Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky got exactly what he wanted out of last weekend’s parliamentary elections – an overall majority for his Servant of the People party (Sluha Narodu), a good showing for other newcomers Holos (led by rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk) and the ousting of many of the oligarchs who have occupied seats in the Verkhovna Rada seemingly as of right for many years. Now he wants more and is seeking to bring forward local elections to this autumn.
Zelensky won the Presidency in April with 73% of the vote in the run-off against incumbent Petro Poroshenko. In his inauguration speech he immediately called for early elections to the country’s parliament. As a newcomer to the political scene – his experience until then had been as a comedian, TV producer and star of the Servant of the People show in which he played a school teacher who unexpectedly becomes President – he had no official support in the Rada and had no means of getting legislation through or enforcing his choices for many of the key positions running the country.
The challenge for Zelensky going into these elections was exactly how popular was he? Winning 73% of the vote in the run-off would indicate considerable popularity, but he only gained 30% in the first round and it was widely expected that he would need to form a coalition in order to govern. Most commentators assumed that the bulk of the second round votes came from those voting against the incumbent rather than positively for Zelensky.
The Ukrainian electoral system was also stacked against him. Roughly half the seats are awarded on the basis of a national party list system – where Servant of the People could be assumed to do quite well. But the remainder would be awarded to the winners of first past the post single member constituencies. And many of the incumbents were well entrenched local oligarchs including factory and media owners and other local powerbrokers. In contrast, Servant of the People were putting forward completely new faces, many of whom were not even local to the districts they were seeking to represent. Whilst international election observers had not seen a great scale of electoral malpractice in the presidential poll, it was assumed that in these single mandate constituencies there would be more scope for bribery and other electoral malfeasance. Could Zelensky and his party turn their presidential ‘against the system’ message into a winning strategy for the Rada and overcome such barriers?
Well it turned out that they could do so in spades. The party not only topped the list vote, but won a majority of the single member seats too. Long time incumbents were unceremoniously defeated by political naifs and, even though OSCE/ODIHR and others reported instances of bribery, it appears that voters were savvy enough to take the cash or foodstuffs on offer and then vote for Servant of the People candidates anyway. Servant of the People won 16 out of 17 seats in Dnipropetrovsk, 8 out of 9 in Kyiv Oblast, 12 out of 14 in Kharkiv, and all 13 in Kyiv city. (1)
In the list vote, Servant of the People won in every region except three. In the far eastern regions bordering the rebel controlled areas of the Donbas, the Russia supporting Opposition Platform – For Life topped the poll and in Lviv region in the West it was Holos (Voice) that came top. But Servant of the People performed strongly in these too and came first in the remaining 22 regions.
Across the country, the list results were:
- Servant of the People 43.2% 124 seats
- Opposition Platform – For Life 13.1% 37 seats
- Batkivshchyna (the party of Yulia Tymoshenko) 8.2% 24 seats
- European Solidarity (the party of former President Poroshenko) 8.1% 23 seats
- Holos 5.8% 17 seats
No other party won more than 5% and therefore did not exceed the threshold to win representation, although six other parties (2) gained more than 2% and so will receive some state funding for their activities.
In the single mandate constituencies,
- Servant of the People won 130 seats
- Opposition Platform – For Life won 6 seats
- European Solidarity won 2 seats
- Batkivshchyna won 2 seats
- Holos won 3 seats
- Opposition Bloc won 6 seats
- Svoboda won 1 seat
- Self Reliance won 1 seat
- and there were 48 independents and others elected
And so overall Servant of the People hold 253 of the 424 Rada seats (some 26 seats were not contested this time as they fall within Crimea and the Donbas areas which are not in government control).
The scale of the transformation of the Rada cannot be over-stated. More than 300 of the MPs elected last week are new faces and not a single member on the government benches has served before. In one example, in the south-eastern Zaporizhzhya region, 29-year-old Serhiy Shtepa, a wedding photographer, defeated 80-year-old millionaire Vyacheslav Boguslayev, the owner of engine maker Motor Sich PJSC.
The elections were assessed positively overall by international observers including OSCE/ODIHR. They were competitive and respected fundamental freedoms with the voting and tabulation processes being assessed as transparent and smooth. Inevitably, it was not an error-free process and the country still has some improvements that could be made, but this was a general thumbs-up for these polls. The international community has also welcomed the results as being a positive mandate for continued reform.
At no time in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history has one party controlled a majority of the seats in the Rada. Such control now will allow Zelensky considerable leeway to mould the country in his image. But most commentators are still wondering what that image will look like. The President has made statements about wanting to end the war in the East, but Russia and the rebels are refusing meaningful engagement. A deal for a prisoner swap involving the sailors held by Russia since the Kerch Strait incident fell apart at the last minute as they had their incarceration period extended and the Ukraine court postponed a hearing to decide the fate of a Russian blogger. More recently, Ukraine has seized a Russian ship that it claims was involved in the blockade of the Kerch Strait. It appears that Zelensky is happy to ratchet up tensions with his biggest neighbour in order not to appear weak, although this might also make a deal more likely.
Domestically, Zelensky has made it clear that he wants to see the de-oligarchisation of the state. But his relationship with his patron (and oligarch) Ihor Kolomoisky is still unclear. Is this just a change of oligarchs with influence or is this a genuine clear out? Figures close to Kolomoisky such as Andriy Bogdan, who now serves as the president’s chief of staff, are heavily involved in policy-making and running the presidential administration. Ties to the former owner of PrivatBank may cast a shadow over Sluha Narodu’s fight against corruption, an issue many Ukrainians believe should be the top priority of the next parliament.
The mixed electoral system would seem to be on its way out. Zelensky has said that he wants to move to a single national list system – albeit an open list where voters can promote their favourite candidates rather than having to accept the order set by parties. It has also been suggested that there would be no threshold – leading to a plethora of small factions. Just before these polls the Rada passed a version of this system which the President said he was not happy with. It is set to come into force for the next parliamentary polls, but may well be changed again before that time.
And in order to complete his hold on power, Zelensky is turning his attention to local government. He has the power to dismiss figures such as the mayor of Kyiv, the former boxer Vitaliy Klitschko, but he also wants to see local elections brought forward. These are due to be held in October next year, but the President has said he wants to hold them this autumn instead. He faces some opposition in the form of the country’s constitution which mandates that local polls must be held on a fixed five year timetable. Changing the constitution would require two votes of the Rada in separate sessions, indicating that next spring is the earliest that polls could happen. But with a compliant parliament and a definite will, it seems likely that Zelensky will get his way even if it means backdating a constitutional change or holding local elections both this autumn and next.
Zelensky has been explicit in his backing for a western facing, pro European and pro NATO stance, but it is clear that the country will not become a member of NATO for many years yet. The alliance is unwilling to take on a new member which is de facto at war with a neighbouring state. Previous Ukrainian governments have also traded on their conflict with Russia, believing they can get away with a lot so long as they are battling the West’s main opponent. How long this situation can be taken for granted (if it ever could) is also in doubt.
Zelensky will also be trying to change a system where a majority of voters may not actually support his ideology. According to a strategist for Holos:
“Most of Sluha Narodu’s voters did not support the president’s party because of its pro-market agenda, but because they expect the new ruling party to cut utility prices, raise salaries and improve social conditions in general.”
Despite his resounding success, it is clear that Zelensky will have to live up to the expectations of his backers if he is to have any hope of a second term. The Ukrainian people have shown how tired they are of the oligarch system. It will be a very difficult task to unpick it, but that must be the aim if Zelensky is not to prove a flash in the pan.
(1) There was an issue with clone candidates who claimed to be part of Servant of the People but were not official candidates. OSCE/ODIHR believes that such candidates distorted the result in as many as nine constituencies. I will be writing about this as part of the wider ‘imposter’ phenomenon in elections at another time.
(2) The six other parties to gain more than 2% in the list vote and therefore be eligible for state funding are:
- Radical Party of Oleg Lyashko
- Strength and Honour
- Opposition Bloc
- Ukrainian Strategy of Groysman
- Party of Shariy