Despite the temperamental May weather, a crowd of around 800 people had gathered around a makeshift stage in Kryvyi Rih, a small town in southeastern Ukraine, to see the man who is poised to be Ukraine’s next president: Petro Poroshenko.
Red flags with the word, “Udar,” (Punch), one of Ukraine’s main political parties, snapped overhead in the breeze alongside Ukrainian and European Union flags. Women bustled through the crowd nudging leaflets into open palms. Teenagers dressed in red, tie-on aprons with the name “Petro Poroshenko” splashed across the front handed-out goody bags filled with brochures, a newspaper and a postcard with the candidate’s picture.
On cue, a black Mercedes SUV rolled up to the edge of the crowd and Poroshenko, a tall, beefy man with salt-and-pepper hair and slightly baggy eyes, stepped out into the crowd, smiling and shaking hands on his way to the stage, trailed by his wife and a slew of bodyguards.
“He’s the best of the worst,” said Pavel Holiver, 50, a Kryvyi Rih resident, as Poroshenko made his way to the microphone on the stage. All of the other candidates are too stymied by scandal, lacking in bravado, or have strong ties to the now ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, said Holiver.
There is hope, as there has been for every past election in Ukraine, that the next president will actually change the country for the better. But for the past 22 years, “each president has made his successor seem not quite so bad,” Holiver remarked wryly.
The latest polls show Poroshenko with a 45 to 53 percent approval rating, putting the candidate right around the 50 percent of popular votes he needs to win in the first round of elections. A second round of elections will be held in June if Poroshenko does not hit the 50 percent mark this Sunday, an event which could further agitate the country’s already fragile political climate.
The candidate received a boost of support early on in the election when Vitaly Klitchko, the leader of Udar and a strong contender for the presidency, dropped out of the race and encouraged his voters to get behind Poroshenko.
Yulia Tumashenko, who is known for her fiery, pro-European rhetoric and was imprisoned under Yanukovych, significantly trails Poroshenko with 9 percent support. Sergey Tigipko, who was once part of the pro-Russian Party of Regions is in third place with around 7 percent of the popular support, according to polls.
Described by some as a “political chameleon,” Poroshenko, 48, began his political career in 1998 as a member of parliament and has held positions under the western-leaning President Yushenko, as well as the pro-Russian governments of Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych.
Poroshenko has also managed to make it through the political tripwires of Ukrainian politics unscathed by any hugely damaging scandals.
In 2001, Poroshenko worked as one of the founders of the Party of Regions before switching over to an opposition party the same year. During the Orange Revolution, Poroshenko played an active role in campaigning for the pro-European candidate, Viktor Yushenko, and Poroshenko’s television channel, Channel Five was vigilant in broadcasting information about the power transition.
At the beginning of the EuroMaidan protests, Poroshenko was the first oligarch to come out in support of the antigovernment protesters and Channel Five, following suit, was one of the TV stations to offer coverage of the events early on.
Though he was not part of the troika that was regularly in negotiations with Yanukovych, Poroshenko was a regular presence on the stage. The billionaire gained fame for jumping on a tractor in front of angry protesters, yelling at them to calm down.
“I remember him on that tractor,” said Laura Andreeva, 62, another Kryvyi Rih resident who had specially come by to hear Poroshenko speak. That’s the moment when Andreeva said she first really took notice of the politician. “He didn’t hide from what was going on at all and he knows how to handle people,” Andreeva told Al Jazeera.
Throughout his campaign, Poroshenko, a consummate businessman whose net worth is $1.3bn, has made a point of emphasizing his managerial skills by playing up the candy empire he created.
In the early 1990s, Poroshenko began working as a cacao importer and quickly made a fortune acquiring candy companies, turning them into a conglomerate, Roshen, by 1995. The company’s name comes from Poroshenko’s last name. Roshen now has over six factories across Ukraine, with one in Lithuania. The company’s Russian factory was shut down in the summer 2012 due to health-standard reasons, though many saw the move as a politically motivated.
In addition to his chocolate empire, Poroshenko is also the owner of a more diversified portfolio of businesses that include bus manufacturing, shipyards, banking and media.
If elected president, Poroshenko promised to sell all of his businesses, except for “Channel Five”. In Ukraine, the vast majority of major television networks are owned by oligarchs. For example, Ihor Kolomoisky owns 1 1 and Rinat Akhmetov owns the channel Ukrayina.
“There’s no guarantee that Poroshenko’s completely honest,” after all, he’s a billionaire and successful businessman is often synonymous with “corrupt” in Ukraine, said Andrey Eryomenko, 44, who was also watching Poroshenko speak in Kryvyi Rih.
But unlike many other businessmen who made it big during the post-Soviet privatization of the 1990s, it seems like Poroshenko wasn’t just making money in the shadows, Eryomenko told Al Jazeera. “We see the candy factories, we know they actually exist.”
During his campaign speeches, the so-called “Chocolate King” has been sure to emphasize his business savvy and his workers’ benefits: good healthcare, living wages and reasonable retirement packages, and promising what he can do for Ukraine what he did for his employees.
Getting the voters
However, the first and most pressing problem in this election is making sure that an election even takes place.
While the Ukrainian parliament passed a law back in April that says the elections will be legitimate, even if voting does not take place in all of the regions, the more closed polling stations, the less legitimate the elections will look, said Iaroslav Kovalchuk, a senior analyst at the International Center for Policy Studies, an independent think-tank in Kiev.
Anywhere from 2 million to 5 million voters in the Donbass region, which includes Donetsk and Lugansk, will not have access to polling stations this Sunday because of political violence in the region. In the past six weeks, anti-government separatists have taken over cities and towns in Donbass, demanding greater independence from the Kiev government. The separatists claim that the new government, instituted in the wake of the EuroMaidan protests, is illegitimate and that the presidential election is unlawful.
Koyalchuk said the volatile situation in the east makes it all the more important to hold elections and begin restoring a sense of normalcy to the political process.
“There is no way to solve Ukraine’s current political problems if there is no change in Parliament’s line-up,” Koyalchuk explained. And to change parliament, a new president, one elected by the people, rather than appointed by the parliament, needs to be chosen.