Ukraine parliament

Landslide Victory for Zelenskiy’s Party in Ukraine: What Next?

July 23, 2019
Konstantin Skorkin

This op-ed was originally published by the Carnegie Moscow Center.

No other president in the history of Ukraine has had such resources under his control while facing such a weak and fragmented opposition and enjoying such enormous popularity among his compatriots. In this new reality, a “velvet usurpation” with the consent of most of the population no longer seems like an impossible outcome, nor does the expression “comic dictator” seem like such an oxymoron.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has once again triumphed over the country’s old elites in the parliamentary elections held on July 21: the newly formed parties of the last five years ran into yet another electoral revolution. Zelensky’s Servant of the People party turned out to be the unrivaled favorite in the campaign, and its candidates resolutely defeated representatives of local elites in the single-member districts. 

As a result, Zelensky won’t just have a parliament that is under his control; he’ll also have a weak opposition in the form of the parties of Kremlin associate Viktor Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform and militantly anti-Russia former president Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party, which are highly unlikely to be able to come to any agreement between themselves, thereby giving the president free rein.

By calling snap parliamentary elections at the height of the summer, Zelensky—a former comic actor—took a gamble: his voters could quite simply have gone away on vacation (and indeed turnout was at a record low of just under 50 percent). Yet positive inertia from the presidential election back in spring played its role, and Zelensky’s party, Servant of the People, had a sweeping victory, receiving 122 seats under the party list system, and 125 in the single-member districts, giving it a majority in the Verkhovna Rada, which has a total of 450 seats.   

Zelensky’s team has managed to repeat its success in the presidential elections, winning on party lists in virtually all regions of the country except the Donbas, where Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform—For Life led (its candidate Yuriy Boyko also won the first round of the presidential election there), and in the Lviv region, where rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s Holos (Voice) party won (Poroshenko won the first round of the presidential election there).

These results enable Servant of the People to form a single-party majority in the Rada, without the need for coalition partners, though given his declared wish to unite the country and inject fresh blood into its elites, it would be useful for Zelensky to try to bring Holos into some sort of coalition focused on renewal. This would enable the new president to extend a hand to western Ukraine, where his position is not so strong, and to realize the long-held Ukrainian dream of “east and west together.” On the other hand, Vakarchuk has close ties to the national-democratic camp whose leader is now Poroshenko, so the musician may refuse to join forces with Zelensky. 

What will Zelensky do with his mandate of trust, the likes of which none of his predecessors has ever seen? Ukrainian society has presented him with two key demands: peace in the Donbas, and purging corrupt figures from the elites. The first may not depend on Zelensky alone (Moscow is hardly dashing to meet him halfway), but the second task the president has already promised to take care of after forming a government and replacing the security service officials.

Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, who is closely connected by corrupt and family relations to the Poroshenko clan, will undoubtedly be one of the first victims. Possible replacements include former deputy prosecutors general Vitaly Kasko and David Sakvarelidze. 

As for the new prime minister, Zelensky is leaning toward an apolitical technocrat who would have the West’s approval. The U.S. media has named several candidates for this post, including Ukraine’s representative in the IMF, Vladislav Rashkovan (the most likely candidate); former economy and trade minister Aivaras Abromavičius; Naftogaz oil and gas company heads Yuriy Vitrenko and Andriy Kobolyev; and National Security Council Secretary Oleksandr Danylyuk.

The speaker of the Rada looks set to be the leader of Servant of the People’s party list, Dmytro Razumkov—unless the role is given to Vakarchuk or Yulia Tymoshenko as part of a coalition agreement with the former’s Holos party or the latter’s Fatherland.

Second place in the parliamentary elections went to Boyko and Medvedchuk’s pro-Russia Opposition Platform, after the formerly united Opposition Bloc splintered into rival opposition parties ahead of the presidential election earlier this year. The Opposition Platform was Servant of the People’s main rival for votes in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking southeast, and the 13.05 percent of votes that went to the Opposition Platform is testimony to how weary some Ukrainian voters are of the conflict with Russia and of the Poroshenko-era nationalistic mobilization.

In the new Rada, Medvedchuk’s party will be in opposition to the pro-Zelensky majority, and second place allows the party to lay claim to the deputy speaker’s chair, though there are doubts that the deeply unpopular Medvedchuk will be allowed anywhere near it.

The elections dealt a significant blow to the national patriotic camp. Former president Poroshenko’s meager showing of 8 percent was predictable, but he did significantly less well than in the first round of the presidential election. This was the result not only of competition for voters in western Ukraine with Vakarchuk’s Holos party, but also the inclusion of unpopular figures on the party’s list.

The sun continues to set on former prime minister Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party. Its result of 8 percent was affected both by the defeat of its leader in the presidential elections, and by its lack of an intelligible manifesto. The party hasn’t managed to find a place in Ukraine’s new political landscape following Zelensky’s victory.

Rock musician Vakarchuk and his Holos party, which took just under 6 percent, will become the focus of the west Ukrainian faction within the new parliament. The party can either form a coalition with Servant of the People or join forces with Poroshenko’s party within the “patriotic opposition.”

Having swept the board in both sets of elections, Zelensky has been able to unite a divided country. The new president and his party have put problems at the forefront of their agenda that are relevant to all Ukrainians: corruption, living standards, and development of the country’s infrastructure, stepping over eternal bones of contention such as language issues or the country’s foreign policy orientation. Free of the parliament he inherited from Poroshenko, which had sabotaged the start of Zelensky’s rule, the president and the new session of deputies under his control can now strike out along their path unhindered, starting the country’s regeneration with themselves: an end has already been announced to immunity for deputies, along with a bill on impeachment.

Yet Zelensky’s landslide victory also poses a range of serious questions, above all whether Zelensky and his team are ready for such a level of responsibility, considering how hurriedly his party was put together, along with the president’s dilettantism, however well intentioned. There was considerable improvisation, contradiction, and discordance between words and deeds in the new team’s first few steps. Now a parliamentary majority formed by deputies who are new to the job could become a magnifying glass for the new administration’s lack of experience.

There’s another significant problem. No other president in the history of Ukraine has had such resources under his control while facing such a weak and fragmented opposition and enjoying such enormous popularity among his compatriots. Ukrainian society, used to regarding its rulers with skepticism and as a perpetual lesser of two evils, has never been through anything like this before. The removability of the authorities, even if it was through flashes of street violence and mass protests, was one of the main achievements of Ukrainian democracy, and the antagonism of the ruling authorities and opposition within parliament were a safeguard against the usurpation of power.

In this new reality, a “velvet usurpation” with the consent of most of the population no longer seems like an impossible outcome, nor does the expression “comic dictator” seem like such an oxymoron.


Konstantin Skorkin

Konstantin Skorkin is an independent journalist specializing in Donbass affairs.

Photo by the U.S. Embassy in Kiev shared under a CC BY-ND 2.0 license.