Ukraine’s presidential election in April produced a surprising victory for Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In July, Zelenskiy’s ‘Servant of the People’ party followed up on this success by winning a snap parliamentary election. Oleg Chupryna writes that with an anti-establishment majority now in parliament, there is hope Ukraine may be able to break from the corruption that has characterised the country’s politics since the 1990s.

The stunning electoral victory in Ukraine’s presidential election in April by Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a complete political novice, took many international commentators by surprise. Zelenskiy achieved a decisive 73 per cent vote share, defeating the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko in the second round.

However, the outcome had deep roots. Since its independence, Ukraine has been experiencing an uneven and troubled journey towards full democratisation. Despite the Orange Revolution of 2004-05 and the bloody Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14, Ukraine, a formally democratic polity, has remained in political limbo. Rather than emerging as a fully-fledged liberal democracy, it has become trapped in a semi-authoritarian, semi-democratic, hybrid political regime. The underlying cause of this unhappy state of affairs is that state institutions have been weakened by the high-powered ruling elite which emerged during the 1990s in the aftermath of the breakdown of the communist political and economic system.

This ruling elite is an agglomeration of several informal political-economic networks which are tightly interwoven at all levels with all state institutions. These informal political-economic networks, commonly known as ‘oligarchic clans’, are a classic feature of the majority of the post-Soviet polities. Also referred to as clientelist, patrimonial or patronal networks, they prey upon the institutional weakness of societies in transition in order to capture the state and form a de facto ‘shadow state’ through which they are able to exploit the country in question. This results in a highly imbalanced re-distribution of national wealth and outrageous inequality whereby the ruling elite becomes shamelessly wealthy, leaving the majority of the people only marginally above subsistence level.

Servant of the People

Neither the Orange Revolution nor the Euromaidan Revolution succeeded in fulfilling Ukrainian citizens’ sincere expectations that this corrupt predatory system would be eradicated. The main reason was that new presidents and most new members of parliament who arrived in power as a result of the popular revolutions still belonged to the same corrupt political elite. Thus, they had no genuine desire to eliminate the existing oligarchic system. Those remaining handful of deputies who lie outside of this system were unable to make any difference.

Nevertheless, in due course the Ukrainian populace learned valuable and essential political lessons and in the presidential election in April, they overwhelmingly voted for Zelenskiy, who was unaffiliated with the ruling elite. In his presidential programme, Zelenskiy stated that his main priorities included profound structural reforms of the political-economic system aimed at accelerating economic modernisation, the introduction of efficient and corruption-free public services, and the resolution of the conflict with Russia.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy during his presidential inauguration in May 2019, Credit: President of Ukraine (CC BY 4.0)

In order to achieve these objectives, Zelenskiy and his team were determined to completely remove the ruling elite and replace them with honest, decent professionals who were committed to national reform. Zelenskiy also promised to increase openness and transparency within the political process and to allow ordinary citizens to participate in decision-making processes through mechanisms of direct democracy.

Such an ambitious task would be challenging even for a seasoned politician, let alone a political novice like Zelenskiy. Yet it is even more challenging given the fact that Ukraine has a parliamentary-presidential system in which the president has very limited executive powers. This means that, in order to achieve his goals, Zelenskiy requires support from parliament for his policies. Having foreseen this difficulty, in 2017 Zelenskiy, along with a team of colleagues and supporters, formed the Servant of the People Party. This party also possesses an interesting backstory.

From 2015 to 2019 the top-rated Ukrainian television series was a political comedy programme called Servant of the People. It was produced by the TV studio Kvartal 95, of which Volodymyr Zelenskiy was a co-founder and co-owner, as well as being employed there as a screenwriter and producer. Zelenskiy, who is also a well-known actor, also played the role of the president of Ukraine in the programme. In this political comedy series his character, Vasiliy Holoborodko, is a history teacher, an ordinary, decent man who becomes president of Ukraine almost by accident.

Countless attempts by the tainted Ukrainian political establishment and oligarchs to corrupt Zelenskiy’s character and reduce him to their level, proved to be unsuccessful. Thus, after a long and dramatic fight he and his team eventually succeeded and managed to radically reshape the political and economic landscape of the country and transform Ukraine into a corruption-free, successful and prosperous society.

Most Ukrainians understood the televised political comedy series as Zelenskiy’s political statement, and some political analysts contend that the screening of the show between 2015 and spring 2019 constituted the de facto launch of an ultimately successful presidential campaign. The party’s name, Servant of the People, became a highly recognisable ‘brand’ in Ukraine. At his inauguration speech on 21 May, Zelenskiy announced that he intended to dissolve parliament (Verkhovna Rada), which by then had the support of less than 4 per cent of the electorate and called for new elections to be held on 21 July this year. Some deputies challenged this move in the Constitutional Court, albeit to no avail.

Ukraine’s electoral revolution

From the outset of the electoral campaign, the Servant of the People Party adopted an innovative approach. In addition to including on the party’s electoral list experts from Zelenskiy’s electoral campaign, they also launched a recruitment campaign. Any citizen who shared the values and aspirations of the party and had proven professional expertise in their field could apply to be included on the list of potential candidates for the Servant of the People Party. However, former members of parliament and individuals with questionable reputations were barred from applying.

The party also announced so-called post-primaries, asking journalists and ordinary citizens to reveal anybody on their candidate list with reputation-related issues. Thus, the party was able to respond swiftly to any reliable information they received by removing candidates with dubious pasts from the candidate list. Servant of the People proved extremely popular and at the election on 21 July, the party unprecedentedly gained 254 seats out of 450 (56 per cent) in parliament.

Concurrent with this development, other new political parties have emerged in Ukraine. One of them, Golos (The Voice), also adopted a robust anti-establishment stance. It was recently formed by a political activist who is also a famous Ukrainian rock star. Ratings for The Voice rose dramatically in the weeks following its foundation in May, and the party gained 20 seats in the election. The party’s programme resembles that of the Servant of the People Party, signifying that these two parties would be natural allies in a new parliament.

Other parties which represent ‘old’ political forces received significantly fewer votes than they had in the past. Yulia Timoshenko’s Batkivshchina (Fatherland) won only 26 seats, Petro Poroshenko’s Evropeyska Solidarnist (European Solidarity) obtained 25 seats, and 43 seats were assigned to the pro-Russian Opposition Platform – for Life party, one of the offshoots of the notorious pro-Russian former Party of Regions. A limited number of seats were won by several smaller parties and independents.

This astonishing victory, first in the presidential election in April, and again in the parliamentary elections in July, provides Ukraine’s new anti-establishment forces with a majority in the Verkhovna Rada and all the necessary tools to implement the radical reforms demanded by many in Ukrainian society. Whether they will be able to break with the failures of the past and carry out the immense task demanded of them remains to be seen.

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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

Oleg Chupryna – Maynooth University
Oleg Chupryna is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Maynooth University.

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