5 Things You Should Know About Ukraine’s Elections

May 23, 2014 at 2:54 PM ET

After months of turmoil, including riots and clashes with pro-Russian forces, some 36 million Ukrainian citizens eligible to vote will head to the polls on Sunday, May 25, to cast ballots in a first round of presidential elections. According to Ukrainian election rules, if one of the 17 registered candidates for president wins 50 percent or more of the vote, that person wins the presidency outright. If a majority vote falls below 50 percent, a runoff will be held in early June.

Here’s what you need to know about the vote.

1. What are the elections for?

This is the first presidential election held in Ukraine since the Euromaidan protests began in fall 2013. After the February ousting of former President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia, Oleksandr Turchynov took over as acting president, heading up an interim government in Kiev. The presidential election was originally scheduled to be held in March 2014 but was pushed back to May after the Euromaidan crisis intensified and Russia got involved.

In addition to voting for a president, 43 cities will vote for new mayors, including in the capital Kiev and the major port city of Odessa. The Internet Party’s Darth Nikolayevich Vader is running for mayor of both Kiev and Odessa. His pledges reportedly include “fish for everyone.”

2. Why are the elections important? Haven’t there already been multiple referendums?

Yes, there have been referendums in the eastern regions of Ukraine like Donetsk and Luhansk, which pro-Russian separatists now control. Those votes, however, were considered illegitimate by the United States, EU and UN, as the government in Kiev did not sanction them. Pro-Russian rebels organized and held the referendums, and many of them now stand armed guard at the municipal buildings they’ve taken over.

In a March referendum, Crimean voters opted to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia, but that vote was also considered illegitimate by the West—though that didn’t prevent Russia from annexing the Black Sea Peninsula later that month. One key difference between Crimea and eastern Ukraine is that Crimea was already operating as an autonomous republic even before the referendum. Donetsk and Luhansk, on the other hand, remain part of Ukraine and are still governed by Kiev!

This Sunday’s election matters because it is the first democratic vote to be held since Ukraine was thrown into turmoil last fall. Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are already on the ground, and leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel are calling on the international community to respect OSCE’s work and the election outcomes. The hope is that Sunday’s results will stabilize a country that has increasingly faced sectarian tensions.

3. So who’s running? Who is most likely to win?

Independent candidate and billionaire Petro Poroshenko is the front-runner, with a 40-plus percent approval rating among Ukrainians, according to recent polls. Poroshenko is called the “Chocolate King,” as he made his fortune as the head of one of the world’s largest confectionary manufacturers, the Roshen group. Russia banned its products in July 2013, after Poroshenko pushed for Ukraine to sign an association agreement with the European Union—one that former president Yanukovych snubbed in favor of closer ties with Russia, which sparked the Euromaidan protests.

The second most popular candidate is Yulia Tymoshenko, the first female prime minister of Ukraine, who’s running on behalf of the Batkivshchyna Party. She lost to Yanukovych in 2010’s presidential election, but has garnered support after serving a three-year prison term on corruption charges that some believe were trumped up by Yanukovych. While she is polling well below Poroshenko, she could force a runoff if Poroshenko fails to net 50 percent of the vote.

4. How safe is it to go out and vote?

Fresh waves of violence have rocked Ukraine this week, with at least 18 people killed in fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists. On May 17, the Central Election Commission of Ukraine warned that citizens in eastern Ukraine could face difficulties getting to the polls. The commission estimated that 2 million people may be prevented from voting, or about 6 percent of the eligible Ukrainian voting population.

5. So what does Russian President Vladimir Putin think of the elections?

Putin has said he will respect the outcome of Sunday’s vote, but the West is rightfully skeptical—this is the same Russian president who keeps announcing that he has pulled Russian troops back from the Ukrainian border, while NATO says there hasn’t been any movement at all. Putin also believes that Yanukovych is still president of Ukraine under the current constitution, and Russian officials have not recognized the current interim government in Kiev as legitimate.