19 September 2019

President Zelensky received full powers in Ukraine

Cristian Eremia

The interesting and provocative 2019 electoral cycle in Ukraine ended with a true electoral miracle, or, as others put it, an electoral revolution achieved by the Ukrainians – an electoral cycle with results that were hard to predict only six months ago. The snap elections held on July 21 sealed the victory of young President Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, whose very inspired electoral speech overwhelmed traditional political elites and brought him, for the first time for an Ukrainian president, full and uncontestable political power nationally, in spite of the deep divides which have weakened the Ukrainian society’s cohesion in the past couple of years.

Image source: Mediafax

Pessimist sentiments regarding the new power which will be instated in Kiev are only expressed by those who think that the young politicians in the president’s team do not have the necessary political experience to defeat the systemic inertia present in Ukraine.

President Zelensky experiences the full taste of victory

The final official results must be published by the Central Electoral Committee until August 5. At the time this op-ed was finished, after 100% of the votes were counted, it is indubitable that the great winner is by far the Servant of the People party. Only five of the seven more important political forces managed to pass the 5% electoral threshold necessary to gain spots in Ukraine’s Supreme Rada (the country’s parliament). These five parties are as follows:

- the Servant of the People party (President Zelensky’s party, led by Dmitry Razumkov), 43.16% of the vote;

- “The Opposition Platform – For Life” party (co-led by Yury Boyko and Viktor Rabinovich), 13.05%;

- the “Batkivshchyna” political movement (Yulia Tymoshenko), 8.18%;

- the European Solidarity Party (formerly known as the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, led by the former president) 8.10%;

- the “Voice” Party (a new quasi-liberal party led by rock musician Sviatoslav Vakarchuc), 5.82%.

The Rada will also be composed of 42 independents, five candidates from the Opposition Bloc and one from the Liberty, White Church Together and Unique Centre party, all elected via the uninominal voting system. (1)

The turnout was slightly below 50% of all registered voters, in a historical minimum for this type of elections. It should be mentioned that the lowest presence in the 2019 election was registered in the Transkarpatia region, as the interest of citizens near the Western border is mostly oriented to neighbouring states, where they can find better-paid jobs.

With a pacifist electoral speech and a political program similar to the one promoted by Zelensky in the presidential elections, with simplified and clear political messages, Servant of the People proved to be impossible to beat, with no other serious alternative managing to attract the electorate.

It is also interesting that this party, like Zelensky, intelligently used the niche of opportunity open to a new political force, and did not antagonize the Russian-speaking electorate in the country’s east and south-east. And Zelensky managed to quickly pave the way for the party’s success. That explains of the fact that this young party, which does not have a regionally widespread structure, managed to attract the electorate from the grasp of powerful and influential local political leaders. According to some analyses, the parliamentary elections were de-facto a “third round of the presidential elections” and happened according to the manual – the brand won, with many voters automatically choosing for the party of the presidential election’s winner, regardless of whether they voted for party lists or in an uninominal system.

Therefore, Servant of the People won its coveted parliamentary majority, with a balanced electorate in almost all of Ukraine’s regions. With the exception of Donetsk and Luhnask, where the Opposition Platform won, and Lvov, which preferred the pro-Western “Voice” party. There were also curiosities and large regional discrepancies between the east and the west, as with the example of the Opposition Platform, which won 31% of the vote in the east and only 2% in western regions.

Resetting Ukraine’s political system

The Ukrainian electorate understood that it cannot ask a president, no matter how capable and prepared he is, to save the country from the giant internal social-economic and national security problems, without offering the president the essential political instrument – of collaborating freely with lawmakers and the executive, so that the entire country will sail on the same line. With all forces centred on the same objectives, and not chaotically spread on different directions of interest and stakes, as happens in some European states with a democratic, economic and security situation which is incomparably better. Here is the essence of the electoral miracle made by Ukrainian electorate, which demonstrated the political maturity to opt for the political force which will lead the country in the following period to simultaneously hold both the presidency and the parliament, and to be able to instate a government which it will coherently coordinate based on convergent policies and centred objectives.

It is essential that the July 21 elections have radically changed the balance of political forces in Ukraine, and Zelensky received full control over the parliament. So even in political problems which are not part of the president’s competencies and prerogatives, Zelensky will be the unique political decision and leadership centre in Ukraine. He will control both the Supreme Rada and the Government, will be able to ask them to develop political initiatives and act in full accordance with the political line drawn by the presidency. It is a first for Ukraine that a political party has, especially following redistributions, a majority of 250 candidates out of the 450 MPs in the Supreme Rada (more specifically, 424 MP seats without the representatives of Crimea).

This will allow the president to form a sufficiently stable majority from his own party, without having to negotiate with other political parties and build a new pillar of power in the state. Of course, a coalition with Yulia Timoshenko is out of the question, since the latter requested the office of prime minister, which would have meant that the new power was “stained” from the beginning by the sins of the former political elite, with which Zelensky has no reason to associate anymore.

However, in order to attract voters in Western Ukraine – where the president and Servant of the People were not expected to achieve good numbers in this year’s elections – Zelensky could accept a coalition with the Voice Party, whose electoral representation is reduced, so it cannot have exaggerated political demands in governing. As for the office of prime minister, it is speculated that Zelensky could appoint a technocrat who is well-seen in political and Western affairs circles – such as Ukraine representative to the IMF, Vladyslav Rashkovan, or a politician who was a former minister but is currently in his team – such as Oleksandr Danylyuk.

Most of the post-electoral analyses point out that the new president’s electoral strategy and young political machine worked phenomenally at a national level, as he obtained full power over Ukraine and the legitimacy to act freely, at least for a large part of his first term, in order to demonstrate that he is capable of bringing changes for the better, at least in areas relevant for the country. Zelensky received a strong mandate of political trust, which cannot be contested by any other political forces. Starting with August, Zelensky’s team can start resetting the Ukrainian political system, can be come engaged in a solid governing, even making use of constitutional changes should it be necessary.

The opposition will be silent, at least during the parliament’s first year. Moreover, it is predictable that Yury Boyko, who is teaming with the well-known Viktor Medveciuk, a politician with personal ties in the Kremlin, cannot make an opposition coalition with Poroshenko or Tymoshenko in order to cause any serious problems for the president.

On the other hand, we cannot ignore the fact that, in many regions, MPs and experienced politicians who are appreciated as good professionals lost in front of the younger inexperienced candidates from the president’s party, but supported by the “new electoral technology of showmanship”. From this also comes the fear that the upcoming political power will have new, young leaders, but who lack experience and professionalism.

Local snap elections are already discussed

The 2019 electoral year’s results generated a special political enthusiasm which, as sublime as it is, can also become dangerous, due to the limitless ambitions which they can stir among some politicians. It is suggestive to note here that the mayor of a large city has already requested President Zelensky to hold snap local elections in the entire country, in order to make a “complete reset of the political system” possibly both centrally and locally throughout Ukraine. Which is nothing more or less than a total political exam for local “conformity” when compared with the national one, which would allow, according to the respective politician, for a complete change of power, the brining about of a new political power and the elimination of weathered political vehicles, with outdated ideologies that proved to be totally incapable of solving the Ukrainian state’s crises.

To be fair, the national political context could be used to mark for at least a period of time the political forces which have the support of the population, beyond particular or clan interests which took over power locally and dictate the evolutions of their communities at a regional level. And this is not the only politician who requests widespread changes. Others are asking for the de-centralization reform to be finished and for constitutional changes enabling the adoption of a code regarding local self-governance.

The realities on the ground prove, however, that it would a dangerous affair for Zelezny to force things again without a clear legal justification. The winning party is also not prepared for such an overtaking yet, with its leader, Dmitry Razumkov, stating that local elections will be left scheduled for 2020, with the party’s preparations for local electoral battles to begin the autumn. The reasons are many. Razumkov, just as the president, considers that the local powers are working inefficiently, do not make appropriate use of the resources they have, are not ensuring the citizen’s vital needs and do not manifest interest and solidarity towards the central power.

All these alongside the problem of corruption, which is embedded within the structures of local power. The leader of the winning party showed that team Zelensky is accustomed to the “new technology” of corrupt individuals from local leadership structures, which is to transfer local community funds into bank deposits controlled by them in their personal interests, without the state’s legal watchdogs “bothering” these individuals and their clans.

In other words, the central administration knows the situation which Ukrainians are facing locally, which is blocking the state’s road to progress. Most probably, that is why President Zelensky rapidly began to change the leaders of local state administrations (2).

And probably also among this line, the president stated the following last Sunday, after the polls for the parliamentary elections closed: “Are you interested in what will happen with the local elections? Do not relax!”.

The new political power’s priorities

Serious problems will start only now for Zelensky, as he has to manage a country which faces great difficulties. Among the first for the president to face is the way in which the Ukrainian state will fight corruption, and how the new power will deal with the interests of oligarchs. Zelensky announced an agenda which generally corresponds with the electorate’s expectations. Which is to bring to the forefront problems regarding corruption, easing the economical situation and increasing the standard of living, the development of Ukraine’s statehood and its modernizations. It remains to be seen how the new power will manage the state. The first signs have already appeared, although they are far from convincing. Servant of the People has already announced that it will not accept among its members individuals who serve or work in the interest of oligarchs.

But things cannot be and will not be as simple as it would have been wanted. All these are things of maximum interests for all Ukrainians, maybe intentionally leaving in the background subjects which permanently cause social discord, such as the status of minority languages, or the foreign policy’s orientation towards the West or the East.

The main priority for Ukrainian citizens is, however, solving the problems with Moscow and re-establishing peace in the country. Respected Ukrainian analytical circles consider that Zelensky will have to directly negotiate the Donbas case with Moscow. The president would not have any alternative option, the problem itself being one of testing his own political power, with considerable implication on his entire political career. It is very clear that, regardless of the results of his first negotiations with the Kremlin, Zelensky will be put in an extremely complex and uncomfortable situation. In the meantime, possible scenarios are weighed in the Kremlin regarding Kiev’s future actions. But none of the scenarios which will be considered include negotiating Crimea’s return to Ukraine.

Obviously, Zelensky’s team wishes to consolidate all the possible levels of legislative and executive powers, on the wave of the still-positive electoral dynamic. His team’s members seem to be aware of the fact that, in the near future, the entire electoral rhetoric in which the voters believed will have to be transformed into political actions with tangible results. Otherwise, the new regime’s popularity can begin to abruptly decline, and discontent and disappointment will inevitably rise among the Ukrainian society.


(1) The other more important political movements who were close to achieving the electoral threshold, but failed to qualify, are the Force and Honour Party (Igor Smeshko), the Civic Position party (Anatoliy Gritsenko), the Radical Party, as well as the Party of Shariy or the Green Party.

(2) In the meantime, the president has already nominated his new local administration chiefs for several regions, reasoning that the old chiefs must hand in their resignations to the newly-elected president. Among the new chiefs are businessman Yury Bondarenko in the Transkarpatia region and Vitaly Kormanitsky for the Luhansk region. A priority is to replace the leadership of the Lvov region, where the new president faced the most opposition in the 2019 elections.

Translated by Ionut Preda