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Monday 4 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
SIPA USA/PA Images Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Opinion Ukraine elected a comedian and an actual rock star this year. So now what?

“Despite a significant amount of new blood entering the political establishment, the old elites still have some sway,” writes Assistant Professor Tanya Lokot.

WITH A NEW president and a freshly elected parliament, opinions are split on whether Ukraine is entering a new period of political change.

Despite a significant amount of new blood entering the political establishment, the old elites still have some sway – and there are questions about exactly how reform-oriented and independent the newcomers are or how constructive their policies may turn out to be.

New faces

With almost 100% of ballots counted after the July 21 parliamentary election, Ukraine’s parliament is about to experience an unprecedented reset. The Servant of the People party, aligned with newly elected president Volodymyr Zelensky, looks set to get over 43% of all votes and win over half of the 424 seats in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, and thus form the first ruling majority in the history of independent Ukraine.

This gives Zelensky, a political novice who gained a decisive victory in April’s presidential election, even more clout to push the anti-establishment agenda on which he ran.

The ruling majority (226 votes or more) allows Zelensky’s party to legislate on many proposed reforms, as well as appoint a prime minister, other government members, the prosecutor general and head of the country’s security service.

However, Servant of the People lawmakers will still need a constitutional majority (300 MPs) to vote on constitutional reforms, such as the stripping of parliamentary immunity from members Verkhovna Rada that Zelensky has advocated for. This means that Servant of the People is likely to seek a coalition with other progressive new forces, such as Golos (Voice), the aptly named new party headed by Ukrainian rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, that is set to get just under 6% of the votes and 20 seats in parliament.

The new parliament will have many members who are entering politics for the first time: Zelensky’s party list was purposefully made up of new faces, as was Vakarchuk’s.

Ukraine’s first Black MP, Zhan Beleniuk, is a silver medallist from the Rio Olympic Games who was number 10 on the Servant of the People party ticket. The new parliament is also expected to have a record number of women MPs: 86 or about 20% of lawmakers (the outgoing parliament has only 12% of women).

Old guard

Despite the influx of new blood, plenty of familiar faces made it into parliament, most of them running on the ex-president Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party ticket (8.1%), embattled ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Motherland) party (8.13%) list and the Opposition Platform – For Life party (13.04%) list headed by Yuriy Boyko and Viktor Medvedchuk and featuring many Yanukovych-era figures with pro-Russian agendas. As these lawmakers are likely to be isolated and outside any major coalition,

Ukrainian political analysts don’t expect these forces to have significant power in the new parliament and see no cause for concern about a “pro-Russian revanche”.

Controversially, these political parties, along with a few smaller pro-Russian ones who passed the 2% barrier, are now set to receive state funding. This is likely to be an unpopular outcome with many Ukrainian taxpayers and might lead to an eventual removal of the recently introduced provision.

New challenges

A stable majority in parliament will likely mean a stable government, but experts caution against Servant of the People being too secure in the comfort of their numbers. Other progressive forces, like Vakarchuk’s Golos, might add some much needed idealism to Ukrainian lawmaking. But it is not entirely clear how Zelensky’s agenda will manifest itself in his party’s actions.

Much of the success of Servant of the People has been attributed to Zelensky‘s personality, with some analysts suggesting that the parliamentary elections could be construed as “the third round” of presidential elections. This is dangerous ground, as personality-driven politics rarely comes with a lasting and sustainable agenda for political change.

Though there is huge turnover in terms of party lists, voter enthusiasm this time was comparatively low, with voter turnout just under 49% and falling progressively with each parliamentary election over the years of Ukraine’s independence. Some of this may be attributed to fatigue from the Russia-Ukraine war, a conflict simmering in the occupied parts of eastern Ukraine and now in its sixth year.

Another reason may be that voters simply weren’t around to cast their vote during the summer vacation season. Still, the prevailing sentiment among those heading to the polls was a demand for change and, more importantly, for justice and dignity.

But Zelensky as a political figure now propping up both a presidency and a political party also runs the risk of damage by association. The former comedian is often reported to have close ties with Ukrainian oligarch and media magnate Ihor Kolomoisky, whose relationship with the previous President and government was rather tense. Kolomoisky owns the TV channel where Zelensky’s shows ran.

He is also the co-founder of PrivatBank, the largest Ukrainian bank that was nationalised in 2016 over accusations of siphoning out money into offshore accounts, which the tycoon is currently disputing in court. Zelensky’s party list includes some Kolomoisky associates, and there is a general air of suspense around how the new President and his party will be dealing with political decisions that involve the oligarch’s business interests.

More broadly, Zelensky and Servant of the People have embraced a fairly populist agenda, playing to Ukrainians’ growing dissatisfaction with existing corruption and nepotism among political elites. Besides electoral reform and stripping lawmakers of parliamentary immunity, Zelensky and his party have also advocated for banning officials from the previous government from holding public office and for legislating to allow referendums on issues of public importance. Zelensky has also indicated his displeasure with the slow progress of ongoing high-profile corruption cases.

This distaste for “politics as usual” is coupled with the Servant of the People’s vague ideological platform and with Zelensky’s own declared preference for a technocratic government. He recently declared that an ideal prime minister would be “a professional economist without a political past”.

His party members and his milieu have described their ideology as libertarian, but have been quick to point out that this only applies to separating business from government, and not to removing social welfare and other supports for citizens who need them. Perhaps this ideological ambivalence has played to their favour, allowing them to put together a diverse party ticket and attract a varied slate of voters.

It is now crucial that President Zelensky, his team, and his party not waste the support and the trust of Ukrainian citizens. For the first time since the 2014 Euromaidan protests (also known as the Revolution of Dignity), polls show that Ukrainians are feeling positive about the change in the country’s direction. As sociologist Oleksandr Antypovich pointed out in a recent interview, “Ukrainians are not just craving positive changes, but they also believe that these changes can happen.”

Whether such faith – in this pivotal moment and in Zelensky’s team – is warranted will only become evident once the newcomers show their work.

Tanya Lokot is an Assistant Professor at the School of Communications, Dublin City University.

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