Zelensky’s magic moment: a new era for Ukraine?
Andrea Walton 18 July 2019

The upcoming Ukrainian parliamentary elections, which will take place on July 21st, will mark a significant turning point in the political dynamics of the post-Soviet nation. The current president, Volodymyr Zelensky (elected in April 2019), is aiming to win an absolute majority of the seats in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s single-chamber parliament, for his party, Servant of the People. Election polls predict his party will win handily, with between 40 and 47 percent of the vote, depending on the poll.

The other political groups, from the pro-Russian Opposition Platform to the Voice party, founded by the rock singer Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, are trailing behind with 10–15 percent and 5–9 percent, respectively. Even more distant are Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity Party and the party of Yulia Tymoshenko, which are both polling well under 10 percent. Parties must overcome a 5 percent threshold to take seats in the Verkhovna Rada.

The expected triumph of Servant of the People is even more impressive when one considers that the party is a little over a year old and that Zelensky himself was, just as recently, a professional actor playing a president on a popular Ukrainian TV show.

 

The birth of a phenomenon

 

The rise of populist parties with vague ideologies is hardly unexpected in Ukrainian politics. The country is among the poorest in Europe, with an average monthly income of around €250 and high levels of corruption. The events of February 2014 — which began with the ouster of President Yanukovich by the pro-Western political opposition and then continued with the Russian occupation of Crimea and the outbreak of the conflict in Donbass — further destabilized a country that was already sailing in treacherous waters.

The conflict, which has caused thousands of deaths, also produced an economic crisis that saw large swathes of the population turn to former president Petro Poroshenko, a confectionery tycoon and head of a pro-Western political coalition. Triumphantly elected in 2014, Poroshenko failed to resolve the Donbass conflict, where clashes continue and stalemate reigns, or to generate adequate economic growth.

The Ukrainian population, desperate and crushed between crisis and a political class that they no longer trust, turned elsewhere and the Zelensky phenomenon was born. Between 2015 and 2018, the comedian interpreted for the television channel 1+1 a quiet history teacher who is catapulted, thanks to a series of tragicomic events, to the presidency of the country.

The TV show, called Servant of the People, rapidly became popular among Ukrainians for its portrayal of an “everyman” educator taking a noble stand against political corruption and fighting for good governance on behalf of the people. So much that it seemed to many Ukrainians almost a natural consequence to support Mr. Zelensky as in 2018 he actualy found a party with the same name as the wildly popular show in which he starred, Servant of the People. How this extraordinary tale of life imitating art will play out in the future is yet very unclear.

 

A presidency to be defined

 

The new presidential administration’s political ideology appears nebulous and unclear. A political advisor close to Zelensky recently declared that the party and the presidency will have a libertarian tendency, which will facilitate the development of a liberal economic model. However, this statement seems to contradict President Zelensky’s stated electoral program, which promises prohibition of arms sales to citizens, the distribution of economic resources deriving from the profits of the exploitation of natural resources, and the legalization of medical marijuana, among other things.

The Zelensky presidency appears, instead, closely linked to the theme of the fight against political corruption and greater transparency in the management of the affairs of state. Thus, proposals such as the removal of parliamentary immunity, the mandatory publication of state budget papers and orders from the Ministry of Defense have been initiated. Zelensky’s desire for renewal is also reflected in other proposals. The parliamentary candidates from his party are all newcomers to politics, without any prior experience. He also expressed the intention to ban officials who have served in the Poroshenko administration from government positions, the latter move being criticized by Western observers. In foreign policy, the new presidency is ready to continue the process of rapprochement with the European Union and NATO, thus aligning itself with the West.

Unlike the Poroshenko administration, however, it seems that a closer dialogue with Russia is in the offing. The new government aims to achieve an improvement in diplomatic relations and a resolution of the Donbass crisis. In recent days, Zelensky has proposed political talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to try to find a way around the bloody impasse that is now entering its sixth year. He has proposed this as a multilateral meeting, with the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany also invited. Putin has not rejected the proposal, indicating however he will not proceed until the formation of a stable government in Ukraine.

For this reason, given the likelihood of a sweeping victory for Servant of the People, the parliamentary elections in July will likely herald a new era in Ukrainian domestic and foreign policy. The presidential administration does not currently have full control of the country’s government and cannot effectively implement its policy proposals. With no seats in the outgoing parliament or the cabinet, President Zelensky has found himself unable to act and hindered by holdovers from the previous administration. Taking an absolute majority of the seats (or at least a clear plurality) should offer Zelensky the fundamental stability he needs to govern.

 

Hard times for oppositions 

 

There seems to be little room for Zelensky’s political rivals under this new dispensation. The president has managed to attract the consent of such a large number of citizens as to leave little room for others. The movement of outgoing president Petro Poroshenko now seems to be de-legitimized by widespread dissatisfaction with his presidency and Yulia Tymoshenko, despite her great experience, continues to operate on the sidelines. The Ukrainian popular desire to vote for a renewal of the political class has undoubtedly weighed on these dynamics, but Zelensky’s ability to position himself at the center — not overly aggressive and nationalistic towards Moscow but at the same time close to Western partners — has seen the pro-Western and nationalist supporters of Poroshenko and Timoshenko turn to his side.

The Opposition Platform, a pro-Russian party, continues to enjoy the support of a certain part of the electorate that inevitably looks with a keen eye towards Moscow. The Opposition Platform is likely to come in second in the vote tally behind Servant of the People, although at quite a distance. It seems unlikely that the party will play a significant role in the near future. A substantial part of the Ukrainian population, particularly in the Western regions, is in favour of greater integration with the major Western political-military structures—namely, the European Union and NATO.

Furthermore, the most consistent pro-Russian electoral base is divided in two: part of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions are under the control of separatist guerrillas while Crimea is under the aegis of Moscow. The Opposition Platform is thus destined to enjoy a certain popular consensus but also to remain on the margins of political dynamics.

The long-term prospects for the Voice party may be brighter. The movement is also an anti-corruption party, so it could ally itself with Servant of the People if the latter does not reach the absolute majority of seats. In any case, the expectation is that Zelensky’s movement will triumph, eclipsing its main political rivals.

However, Ukrainian dynamics are very changeable. The severe economic conditions facing the population lead the latter to bind, from time to time, to those perceived as capable of giving hope and new prospects to the country. When this does not happen, the decline of leading political figures is just as rapid as their birth and development.

The political priorities of Zelensky, in addition to the formation of a stable executive, are to end hostilities in the Donbass, see control of the region returned to Kiev, a robust fight against corruption and a clear improvement in the country’s economic conditions. If this does not happen, it is foreseeable that Ukraine will suffer further political instability in the near future.

 

Photo: OLEKSANDR RATUSHNIAK / AFP


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