In Ukraine, the electoral campaign preceding the presidential elections scheduled for March 31, 2019, officially kicked off on December 31, 2018. Meanwhile, the martial law imposed on 10 of the country’s regions (with more than half of Ukraine’s population living in them) was lifted days before the campaign started – on December 26. The martial law, which continued for one month, granted Ukraine’s unpopular president Petro Poroshenko dictatorial powers. He could shut down any media outlets, cancel and postpone any elections, arrest any people suspected of “collaboration” with Russia for an indefinite period of time. Protest rallies and political activities, such as party conventions and parliamentary investigations, were also put on hold.
The question is: can the elections, due to be held 3 months after the ending of the martial law, be considered free and fair? And can president Poroshenko be tempted to impose the martial law again before the elections? In any democratic country, Poroshenko would have rather slim chances with his low voter approval rating at 11.6 percent (the data from the latest poll conducted by the Kiev-based International Sociology Institute). The strongest candidate, the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko is 10 points ahead of him with 21.6 percent.
Poroshenko imposed the martial law on November 26 because of the arrest of three Ukrainian military vessels near the Kerch straits in the Black Sea, where both Ukraine and Russia have big ports and military bases. The Russian side claimed that the Ukrainian vessels illegally entered the Russian territorial waters before trying (unsuccessfully) to enter the Kerch Strait – a narrow water pass connecting the Black Sea with the Azov Sea. That sea is a shallow water reservoir, most of it unfit even for medium-sized military ships. Just a few years ago no one could imagine the Azov Sea being unimportant strategically, since Russia controlled Azov since the 17th century and almost all the population living on its shores was Russian-speaking. The biggest Ukrainian port on the Azov Sea, Mariupol, with its Russian population, was part of the anti-Maidan rebellion in the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine in 2014. The city also took part in the unrecognized referendum on federalization of Ukraine that same year, but in a few weeks,