Ukraine continues to amaze. Precisely three months after Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s comedian-turned politician, captured the presidency by a nearly 50% margin over incumbent president Poroshenko, his party of neophyte politicians is all but certain to secure another landslide victory in the July 21 general elections.
Exit polls and early numbers from the Central Elections Commission (CEC) show that Sluha Narodu (meaning Servant of the People) gained nearly 43% of the population’s support, leaving other parties in a 22-party race far behind. The Pro-Russian party Opposition Platform-For Life came second (~13%), followed by Poroshenko-led European Solidarity, and Batkivschyna run by ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko (~8-9% each). Two-month old party Holos (meaning Voice), championed by rock-star Slava Vakarchuk, made a splash entry into Ukraine’s rapidly changing political scene, having also managed to pass the 5% election threshold.
Zelensky’s Sluha Narodu (SN) performed even better in the single-mandate districts, tentatively winning over 120 of the 199 seats available. In the face of all predictions, SN won all single-mandate districts in Kyiv and most in Western Ukraine – the constituencies that just a few months ago had been most skeptical towards the party and the President-elect. Like Zelensky himself, SN represents a mix of activists, young businessmen, showbiz celebrities, and novelty personalities. Should early results be officially confirmed, SN might well be the first party in Ukraine’s history to win an outright majority. Party and single-mandate ballots combined, Zelensky could bring some 240-250 strong political force into the country’s legislature that requires a 226-seat majority.
An outright majority in parliament would give Zelensky a large scope to shape the government and push critical reforms, most notably economic, regulatory, and judicial. There is an expectation, though, that Zelensky’s team will demonstrate an open approach and invite smaller partners into a wide coalition. Vakarchuk’s newcomer status, combined with the party’s deliberate distance from the existing political class, makes Holos an obvious coalition partner. Indeed, both parties stand for liberal, market, democratic ideas, and promote a Western geopolitical course for Ukraine. The average age of MP candidates from Sluha Narodu and Holos is 37 and 36 years respectively, and both lack experienced parliamentarians. Should the two celebrity newcomer politicians join forces, it may well mark a generational shift in the country’s political landscape.
It is likely that former President Poroshenko and ex-PM Tymoshenko will find themselves on the losing side, being unwelcome in the coalition of political novices. Several parties – Samopomich, Radical Party, Narodnyi Front, and Vidrodzhennya – will no longer be represented in parliament. Ukraine’s oligarchs, most notably Rinat Akhmetov, will have significantly less clout, while Kostayntyn Zhevago will likely lose his MP mandate after 20-plus years as an oligarch-legislator. The latest Ukrainian elections also underline Moscow’s declining role in Ukrainian politics: Opposition Platform – For Life will be the only party in parliament promoting a pro-Russian course for Ukraine, based on less than 15% of electoral support.
Strong political mandate secured by Zelensky and his team might as well possess some risks. The new and inexperienced Ukrainian leadership has inherited a breadth of highly complicated issues, including widespread corruption, struggling economy, and a deadlocked conflict with Russia in the east. Throughout their campaigns, both Zelensky and Sluha Narodu failed to present clear-cut programs beyond their headline promises. Lacking own experience and having to co-exist with some highly experienced but controversial political operatives, Zelensky’s party might struggle to pursue its ambitious agenda. The new ruling party is yet to prove its effectiveness and durability. A 200-plus faction of millennials drawn in together just before elections could be difficult to manage and steered towards constructive legislature. Many experts fear that lack of political experience could leave young legislators vulnerable to the influence from the dark corners of Ukrainian politics. Zelensky and his team are yet to appreciate the scope of responsibility for their almost unlimited authority – presidency, parliament, and the government. Given the unprecedented level of initial support and somehow conflicting expectations of their constituents, the stakes for Zelensky and his team are extremely high.
The Central Elections Commission has 15 days (until August 5) to announce official results. The clear winner of the elections – Sluha Narodu – has stated its intent to call the inaugural session of the new parliament as early as August 24 – Ukraine’s Independence Day. While the law gives parliament 30 days to form the majority and elect leadership, in view of Zelensky’s party dominance in the new parliament, the coalition-building process should not be lengthy. The winning party will nominate the Speaker and, currently, Dmytro Razumkov is considered to be a prime candidate for the post.
Likewise, the government formation process should be swift. President Zelensky promotes an idea of a fully technocratic, rather than a political government, which writes off political pundits like Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Boyko. Zelensky described his choice for the Prime Minister’s post to be a top-notch economist and a proven reformer with no political background. At this time, the prime candidates for the job, as discussed in the public domain, are: Vladyslav Rashkovan, Ukraine’s Director in the International Monetary Fund; Aivaras Abromavicius, a Lithuanian-born former Minister of Economy of Ukraine; and Andriy Kobolyev, CEO of Naftogaz Ukrainy, National Oil and Gas Company. All candidates are viewed as hardline reformers and should be positively perceived by Ukraine’s foreign partners and financing organizations. Provided the parliamentary majority faces no delay, the new government should be expected to be fully formed by early-to-mid September.
The business and expert communities perceive Zelensky’s consolidated victory with cautious optimism. The willingness of Ukrainians to place the country in the hands of political neophytes is remarkable; it might indeed prove to be the best opportunity to transform the country since independence. Therefore, Ukrainians place their bets in hope this chance is not squandered once again.