Following his victory in Ukraine’s presidential election on 21 April, Volodymyr Zelensky must now turn to the challenges facing him in office. Maya Janik explains that in the months leading up to the country’s next parliamentary elections in October, the political situation will be marked by political volatility and rising tensions. Until then, the main task for Zelensky will be to maintain the support of his electorate and withstand attempts by the old elite to undermine his presidency.

Volodymyr Zelensky’s victory in the presidential elections on 21 April did not come as a huge surprise after he secured more than 30% votes in the first round on 31 March – nearly double that of incumbent president Petro Poroshenko. Yet, the fact that a political neophyte managed to rally such huge popular support to his flag without even offering a concrete political programme, winning by the largest margin ever in a Ukrainian election (73% to Poroshenko’s 24%), shows that indeed “anything is possible”, as Zelensky said after the results were announced.

The high voting turnout, as well as Zelensky’s victory in all regions of Ukraine except for Lviv in the western part of the country – the stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism – equips him with a strong mandate to lead Ukraine as the country’s next president. Nevertheless, this high support comes with high expectations and pressure to deliver on election promises. Whether Zelensky can do so will be clearer only after a period of uncertainty is over following parliamentary elections in October.

How did we get here? It’s public frustration, stupid!

Zelensky’s victory came amid deep public disillusionment with the political class and a strong desire for change. The palpable frustration over the deteriorating socio-economic situation and fatigue with the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine drove resentment; a vote for Zelensky was actually a vote against Poroshenko for his failure to deliver on expectations for a better life following the EuroMaidan demonstrations in 2014.

Not only is Ukraine the poorest country in Europe, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) rankings, it is also one of the most corrupt, according to the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. On top of that, the country has been torn apart by a war that has cost 13,000 people their lives.

On the face of it, this series of challenges demand a strong leader with a clear agenda for dealing with each of these problems, so the gamble the Ukrainian people just took on an unknown wildcard does not appear rational. However, Ukrainians desperately long for a better future, as a recent survey by the Sociological Group “Rating” confirms: 83% of respondents declared that Ukraine needs radical change.

Having nothing more to lose, Ukrainians were willing to take a leap into the dark and vote for a complete political novice with no political programme. The fact that not much was known about Zelensky’s potential plans mattered less than the fact that he comes from outside of the corrupt political system. Recent opinion polls show that the trust of Ukrainians in political institutions is among the lowest in the world.

Wide-spread corruption within the political class has plagued Ukraine for decades and is largely responsible for the poor socio-economic shape in which the country finds itself today. Rooting out corruption was one of Poroshenko’s top priorities when he took office as president five years ago, but he failed to make a substantial effort towards this goal, which was a major factor contributing to his crushing defeat.

What Poroshenko considers his big achievements, such as the visa-free travel deal with the EU or autocephaly for Ukraine’s Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate, matter little to ordinary people. Poroshenko’s play on patriotic themes, the story of a commander-in-chief who defends his war-torn country against external enemies, attracted a large audience in 2014, but it is no longer able to fill the theatre today. In retrospect, building his campaign around buzzwords like “jobs, social security and peace” would have been far more effective than his “army, language and faith” slogan.

Everybody’s president

A striking difference between Poroshenko’s and Zelensky’s campaign was the degree of inclusivity each offered. Poroshenko’s campaign was built on defending Ukrainian national identity and emphasised the divisions within Ukrainian society, which secured his victory in the nationalist Lviv oblast. But in all other regions of the country, both Ukrainian- and Russian- speaking, Zelensky’s conciliatory rhetoric was more appealing. Zelensky promised a better future for all Ukrainians, regardless of their ethnicity and language spoken. The fact that he is a Russian-speaking Ukrainian only underscores his appeal to the whole of Ukrainian society, whereas Poroshenko’s aggressive promotion of the Ukrainian language effectively alienated half the country.

The fact that support for Zelensky is not split along linguistic lines is a new, and indeed remarkable, development in Ukrainian politics. Never before in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history has one candidate gained the majority of votes in the entire country. Traditionally, support for candidates has been divided between the Ukrainian-speaking West and the Russian-speaking East and southern parts of the country. Zelensky’s conciliatory message and emphasis on unity as a nation potentially could have a positive effect on interethnic tensions within Ukrainian society.

Poroshenko’s use of the Ukrainian language issue over the past few years risked further polarising the linguistically and culturally diverse Ukrainian society. The new language law passed on 25 April, which not only asserts the primacy of the Ukrainian language but makes it illegal to even suggest an equal status for Russian, has met with strong resistance from different, not only Russian-speaking, segments of Ukrainian society. Ultimately, the fact that Poroshenko’s largely divisive slogans did not help to mobilise support shows that the elections were about the struggle for a better future, rather than the need to defend Ukraine against perceived enemies.

What next for Russia-Ukraine relations?

How much Zelensky’s conciliatory tone will be reflected in his relations towards Ukraine’s neighbours, most notably Russia, is for the moment a matter of speculation, as the pages of his political programme are still unwritten.

Zelensky has come out strongly for the need to end the war in eastern Ukraine and said after the elections that he would be ready to talk to Russia and continue negotiations within the (potentially expanded) Normandy Format on the still unimplemented Minsk agreement. At the same time, he suggested that the negotiation process would have to be restarted and dismissed granting the Donbas any special status, or signing the law on amnesty for the militants of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

Significant progress in negotiations on the conflict in the Donbas is unlikely in 2019. Following Russian president Vladimir Putin’s signature on a decree to make it easier for residents of the Donbas to obtain a Russian passport, the window of opportunity for both sides to start walking away from the conflict might close soon. A likely scenario is that Moscow opts for strategic patience and waits until the October parliamentary elections complete the political transition to a new government before it takes any substantial action.

The big question mark over the possible evolution of Ukrainian-Russian relations under Zelensky’s presidency is that while a big breakthrough in relations, or going back to the pre-2014 status is highly unlikely, Zelensky’s non-confrontational attitude towards Russia so far, as opposed to Poroshenko bellicose stand, might provide room for at least a partial normalisation.

A game of two halves

Zelensky’s spectacular win was the manifestation of public outcry against the ruling elite’s failure to make a change, but in of itself it does not put Zelensky in a position to solve those problems himself. Without creating political representation in parliament for his party he will find it very difficult to put any policies he may have in place or have any substantial impact on Ukraine’s economy.

Zelensky’s powerful popular mandate is a good starting point, but he needs to follow up by turning his newly established Servant of the People political party into an effective political tool if he is to deliver on his promise to “serve the Ukrainian people”. The first challenge will be to create a place for his party in the Verkhovna Rada. The distribution of executive power between the president and the prime minister is enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution and while the presidency is a powerful post, ultimately Zelensky only has direct control over the Defence and Foreign ministries and can appoint the General Prosecutor as well as some other minor posts.

This means that Zelensky needs to find a way to work with the Rada that can appoint most of the important ministers to the Cabinet. Poroshenko may have been ousted from his job as president, but he remains the leader of the eponymous Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc “Solidarity” and People’s Front that remains the largest faction in parliament. Currently, Zelensky does not have a single deputy in parliament.

Credit: Oleksii Leonov (CC BY 2.0)

At the same time, the implacable Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) Party leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who came third in the presidential first round, will almost certainly be back in the game soon, possibly trying to make an arrangement with Zelensky’s party to secure her position in the Rada.

The president-elect needs to maintain his popular momentum for the next six months until the parliamentary elections in October, and then mobilise the population for a second time to deliver the same sort of crushing victory over the prevailing political establishment that he achieved in winning the presidency. Even if his party “Servant of the People” manages to receive the largest share in October’s elections, which according to a recent poll conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, would be nearly 26%, he will still be forced to go into a coalition with another party to rule.

Given the volatility of domestic politics it is extremely difficult to say what the political party landscape will look like in autumn. In a statement a few days before the presidential elections, Zelensky ruled out forming a coalition government with either Poroshenko or the ex-members of the pro-Russian Party of Regions. Yet, forming a coalition with another political party that could also give him a majority in the Rada will be key to passing any laws and implementing the changes that Zelensky’s electorate is hoping for.

The Rada in its current constellation is likely to try to sabotage any initiative by Zelensky and keep him weak simply to bolster their chances in the October. The entire membership of the current Rada has a vested interest in removing as much of Zelensky’s democratic gloss over the next five months as they can. Paralysing Zelensky’s presidency in the next months and grinding away at his popular mandate to gradually weaken his support amongst the electorate could prompt a period of dirty politics and more disunity.

The struggle for power may see efforts to exploit Zelensky’s vulnerabilities by publicly discrediting his image. Perhaps Zelensky’s biggest vulnerability is his alleged ties to the oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky whose 1+1 television channel broadcasts Zelensky’s show “Servant of the People,” and who was suspected of organising and funding Zelensky’s campaign. Poroshenko played heavily on this connection in his campaign to little effect, calling Zelensky a Kolomoisky puppet. However, the relationship between Zelensky and Kolomoisky and eventual attempts by the latter to influence the president will now be under the microscope.

Kolomoisky has already announced plans to return to Ukraine from a self-imposed exile in Israel (which has no extradition treaty with Ukraine). The assumption is that Kolomoisky will attempt to cash in on his backing of Zelensky’s campaign. He has already won two cases in Kyiv courts that go some way to undoing the 2016 nationalisation of his PrivatBank, previously Ukraine’s biggest private bank. Obviously, any support Zelensky gives to Kolomoisky’s business interests would be very damaging, but the actual relationship between the two remains largely unknown.

Zelensky could in theory dissolve the parliament and hold snap elections to capitalise on the current euphoria. However, the problem with this is that he needs to dissolve the Rada before 27 May, as the law says that the Rada cannot be dissolved in the last six months before an election. While the existing political establishment is reigned against him, Zelensky’s huge popular mandate remains his ace in the hole. The elite cannot ignore the size of Zelensky’s support and it will have shaken the political establishment to its core. Unlike anywhere else in the former Soviet Union, the Ukrainian people have become radicalised and have already taken to the streets to oust unwanted presidents not once, but twice in the last decade.

Indeed, if you include Poroshenko’s humiliating defeat on 21 April, the Ukrainian people have ousted three presidents, as Poroshenko had every advantage his office offered going into the election, but was still manifestly crushed in the polls. On top of this is that Ukraine now boasts a vibrant civil society that is well capable of mobilising itself to bring very public pressure on the government on specific issues. Attempts to release Roman Nasirov, the former government financial controller and Poroshenko confident, from detention following his indictment by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) on corruption charges failed after protestors surrounded the court house where he was being held all weekend until a judge appeared on Monday to arraign him.

Under this popular pressure the existing political structures in the Rada are likely to break up to an extent as politicians take stock of the new landscape and scramble to reinvent themselves ahead of the October elections. In this environment, Zelensky has the opportunity to build a new party or at least a base in the Rada.

Fearing the loss of their positions, some members of the old elite who have been so far loyal to Poroshenko, will attempt to move closer to Zelensky. The Ukrainian political system is of a patrimonial nature, which operates within both formal and informal competing power structures, determining the formation of political actors at the national and regional levels. The most recent example is current prime minister Volodymyr Groysman who announced that he is leaving the Poroshenko bloc and will form a new political party in his re-election bid. Groysman, who has managed to stay above the fray for most of his tenure, would be an important catch for the nascent Zelensky political party and it shows that the reshuffle of loyalties in a struggle for power has already begun.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Maya Janik
Maya Janik is a Researcher with an interest in conflict management and politics in the post-Soviet region. She holds a master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and another one in Political Science from the University of Vienna.

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