COMMENT: After the Ukrainian presidential elections: Anything is possible and nothing is certain

COMMENT: After the Ukrainian presidential elections: Anything is possible and nothing is certain
Ukraine’s president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been on the job less than a week and he is already been tested
By Maya Janik of Dialogue of the Civilisations in Berlin April 26, 2019

Until Ukraine’s parliamentary elections in October pass, the political situation will be marked by political volatility and rising tensions. Until then, the main task for Ukraine’s president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy  will be to maintain the support of his electorate and withstand attempts by the old elite to undermine his presidency. He needs to build the begins of a powerbase in parliament and find political allies to secure a majority in the new Verkhovna Rada once the elections are over. Only then can he bring about any significant change in Ukraine. His chance for success in this endeavour are far from certain, says Maya Janik, an anlysis with Dialogue of the Civilizations in a paper


Volodymyr Zelensky’s victory in the presidential elections on 21 April did not come as a huge surprise after he secured more than 30% of the votes in the first round of elections on 31 March – nearly double that of incumbent president Petro Poroshenko.

Yet, the fact that a political neophyte managed to rally such huge popular support without even offering a concrete political programme to win by the largest margin ever in a Ukrainian election (73% to Poroshenko’s 24%) shows that indeed “anything is possible”, as Zelensky rightly said after the results were announced.

The high voter turnout, as well as Zelensky’s victory in all regions of Ukraine except for Lviv in the Western part of the country – the stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism – equips him with a strong mandate to lead Ukraine as the country’s next president. Nevertheless, the high support comes with high expectations and pressure to deliver on election promises. Whether Zelensky can will only be clearer after this period of uncertainty is over following the parliamentary elections in October.

How did we get here?

Zelensky’s victory is a direct result of the public’s deep disillusionment with the political class and a strong and countrywide desire for change. The palpable frustration over the deteriorating socio-economic situation and fatigue with the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine has driven resentment; a vote for Zelenskiy was actually a vote against Poroshenko and his failure to deliver on expectations for a better life following the Euromaidan demonstrations in 2014.

Not only is Ukraine the poorest country in Europe, as per International Monetary Fund (IMF) rankings, it is also one of the most corrupt, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. On top of that, the country has been torn apart by an undeclared war that has cost 13,000 lives.

A reasonable risk

On the face of it, the series of challenges should demand a strong leader with a clear agenda for dealing with each of these problems, so the gamble the Ukrainian people have just taken on an unknown wildcard does not appear rational. However, Ukrainians are desperately longing for a better future, as a recent sociological survey by the ‘Rating Group’ confirms: 83% of respondents declared that Ukraine needs radical changes.

Having fallen so far and with nothing more to lose, Ukrainians were willing to take a leap into the dark and vote for a complete political novice with no political programme. The fact that little was known about Zelensky’s potential plans mattered less than the fact he comes from outside of the corrupt political system. Recent opinion polls show that the trust of Ukrainians in political institutions is the lowest in the world.

Widespread corruption within the political class has plagued Ukraine for decades and is largely responsible for the poor socio-economic shape in which the country finds itself today. Rooting out corruption was one of Poroshenko’s top priorities when he took office as president five years ago but he failed to make a substantial effort towards this goal and this was a major contributing factor to his crushing defeat.

What Poroshenko considers his big achievements, such as the visa-free travel deal with the EU or autocephaly for Ukraine’s Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate, matters little to ordinary people. Poroshenko’s play on patriotic themes, the story of a commander-in-chief who defends his war-torn country against external enemies, attracted a large audience in 2014, but is not able to fill the theatre today. In retrospect, building his campaign around buzzwords like “jobs, social security, and peace” would have been far more effective than his “army, language, and faith” slogan.

Everybody’s president

A striking difference between Poroshenko’s and Zelensky’s campaign is the degree of inclusivity each offered. Poroshenko’s campaign was built on defending Ukrainian national identity and emphasised the divisions within Ukrainian society. This secured his victory in the nationalist Lviv oblast. But in all other regions of the country, both Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking, Zelensky’s conciliatory rhetoric was more appealing.

Zelenskiy promised a better future for all Ukrainians, regardless of ethnicity or their primary language. The fact he is a Russian-speaking Ukrainian only underscores his appeal to the whole of Ukrainian society, whereas Poroshenko’s aggressive promotion of the Ukrainian language effectively alienated half the country.

The fact that support for Zelensky is not split along linguistic lines is a new, and indeed remarkable, development in Ukrainian politics. Never before in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history has one candidate gained the majority of votes across the entire country. Traditionally, support for candidates has been divided between the Ukrainian-speaking west and the Russian-speaking east and southern parts of the country. Zelenskiy’s conciliatory message and emphasis on unity as a nation could potentially have a positive effect on interethnic tensions within Ukraine.

Poroshenko’s use of the Ukrainian language issue over the past few years risked further polarising the linguistically and culturally diverse Ukrainian society. The new language law passed on 25 April, which not only asserts the primacy of the Ukrainian language but makes it illegal to even suggest an equal status for Russian has met with strong resistance from different – not only Russian-speaking – segments of Ukrainian society. Ultimately, the fact that Poroshenko’s largely divisive slogans did not help to mobilise support shows that the elections were about the struggle for a better future, rather than the need to defend Ukraine against perceived enemies.

What next for Russia-Ukraine relations?

How much Zelensky’s conciliatory tone will be reflected in his relations towards Ukraine’s neighbours, most notably Russia, is for the moment a matter of speculation, as the pages of his political programme are still unwritten.

Zelensky has come out strongly for the need to end the war in eastern Ukraine and said after the elections that he would be ready to talk to Russia and continue negotiations within the (potentially expanded) Normandy Format on the still unimplemented Minsk agreement. At the same time, he suggested that the process would have to be restarted and dismissed the idea of granting the Donbass any special status or signing the law on amnesty for the militants of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

Significant progress in negotiations on the conflict in the Donbass is unlikely in 2019. Following Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s signature on a decree to make it easier for residents of the Donbass to obtain a Russian passport, the window of opportunity for both sides to start walking away from the conflict might close soon. A likely scenario is that Moscow opts to wait until the October parliamentary elections when the political transition to a new government will be completed before it takes any substantial actions.

The big question mark over the possible evolution of Ukrainian-Russian relations under Zelensky’s presidency is that while neither a big breakthrough in relations nor a return to the pre-2014 status is likely, Zelensky’s non-confrontational attitude towards Russia so far, as opposed to Poroshenko’s bellicose stance, might provide room for at least a partial normalisation.

A game of two halves

Zelensky’s spectacular win was the manifestation of a public outcry against the ruling elite’s failure to change, but in and of itself it does not put Zelensky in a position to resolve such problems. Without creating political representation for his party in the Rada he will find it very difficult to put any policies he may have in place or to have any substantial impact on Ukraine’s economy.

Zelensky’s powerful popular mandate is a good starting point but he needs to follow up by turning his newly established Servant of the People political party into an effective political too if he is to deliver on his promise to “serve the Ukrainian people”.

The first challenge will be to create a place for his party in the Verkhovna Rada. The distribution of executive power between the president and the prime minister is enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution and while the presidency is a powerful post, ultimately Zelensky only has direct control over the Defence and Foreign ministries, as well as being able to appoint the General Prosecutor and a few other minor posts.

That means Zelensky needs a working relationship with the Rada, which can appoint most of the important ministers to the Cabinet. Poroshenko may have been ousted from his job as president but he remains the leader of the eponymous Petro Poroshenko Bloc ‘Solidarity’, which remains the largest faction in parliament. Currently, Zelensky does not have a single deputy in parliament.

At the same time, the implacable Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) Party leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who came third in the presidential election first round, will almost certainly be back in the game soon, possibly trying to make arrangements with Zelensky’s party to secure her position in the Rada.

Momentum amidst volatility

The president-elect needs to maintain his popular momentum for the next six months until the parliamentary elections in October and then mobilise the population a second time to deliver the same sort of crushing victory over the prevailing political establishment again.

Even if his ‘Servant of the People’ party receives the largest share of October’s elections, which according to a recent poll conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology would be nearly 26%, it would still be forced into a coalition with another party in order to rule.

Given the volatility of domestic politics it is extremely difficult to say what the political party landscape will look like in autumn. In a statement shortly before the presidential elections Zelensky already ruled out forming a coalition government with either Poroshenko or the ex-members of the pro-Russian Party of Regions. However, forming a coalition with another political party that could also give him a majority in the Rada will be key to passing any laws and implementing the changes Zelensky’s electorate is hoping for.

The Rada in its current constellation is likely to sabotage any Zelensky initiative to try to keep him weak, simply to bolster the chances of various alternatives in October. The entire membership of the current Rada has a vested interest in removing as much of Zelensky's democratic gloss over the next five months as it can. Paralysing Zelensky’s presidency in the coming months and grinding away at his popular mandate to gradually weaken his support in the parliamentary elections could well spell a period of dirty politics and more disunity.

Zelensky could in theory dissolve the parliament and hold snap elections to capitalise on the current euphoria. But the problem with that is that he needs to dissolve the Rada before 27 May, as the law says that the Rada cannot be dissolved in the last six months before an election.

The PR battle

The struggle for power may see efforts to exploit Zelensky’s vulnerabilities by publicly discrediting his image.

Maybe Zelensky’s biggest vulnerability is his alleged ties to the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, whose 1+1 television channel broadcasts Zelensky’s show ‘Servant of the People’, and who was suspected of organising and funding Zelensky’s campaign.

Poroshenko played heavily on this connection in his campaign, calling Zelensky a Kolomoyskyi puppet, but to little effect. However, the relationship between Zelensky and Kolomoyskyi , and particularly any eventual attempts by the latter to influence the president, will now be closely watched.

Kolomoyskyi has already announced plans to return to Ukraine from self-imposed exile in Israel, which has no extradition treaty with Ukraine. The assumption is that Kolomoyskyi will attempt to cash in on his backing of Zelenskiy’s campaign. He has already won two cases in Kiev courts that go some way to undoing the 2016 nationalisation of his PrivatBank, previously Ukraine’s biggest private bank. Obviously any support Zelensky gives to Kolomoyskyi’s business interests would be very damaging, but the actual relationship between the two remains largely unknown.

People power

While the existing political establishment is against him, Zelensky's huge popular mandate remains his ace in the hole. The elite cannot ignore the size of Zelensky's support, which has shaken the political establishment to its core.

The Ukrainian people have become radicalised to a degree beyond anywhere else in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and have already taken to the street to oust unwanted presidents twice in the last decade. Indeed, if you include Poroshenko’s humiliating defeat on 21 April, the Ukrainian people have ousted three presidents, as Poroshenko had every advantage his office offered going into the election, but was still manifestly crushed in the polls.

On top of this, Ukraine now boasts a vibrant civil society capable of mobilising public pressure on the government on specific issues. Attempts to release Roman Nasirov, the former government financial controller and Poroshenko confident, from detention following his indictment on corruption charges by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), failed after protestors surrounded the courthouse where he was being held all weekend until a judge appeared on Monday to arraign him.

The scramble to October

Under such popular pressure, the existing political structures in the Rada are likely to break up to an extent as politicians take stock of the new landscape and scramble to reinvent themselves ahead of the October elections. In this environment, Zelensky has the opportunity to build a new party or at least a base in the Rada.

Fearing the loss of their positions, some members of the old elite who have so far been loyal to Poroshenko will attempt to move closer to Zelensky. The Ukrainian political system is patrimonial, operating through competing formal and informal power structures. This determines the formations of political actors at national and regional levels. The most recent example is current Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who announced that he is leaving the Poroshenko bloc and will form a new political party in his re-election bid. Groysman, who has managed to stay above the fray for most of his tenure, would be an important catch for the nascent Zelensky political party and this shows that the reshuffle of loyalties in the struggle for power has already begun.



Maya Janik, research associate, with an interest in conflict management and politics in the post-Soviet region. Master degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and another one in Political Science from the University of Vienna.