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New Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s first decree following his inauguration was to dissolve the current parliament and call early elections for the Verkhovna Rada, scheduled for July 21.
The move was predictable: the current majority in the Rada was formed under former president Petro Poroshenko, and was unlikely to be able to work with the new president. Ukraine’s president-parliamentary system of government means the Rada elections are no less important than the presidential election, and Zelenskiy’s new populism is destabilizing the party system that formed under Poroshenko.
The favorite in the upcoming elections is the still semi-virtual party of Zelenskiy himself, Servant of the People. About 40 percent of Ukrainians are prepared to vote for the party, according to research carried out in May by the Rating sociological group—in spite of the fact that the party’s top five candidates are not even known yet. This support is based on Zelenskiy’s personal popularity on the one hand, and voters’ fatigue with older politicians and their parties on the other.
The new president is clearly hoping for yet another round of voting against the current authorities, in which the party system of the last five years will be defeated. Even his inauguration speech made clear his dim view of the current makeup of the Rada.
But could this dislike grow into enmity toward parliament and power-sharing in general? In destroying the system of checks and balances based on the “corrupt consensus” of oligarchic groups, Zelenskiy risks getting carried away and crossing the line into usurping power.
Meanwhile, though the current parliamentary majority was somewhat demoralized by Poroshenko’s defeat, there has been no mass jumping ship to the side of the victor. The seasoned deputies in the Rada are not convinced that Zelenskiy is serious enough to succeed, or that he will be there for long. They are hoping for revenge at the next election, and so don’t want to become associated with any liabilities. Of all the Rada deputies, only two have spoken out in support of Zelenskiy, and one of them was Nadezhda Savchenko, a controversial former pilot who shot to fame when she was captured during the Ukraine conflict and imprisoned in Russia.
Poroshenko himself, having staked everything in the presidential election on a right-wing, conservative ideology, won a faithful minority, but in doing so lost contact with the majority, who turned out to be indifferent to his archaic motto of “Army, Language, Faith.” By usurping the right end of the political spectrum, Poroshenko has probably limited the success of his party, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc (BPP), to three western regions and a politicized section of the Kiev intelligentsia. This will, however, help Poroshenko to pick up the supporters of other patriotic projects: the new parliament will likely be lacking in deputies from the Radical Party and the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom), while Civic Position may or may not just clear the threshold.
BPP’s rating has fallen 4–5 percent since March, with just 10 percent of people polled in May expressing the intention of voting for the bloc. At the regional level, BPP could claim second place after Servant of the People in the west of the country and in Kiev, while in the central and northern regions it will have to battle for second place with former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party. In the southeast, Poroshenko’s party is among the total outsiders.
The Poroshenko Bloc’s partner in the outgoing coalition, the People’s Front—which is associated with several key figures of post-Maidan Ukraine, such as former prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and National Security Council head Oleksandr Turchynov—will probably be decimated at the elections. The People’s Front’s rating has fallen below 3 percent, and the party faces either its disbanding or a major reformatting. For this reason, the party was fiercely resistant to early elections.
Tymoshenko may have been hoping for revenge at the parliamentary elections, having been knocked out in the first round of the presidential elections, and clearly has her sights on the familiar post of prime minister. Current polls, however, show that her Fatherland party can at best count on the role of a junior partner in a coalition with Servant of the People. Fatherland is currently polling at about 10 percent.
As for politicians from the Party of Regions that was in power until the 2014 Maidan revolution, former energy minister Yuriy Boyko’s Opposition Platform—For Life has won the battle to become that party’s heir, making it the official pro-Russia party recognized by Moscow, meaning it can count on Moscow’s support. This is largely thanks to Viktor Medvedchuk, an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who organized for his protégé Boyko to visit Moscow.
The Opposition Platform has every chance of taking second place in the elections for parliament, though it will face competition from Oleksandr Vilkul’s Opposition Bloc—Party of Peace and Development, the result of an alliance between two oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov and Vadim Novinsky. Medvedchuk himself, meanwhile, has his eye on becoming the speaker of the Rada. Ukrainian society does seem open to the possibility of revenge for the ousted Party of Regions: 75 percent of Ukrainians support the idea of direct negotiations with Moscow on Ukraine’s breakaway regions in the war-torn Donbas area, and 55 percent support the inclusion in such talks of representatives of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. Another 39.9 percent would be prepared to give Donbas a special status within Ukraine (i.e., they agree with Medvedchuk’s plan).
Zelenskiy’s success has inspired others who would like to become the new faces of Ukrainian politics, not least Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, lead singer of the rock band Okean Elzy, who is also known as an intellectual and a patriot. To widespread disappointment, Vakarchuk didn’t run for president, but now hopes to make up for that by taking part in the parliamentary elections, representing the new party Golos (Voice).
With his pro-European rhetoric, however, Vakarchuk is on the same electoral turf as Poroshenko, and instead of depriving Servant of the People of votes, the musician will be competition for the Poroshenko Bloc, despite the latter’s expectations.
Then there is Ihor Smeshko, the former head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), who took sixth place in the presidential election, despite barely campaigning. Smeshko’s image is that of an honest security official: as head of the SBU in 2003–2005, he reportedly helped to prevent bloodshed during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and in 2014, Smeshko criticized the Ukrainian siloviki harshly for their part in trying to break up the second Maidan revolution.
Smeshko’s Ukrainian Strength and Honor party has little chance of getting into parliament, but Smeshko himself tied with Tymoshenko as the most popular candidates for the next prime minister, according to the Rating pollster.
The trend for new faces will undoubtedly give rise to other projects, though their chances of getting into parliament are slim. Ukraine surely can’t support more than one Zelenskiy.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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