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Ukraine votes: Fresh start or a U-turn?

Roman Goncharenko
July 21, 2019

Sunday's parliamentary vote in Ukraine will mark a turning point for the country. The legislature may gain many new young faces — or see pro-Russia elements receive a boost in support.

Women walk out of voting booths at a polling station during Ukraine's parliamentary election
Image: Getty Images/AFP/G. Savilov

Snap election in Ukraine

Volodymyr Zelenskiy has managed to conquer Ukraine in barely seven months. The 41-year-old TV comedian announced he was making a presidential bid on New Year's Eve, and won the election in April with 73% of the vote.

Now, his party also looks likely to score a massive victory in Sunday's snap parliamentary election. The previously little-known Servant of the People party, named after a comedy series that featured Zelenskiy in the main role, is polling at between 41-52% in voter surveys — a record high. And only half the delegates to the Ukrainian parliament are elected from party lists. If direct mandates are also counted, Zelenskiy has good reason to hope for an absolute majority. Four other parties will also probably make it over the threshold of 5% needed to make it into parliament, but they are all lagging far behind.

In May, the new president dissolved parliament and brought forward by three months an election originally scheduled for the fall. His strategy seems to be working: The party is profiting from his high popularity ratings. Its formula is the same one he used for electoral success in April: Most of its members are young political newcomers without any connections with previous parties, which are extremely unpopular with many Ukrainians. One exception is the leader of the election campaign, Dmytro Razumkov, a 35-year political adviser who was once a member of former President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions.

Read more: Why Putin wants to make 'new Russians' out of Ukrainians 

Zelenskiy talking at a party congress
Zelenskiy's party is headed for a likely victory in Sunday's electionImage: Getty Images/AFP/G. Savilov

Radical plans

Sunday's election will be decisive for Zelenskiy: For his radical fresh start, the former comedian needs a broad majority. Zelenskiy wants to reform almost all sectors, press ahead with digitization and fight corruption. He has also hinted at a reckoning with the legacy left by former President Petro Poroshenko.

He has already fired several officials left over from Poroshenko's days in office, and proposed to extend a current ban preventing officials from the Yanukovych era from working in the public service to Poroshenko and his team. A draft bill to this end is already before the parliament. Legal prosecutions also seem possible, especially as the Servant of the People party would like to abolish the general immunity enjoyed by parliamentarians. A majority of the population is likely to welcome such a move.

Zelenskiy's party also wants to limit the influence oligarchs have on Ukrainian politics. But it's not clear whether this will also apply to Ihor Kolomoyskyi, with whom Zelenskiy was associated before his election, at least business-wise. Critics have accused Zelenskiy of being politically allied with the businessman as well, something both men deny. Yet the presidential office is headed by one of Kolomoyskyi's former lawyers, and one of the top candidates of the Servant of the People party is the managing director of Kolomoyskyi's TV station .

Read more: Investigative journalism is a dangerous job in Ukraine

Zelenskiy raises hopes for peace in Ukraine

Return of the Yanukovych elites

The extent to which these plans can be implemented is something that is likely to depend on whether Zelenskiy's party governs alone or as part of a coalition. A possible partner would be the Opposition Platform–For Life party, which currently holds second place in surveys with 12-15% support. So far, little has been said on the subject of a coalition, but there are some key issues where the two parties overlap.

The Opposition Platform consists above all of former Yanukovych supporters. The party itself, which has its roots in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east and southeast, supports a new rapprochement with Moscow and promises an end to the long-running war with the separatists in the coal-rich Donbass region.

Zelenskiy has set himself up as a president for peace, and aims to cater to the yearning many Ukrainians have for an end to the war. "We are prepared to do everything required by the Minsk agreements," Zelenskiy said earlier this month in a DW interview, referring to the international agreements aimed at bringing peace to Ukraine's east. He appears willing to make more concessions than his predecessor, and many are expecting a new approach to this key issue after the election.

Media and political support from Russia has been very noticeable in the runup to this election. The last time Moscow showed its hand so clearly in the Ukrainian political process was during the 2004 presidential poll, when the Kremlin backed Yanukovych. And this time, Yanukovych's former party colleagues, now organized within the Opposition Platform, are enjoying similar Russian support.

The Fatherland party of the former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, has also displayed a willingness to form a coalition. Just a year ago, Tymoshenko was seen as an influential politician, but her popularity has since plummeted: surveys show only around 8-9% support.

Ex-president and rock singer in opposition

Poroshenko's party, European Solidarity, and the new party Golos (Voice, in English) led by rock singer Svyatoslav Vakarchuk are both likely to be in opposition in the new parliament. Both have targeted voters in western Ukraine, the only region where Zelenskiy does not enjoy a majority. While Poroshenko touts his party as a power opposed to a "pro-Russian revanchism," the 44-year-old Vakarchuk makes the impression of a moderate and tries to copy Zelenskiy's formula for success. Like the Servant of the People, Golos is also made up mostly of young, unknown politicians. The best way to change the country, Vakarchuk told DW, is "to stand for parliament and bring young people with me."

Experts in Kyiv see Sunday's parliamentary election as a chance for a fresh start and point to many new faces embodying the change of generations. But they have also warned about a U-turn toward Russia, despite all pro-Western rhetoric. Such a development would inevitably bring about new tensions.

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