KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, whose popularity has plunged over rampant corruption and sliding living standards, launched his uphill fight for re-election on Tuesday, promising to steer his country toward the West and join the EU.
Polls show Poroshenko trailing the opponent he defeated five years ago, opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, a veteran former prime minister who has pledged to clamp down on graft, raise wages and lower household energy prices.
A 53-year-old confectionary magnate and one of Ukraine’s richest men, Poroshenko took power in the heady days of 2014 after a popular uprising that overthrew pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovich.
But his five years in power have been difficult. Russia responded to Yanukovich’s fall by seizing Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and backing separatists in the east in a conflict which has killed at least 10,000 people and which remains unresolved despite a 2015 ceasefire.
The public has blamed a failure to fight corruption for the continuing fall of living standards in one of Europe’s poorest countries. The average monthly wage is around $380 compared to $450 in the year before Poroshenko took office.
“The feeling of deep responsibility before the country, before contemporaries, before past and future generations prompted me to decide to run again for the presidency,” Poroshenko told thousands of supporters on Tuesday.
While apologizing for mistakes, Poroshenko cast himself as the man to guard Ukraine against Russia and populism, and keep Ukraine on its Western course. Patriotic songs and videos, showing footage of soldiers at the front or the president meeting world leaders, preceded his speech.
“None of my steps, successful or not, contradicted the strategy of a complete break with the colonial past, of Ukraine going its own way, of a civilization alliance with Europe,” he said. “And we have no right to stop halfway.”
Tymoshenko, a fiery speaker who was jailed under Kremlin-backed leader Yanukovich, launched her campaign last week. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a political novice who achieved fame as a comic actor, is also seen as a strong challenger.
Poroshenko is likely to promote himself as a less radical choice than Tymoshenko, whose plans for more state spending could set her on a collision course with the International Monetary Fund and other foreign lenders who have pumped in billions to keep Ukraine’s war-scarred economy afloat.
In the five years since the popular uprising that swept Yanukovich from power, Ukraine’s heady optimism for change has faded. Seventy percent of Ukrainians believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, according to a December survey.
“There is fatigue from unfulfilled hopes,” Iryna Bekeshkina, the director of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, one of three organizations that carried out the survey, told Reuters.
Poroshenko wants Ukraine to apply for EU membership in 2024. But while the West remains supportive of Ukraine, the country’s prospects of joining the bloc any time soon are questionable.
Poroshenko can boast some successes. He secured visa-free travel to the European Union for Ukrainians. He led efforts to create a national, independent Orthodox church that threw off centuries of ties to the Russian clergy.
While he has not won the war in the east, as he had promised to do within weeks, he has not lost it either. The 2015 ceasefire has largely held despite regular deadly clashes.
He successfully lobbied for U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to supply lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine and for the EU and Washington to keep sanctions on Russia.
But corruption still festers, top officials suspected of bribe-taking have stayed out of jail, anti-corruption activists have been attacked and reforms sometimes stalled or reversed.
Poroshenko’s re-election bid coincided with the release of watchdog Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perception Index. Ukraine has climbed ten places since last year but still languishes in 120th place out of 180.
“This result is not consistent with fast European integration, reforms and elimination of corruption from all aspects of life to which our country claims to aspire,” said the head of Transparency International Ukraine Andrii Borovyk.
Additional reporting by Olena Vasina; Writing by Matthias Williams; editing by Ed Osmond