, voting with their heads, not their hearts. Indeed, polls indicate that Poroshenko’s appeal lay largely in his focus on immediate internal challenges. By contrast, his rivals, most notably Yulia Tymoshenko, emphasized a rapid shift toward NATO and the European Union.
Ukrainians also eschewed the temptations of populism and extreme nationalism. The poor performance of the right-wing Svoboda and Right Sector candidates – which together won less than 2% of the vote – should finally quash Russian assertions of a fascistic regime in Kyiv.