Volodymyr Zelensky on course for commanding win in Ukraine's general election

Sunday's election set to deliver a serious reset to Ukrainian politics 

Oliver Carroll
Wednesday 24 July 2019 07:34 BST

The Ukrainian electorate seems set to endorse the rookie party of their new president in Sunday’s general election – dealing a seismic shock to the country’s political elite in the process.

According to the latest figures, Voldymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People, titled after the former showman’s comedy series, is projected to gain between 40-50 per cent of the vote. That may or may not be enough to form a one-party majority. But by week’s end, the 41-year-old will almost certainly enjoy a commanding position over the main towers of Ukrainian political power.

In the process, the Supreme Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, will also be transformed, with as many as three-quarters of the intake green to high politics.

Sunday’s vote is not without major intrigue. How Zelensky and others perform will determine not only the composition of his coalition, but also that of his cabinet and premier. Ukraine has a complicated mixed first-past-the-post and PR system, with 226 seats needed for an outright majority. Unlike many other post-Soviet countries, the parliament is a serious player, with powers to appoint ministers and even to impeach the president.

Ahead of possible negotiations, Zelensky has already ruled out a deal with the leading pro-Russian party Opposition Platform For Life, whose leaders were this week hosted by Vladimir Putin. But it is far from clear that his preferred coalition partner choice – Holos, a new party fronted by singer Sviatoslav Vakarchuk – will break the 5 per cent parliamentary barrier. That may force the inexperienced president into a pact with the party of Ukraine’s craftiest politician, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The election comes at a historically optimistic moment for Ukraine, with a poll revealing that — for the first time — a majority are hopeful their country is headed in the right direction.

Volodymyr Paniotto, Ukraine’s leading poll-watcher, says the Zelensky honeymoon is far from over, and voters remain amenable to their new president.

Candidates polling for his party in first-past-the-post districts receive on average a 10-15 per cent boost, he told The Independent. Sometimes, but not always, this is enough to overtake incumbents, many who have invested big in re-election with free playgrounds, sausages and buckwheat.

President Zelensky look back on a successful campaign that has maintained the momentum of his landslide presidential victory without giving much away. His party has stood on a centrist programme, mixing uncontroversial, mildly conservative policies — but without ever making mention of them. He has avoided scrutiny on provocative issues like high gas tariffs. He has also shunned traditional media in favour of posts on Facebook and Instagram.

Suffice to say Zelensky's most talked-about pre-election interview was by an MP3 file, with the president answering a dozen pre-recorded questions as he drove around Kiev in a Tesla. One and a half million watched that video.

At moments of difficulty, Zelensky turned to an effective, if more old-school election tool: admonishing bureaucrats in front of the cameras. In the past ten days, he has ridiculed customs officials on the western border; forced a tax chief in Odessa to sign a resignation letter in front of him; and ordered another "gangster" official out of a meeting.

Voters have lapped up the strongman image, says Paniotto, and it has allowed him to reverse a dip in the polls.

But Zelensky’s use of populist mechanisms should come with a warning, the political philosopher Mikhail Minakov tells The Independent. It is a trick first popularised by a young Alexander Lukashenko, he says, referring to the former collective farm director who turned neighbouring Belarus into an authoritarian regime soon after his 1994 victory.

“What worries me is that there won’t be strong enough opposition to Zelensky,” Minakov adds. “This new intake may be fresh, but they will be much less competent too.”

Another takeaway from the polling is that voters have moved further away from the previous president, Petro Poroshenko.

Since April, Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party has seen its projected result crash from double digits to barely breaking the parliamentary barrier of 5 per cent. It can also be assumed that he will not be invited into the coalition given the sharp words directed at Zelensky during the presidential campaign.

Olga Onuch, an associate professor at Manchester University, says the former president oversaw a catastrophic retreat into safe, nationalistic leaning heartlands in western Ukraine.

“All the data tells us that you can’t win elections without winning votes in central or eastern Ukraine,” she said. “Poroshenko didn’t begin to address their bread-and-butter needs. He didn’t address the fact that people have got poorer over the last five years. For whatever reason, he didn’t tell them he felt their pain.”

Ukraine was not the only country whose elite has become disconnected from the people, Onuch adds, but levels of abject poverty mean the former Soviet nation is particularly vulnerable to wild and sudden changes in mood.

“This is a landscape-shifting election for Ukraine,” she said. “But the worry is that given the disconnect and the impossible expectations, if things don’t quite work out, people will turn to less attractive options.”

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