Ukraine elections: Can Zelensky’s popularity help his party sweep up parliamentary seats?

‘You can put a teenager in a Formula One car and get results. In Ukraine, we have to build a whole new car from the scraps of a Lada. You have to be superhuman to make it work’

Oliver Carroll
Sunday 14 July 2019 18:38 BST
Volodymyr Zelensky sworn in as Ukraine president

On Wednesday, Volodymyr Zelensky completed his 50th day as Ukraine’s most unexpected president. Such short landmarks are rarely enough to give an indication of how any leader will go down in history. But in just seven weeks, the one-time comic actor has left a strong statement of intent, with a dramatic arc of reality proving every bit as thrilling as his sitcoms which portrayed a man of the people becoming president.

In Mr Zelensky’s very first speech, he torpedoed convention by disbanding parliament and calling early elections. It was undoubtedly his most consequential decision to date. The bold and not entirely legal move made sense to his own calculations: in Ukraine’s constitution, the presidential office is nothing without parliamentary arithmetic on its side.

But disbanding parliament has also set up something even more tantalising: the largest renewal of the country’s governing elite since the fall of the Soviet Union. Polls for the 21 July elections indicate that a large part of the old guard will be swept aside by a tsunami of political novices riding on Mr Zelensky’s ticket.

According to the latest figures, Mr Zelensky’s “Servant of the People” party leads in all regions and with 48.5 per cent overall. Given Ukraine’s mixed PR and first-past-the-post electoral system, that isn’t enough to give Mr Zelensky an outright majority. Instead he’ll likely have to rely on former PM Yulia Tymoshenko’s party (polling 6.2 per cent) – or perhaps on Holos, another new party headed by rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, which may or may not break the 5 per cent needed to get into parliament.

Judging by the figures, voters seem to like what they have seen of Mr Zelensky so far.

Substantively, of course, there are few achievements to speak of – the president has limited executive power, and has limited it even further with a combative approach to parliament.

Stylistically, however, a lot has moved on. Mr Zelensky has departed from the ethno-nationalism of his predecessor, favouring a more consensual approach to the Russian-speaking populations of the east. There are other stylistic breaks from the past: cancelling military parades; proposing to move the presidential office from its Soviet home; and talking tough about officials with past criminal convictions.

Next Sunday’s parliamentary elections will put meat on the revolutionary bone. But while the Zelensky insurgency will inject much new blood into Ukraine’s famously coagulated parliament, it won’t only sweep out the malign and corrupt.

Many of the western-oriented reformers, who sneaked into the last parliament on the back of the Euromaidan revolution in 2013, also risk being swept up in the process. Both Mr Zelensky and Mr Vakarchuk have closed off their lists to such “veterans”, who are now left without an obvious political vehicle. With this, Mr Zelensky’s arrival has put at least part of the Euromaidan legacy under question.

Mustafa Nayyem, the man whose Facebook post triggered the protests in 2013, was the most well known of the reformist MPs. Unlike his colleagues, he has decided not to seek re-election in next week’s elections. There are no regrets, he told The Independent ahead of the probable wipeout, yet he does “worry” that the new government will “try to rewrite history” in their absence.

“Not enough is known about Mr Zelensky’s intentions, or the intentions about the people around him,” he said. “There are already attempts to explain the failures of [previous president] Mr Poroshenko’s last five years to the millions who came out to protest.”

Mr Nayyem said liberal MPs like him had already made a “historical impact” on the development of post-Soviet Ukraine. “We showed that you don’t have to be an oligarch or a lover of an oligarch to get into parliament,” he said. “We 'desacralised' the way in, and thanks to us there now will be many new faces in parliament. That it happened without us? Well, OK, it’s no tragedy. The bigger picture is that we won.”

The rookies on Mr Zelensky’s party list are on a rather different trajectory: transformed from political zeros to heroes in just a few weeks.

Not much is known about the opaque process in which they were selected. Some were involved in the actor’s production company. Others are connected to the controversial oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. Some helped with the presidential election campaign. Some appear to be headhunted. In other cases, there is no obvious explanation. Several have already been struck off the list due to scandal.

“It’s a strange group that combines very diverse interests and styles,” Volodymyr Fesenko, an independent analyst, said. “On the one hand you have people who are comfortable being seen in LGBT parades, and on another you have people who agitate for the propaganda of Soviet war heroes. Keeping them together will be very difficult indeed.”

Dmitry Natalukha, 31, is one of the more interesting names on the list. A former business consultant and lawyer, the Cambridge graduate was writing political papers when he caught the attention of Mr Zelensky’s team in April. Since then he has been catapulted into high politics, and is now number 14 on the Servants of the People list. He is almost certain to be elected next Sunday.

Speaking to The Independent, Mr Natalukha rejected an argument that the apparently chaotic selection of unproven politicians risked pushing Ukraine into further crisis. “Before the election, everyone was warning about the currency and economy falling in, about Russia invading,” he said. “None of that has happened. Life is continuing and for the first time Ukrainians are hopeful about the future. They believe in us. They think that renewal is really happening.”

Mr Zelensky’s high-octane first days were only a sign of things to come, the candidate said: “The president has his hands tied up until this point. We are waiting for September and the new parliament before changing everything at its core.”

Such quixotic aims raise eyebrows even among sympathetic voices in parliament.

Oleksii Ryabchyn, a reformist MP on Ms Tymoshenko’s lists, though unlikely to be re-elected on Sunday, told The Independent many prospective parliamentarians had called him for basic advice about lawmaking procedure. Their expectations about what is and isn’t possible were usually widely of the mark, he said.

“I like the idea of renewal of elites like you had in Canada with Justin Trudeau,” he said. “But Canada had an engine that was already working. You can put a teenager in a Formula One car and get results. In Ukraine, we have to build a whole new car from the scraps of a Lada. You have to be superhuman to make it work.” It was too early to judge whether Mr Zelensky’s impact would be of “creative destruction” or just “destruction”, he added.

Mr Nayyem said Mr Zelensky’s team will eventually have to come clean about his “fragmented” positions. “We know he wants people to like him, but he is trying to be everything to everyone. Of course, he’s trying not to scare the electorate, but sooner or later he will have to disappoint one part or the other.”

Even if he does secure a working majority in parliament, the immediate inbox is full of potentially explosive issues. What to do over his close relationship with the controversial tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky and the other oligarchs? Does he side with the free-marketeers or with the populists and socialists on the matter of high utility prices? What to do about Russia? Providing clarity without dividing up his party and electorate seems tricky.

“Zelensky is learning to be the president,” says Fesenko. “And he’s approaching it like he would a comedy series, episode by episode. The improvisation is kind of working – so far – and especially in breaking things. But it won’t work when you’re building things. Ukrainian history also shows us that crises happen, and fractions quickly disintegrate.”

Until something goes seriously wrong – and with the country still at war and heavily dependent on western creditors it is bound to – all bets on the success or otherwise of a Zelensky presidency must remain provisional.

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