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Ten reflections on Ukraine’s parliamentary vote

The snap parliamentary elections were a great success for President Zelenskyy and his party. However there is more to this election than meets the eye.

July 30, 2019 - Kostiantyn Fedorenko - Articles and Commentary

Voting on election day in Kyiv in 2014. Photo: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (cc) flickr.com

On Sunday July 21st, Ukraine held snap parliamentary elections several months before the scheduled term. After prominent comedian and media manager, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, assumed the presidency earlier this year and crushed former president Petro Poroshenko in the runoff with 73 per cent of the vote, he dissolved the parliament. The legality of this move cast doubt and was disputed before the Constitutional Court; however, the court green-lighted the election using nebulous arguments involving popular will.

The snap elections were extremely beneficial to Zelenskyy’s ‘Servant of the People’ party – named after the extremely popular TV series in which Zelenskyy played an upright teacher who unexpectedly becomes president of Ukraine and combats the corrupt old elites. The party managed to play off Zelenskyy’s personal support and secured a one-party majority for the first time in the history of Ukraine with 43 per cent of the proportional representation vote and the majority of single-mandate electoral districts (SMDs). There is, however, more to these elections; this article presents ten reflections on the processes that the vote revealed and their possible consequences for Ukrainian politics.

1. Three parties that promote a pro-Russian foreign policy (Opposition Platform – For Life, Opposition Bloc and Shariy’s Party) obtained a cumulative support of around 18 per cent. Indeed, this is a higher result than what the parties of this spectrum enjoyed in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Yet, the 2019 result is closer to reflecting the preferences of Ukrainian society as a whole. The sociological polls conducted in the past five years have shown a steady support of 15 to 20 per cent for broadly pro-Russian messages, including a warm attitude to Russia as a country, a positive attitude towards federalisation of Ukraine, and introducing Russian as the second state language.

The 2014 vote was not representative in this regard. That year saw a significantly decreased turnout in southern and eastern Ukraine due to feelings of political alienation; the democratically elected president Yanukovych, who enjoyed support in these regions, was ousted by the Euromaidan protesters. Due to the fact that domestic political preferences in Ukraine were traditionally linked to foreign policy preferences, the electorate of Yanukovych in these regions leaned strongly towards Russia.

2. It is now evident that in both sets of 2019 elections in Ukraine, the south and the east did not feel alienated like in 2014. The turnout there in 2019 went up, including an increase of 13 and 16 percentage points in the government-controlled parts of Donetska and Luhanska oblasts, respectively. All other regions showed a decreased turnout, which could be in part due to the holiday season. This is an extremely important achievement for the integrity of Ukraine; from a long-term perspective, it is arguably more important than any exact results obtained on this day. At the same time, the electoral results risk alienating some voters in western Ukraine, particularly in the Halychyna region where support for Zelenskyy’s party is relatively low and it is often implied to serve Russian interests.

3. ‘Servant of the People’, much like Zelenskyy himself, is an empty signifier, harnessing support of completely different social and ideological groups. These groups vary from nostalgic Soviet Union fans to pro-European anti-corruption activists. The party stays deliberately vague in its public communications in order to preserve this balance. Yet, with a convincing victory, they will have to govern, and there is no way to do that without alienating some of these electoral groups. We will therefore observe some ersatz of an ideology crystallised by the party, and with it, a certain unavoidable loss of support for the ‘Servant of the People’.

4. It is worrisome that ‘Servant of the People’, riding on Zelenskyy’s popularity wave, won the proportional part of the vote and the majority of SMDs across the country. Defeating the notion of a “regional” party, which is characteristic of Ukraine’s political system, is a good thing because it has the potential to shrink regional cleavages. However, a potential single-party majority also holding the presidency and expecting to hold snap local elections where they are likely to continue their success story, is not.

Checks and balances are integral to preserving a democratic society. The Ukrainian judiciary unfortunately remains corrupt and judiciary reforms have not yielded successful results. Previous months have shown that the courts are ready to issue extremely doubtful decisions in favor of influential beneficiaries. Western partners can at times act as a check on Ukrainian politics and have done so on many occasions in the past since Ukraine strongly depends on its relationship with the west. Yet the western capitals will not be doing all of the work for the new administration. Furthermore, Zelenskyy has already proven he is ready to ignore foreign advice. He appointed Andrii Bohdan, a lawyer affiliated with the oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi, as head of his presidential office despite reported strong objections from the US Special Representative for Ukraine, Kurt Volker.

5. Judging by the diverse composition of ‘Servant,’ including young professionals, celebrities, associates of business groups, and many others, the party is unlikely to remain monolithic. This is confirmed by the experience of several previous “parties of power” in Ukraine, particularly  Petro Poroshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine; eventually, diverse groups of interests formed inside them while already in parliament. Such internal balances of power can prevent the party from making wild and undesirable moves. An example of a bad idea born within Zelenskyy’s party is a recent draft bill with an initiative to prohibit everyone holding public office in 2014-2019, including members of parliament, from assuming positions in the state apparatus or running as candidates ever again. This idea merited public condemnation from the G7 embassies.

A particular intra-party faction that might be expected to fill this role is the group of young professionals, including former Better Regulation Delivery Office (BRDO) employees, civil servants who decided to work for the government after Euromaidan, and more. ‘Servant’ will hardly be similar to the ‘Party of Regions’ where the informal whip exercised full control over the party’s parliamentary vote. If the general direction of the party after assuming power strays away from the democratic route, we can even expect a formal split inside the ‘Servant’ parliamentary group. Such a split may also be possible when the party inevitably starts losing support.

6. ‘Servant of the People’ will likely start losing support soon when the voters see that nothing has been done to reduce the allegedly predatory utility tariffs, given they were one of the hottest issues of the campaign and almost universally criticised by the running parties. This is therefore a threat to Ukraine’s energy policy because there may be attempts to return to direct purchase of Russian gas with lower prices. Currently, Ukraine receives gas reversely supplied by neighboring EU countries.

This entails extreme political danger, however, because under the current model, Russia cannot stop gas supply to Ukraine; in doing so, Gazprom would have to violate its agreements with EU countries. Under the direct purchase model, however, Russia would once again be able to use gas supply as a stick to punish Ukraine if it takes political steps that are undesirable for the Kremlin. It should be universally understood that trading political independence from Putin’s Russia for lower utility prices is not an acceptable deal.

7. Moving on to another newcomer in Ukrainian politics: the ‘Voice’ party, led by rock star Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, has listed a significant number of well-known experts on their ballot. These include former Deputy Minister of Education, Inna Sovsun; creator of the Ukrainian online educational platform Prometheus, Ivan Prymachenko; former Deputy Minister of Economic Development, Yulia Klymenko; and one of the most respected Ukrainian journalists of the past decades, Serhiy Rakhmanin. They declared pragmatic, economically liberal, pro-Western views that were broadly aimed at the small, yet influential, Ukrainian middle class.

They targeted the audience that Petro Poroshenko had previously decided to alienate. In 2017 and 2018, there were reports that Poroshenko’s campaign managers saw that his stance, aimed at the urban youth and the middle class and manifested in liberal and cosmopolitan rhetoric and in Facebook activity, as well as communication with top Ukrainian bloggers, did not yield results in terms of expected electoral support. Since then, Poroshenko has shifted to a rather conservative political position. His earlier claim that Ukraine is bilingual, yet united, was replaced by a hard push towards Ukrainisation; simultaneously, he labeled the large and popular Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow patriarchy), as “the hand of Kremlin” in Ukraine.

Poroshenko’s presidential campaign of 2019 clearly signaled this ideological transformation to a conservative hawk, as “Army! Language! Faith!” became his slogan. This, together with the overall hysterical tone of campaigns by both Poroshenko and later, his party ‘European Solidarity’, resulted in alienating moderate and liberal pro-Western voters. They might have voted for Poroshenko in May simply because Zelenskyy’s symbolic appeals to the lower class made him an unacceptable choice, not because they shared Poroshenko’s current values. Eventually, they found suitable representation in Vakarchuk’s ‘Voice’, leaving ‘European Solidarity’ with only 8 per cent of their core electorate.

8. ‘Voice’ only won around 6 per cent of the vote, and did not manage to spread their message sufficiently beyond western Ukraine and Kyiv. This is unfortunately related to the small size of the Ukrainian nascent middle class but also to ‘Servant of the People’ being an extremely strong competitor for young centrist voters who wanted to cleanse Ukrainian politics of old faces.

Furthermore, ‘Voice’ made some doubtful steps in their campaign – in particular, talking about the unfair gas prices and implying via several candidates that the reputable Kyiv International Institute of Sociology published fake, politically-biased results. These messages did not resonate with the economically liberal target audience. As Anatoliy Hrytsenko’s ‘Civil Position’ showed with its outlandish campaigning, a middle-class party can easily and rapidly self-marginalise if it fails to sing in a ‘respectable’ pitch.

While state funding for political parties is indeed a step towards civilised party politics, it might be worrisome that several non-constructive parties will be funded by the budget. These include the far-right Svoboda on one side and the overtly pro-Russian ‘Opposition Bloc’, on the other. Furthermore, the populist ‘Radical Party,’  which appeals to the older provincial voters, and ‘Shariy’s Party,’ which appeals to the urban youth in the south and east, as well as former PM Groysman’s ‘Ukrainian Strategy’, have qualified for state funding by passing the 2 per cent threshold.

9. So far, the news that these parties will be state-funded – particularly Shariy’s party, which supports the idea of Ukraine being a non-aligned country and has failed to set any “red lines” for Ukraine’s position regarding Donbas in their program – has met online outrage. Yet this, like other outcomes of the July 21st elections, is the democratic will of the people that has been expressed at free and fair elections. Ukrainians need to respect this even if they do not agree with the particular results.

The most destructive social media trend I have observed recently is Poroshenko’s electorate expressing criticism of democratic elections as an institute because of the ‘wrong’ expected results and the potential destructive work of the new government. Some of their concerns are understandable; in particular, the circumstance of lacking checks and balances, as well as several extremely negative signals of the past months have been concerning. The latest of such signals is special services conducting searches at the ArcelorMittal plant in Kryvyi Rih; the company is owned by one of the few major foreign investors that has been operating in Ukraine over an extended period. This does not fit with Zelenskyy’s promises to attract foreign investments to Ukraine or his party’s liberal, pro-business economic stance.

Simultaneously, the zealous and populist attempts to see “treason” and cooperation with the enemy everywhere, the idea of boycotting the OSCE electoral observer mission to Ukraine due to the return of Russia to PACE, and the vocal criticism of today’s Europe have made Poroshenko’s party and its vocal supporters sound more and more akin to the European right-wing parties. Poroshenko had an overwhelming support of European embassies recently; going forward, his party is likely to receive much colder treatment.

10. One of the oldest active Ukrainian parties, Bat’kivschyna, did enter the parliament via proportional representation, securing around 8 per cent of the vote. Its head, Yulia Tymoshenko, in her political autumn, previously attempted to push through the idea of establishing a coalition with ‘Servant of the People’ until it became clear that ‘Servant’ will need no coalition.

Yet, in SMDs, the observed change is revolutionary: ‘Servant of the People’ swept the majoritarian vote as its candidates, even those who appeared extremely weak politically, won over half of the districts. This includes numerous districts held by certain politicians who have previously won their SMD over and over again with ease. These representatives of old regional elites – the Baloga family, Vyacheslav Boguslaev, Bohdan Dubnevych, Serhii Kivalov, and Volodymyr Lytvyn, among others – will definitely now hold a grudge against the new ruling party.

They might be joined by old regional elites who ran with the Opposition Bloc, particularly Hennadiy Kernes, Mayor of Kharkiv, and Hennadiy Trukhanov, Mayor of Odessa. In a pessimistic scenario, we can expect re-ignition of regional separatisms and an extremely tough challenge for the new government. In a more optimistic scenario, the old regional elites will agree to push against ‘Servant of the People’ together politically to return what they see as their rightful place in power.

Kostiantyn Fedorenko is a political analyst at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation (Kyiv, Ukraine). His main research interests concern European domestic politics, Ukraine’s European integration processes, and social movements and transformation in Ukraine. He holds Master degrees in European and European Legal Studies (University of Hamburg) and in Political Science (Kyiv-Mohyla Academy). He frequently comments domestic and international political events for Ukrainian national media. 

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