Zelenskiy’s Party Wins Big in Snap Elections, Signals New Direction for Ukraine
By Marren Haneberg
In July’s snap parliamentary elections, Ukrainian President President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People Party secured a majority with 91 percent of the vote counted. Ukraine has a mixed-party system; half of Verkhovna Rada’s seats are determined by party lists and the other half by “first-past-the-post constituency races” (6). Servant of the People’s showing in both races positions Zelenskiy to push his reforms forward in Ukraine. Winning 129 of 199 constituencies and 122 of 199 party seats, the election results mark the first time “in Ukraine’s post-independence history that a party obtains a majority in the parliament—the Verkhovna Rada” (6).
Prior to being elected president, Zelenskiy had no political experience. His party, Servant of the People, is named after a television comedy that starred Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s fictional president. Servant of the People was only formed in March 2018, so its strong victory shows that Ukrainians want political change. The large majority it secured in this election enables Zelenskiy to choose political outsiders—like himself—to fill high-ranking government positions and fulfill his initiatives.
“We have two wars – a war with Russia and a war with corruption within the country, which is a threat, first of all, for the economy of Ukraine” Zelenskiy told Kyivpost on May 30 (2). With the pro-Russia party capturing less than 13 percent of the vote, Ukrainians have made it clear they are fed up with Russian interference in their country. Relations between the two countries have been tense since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. After Zelenskiy won the presidential election, Putin refused to congratulate him. Putin then signed an order that streamlined the Russian citizenship process for Ukrainians living in separatist-controlled east Ukraine. This move was considered provocative by Ukrainian and Western leaders. Kurt Volker, U.S. special envoy to Ukraine tweeted that it “[flew] in the face in the spirit of the Minsk agreements and puts at risk efforts to bring peace to the citizens of Ukraine,” referring to the 2015 cease-fire agreement which both sides have repeatedly broken (8).
Despite this strain, Zelenskiy said he wants to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict while keeping Ukraine on the path to EU membership. On July 8 Zelenskiy said in an online video “I want to turn to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Need to talk? It is necessary. Let’s discuss to whom Crimea belongs and who is not there in the Donbass” (10). He proposed that U.S. President Donald Trump and the British prime minister would join the negotiations. On July 12, Zelenskiy initiated a call to Putin. The two leaders discussed “a stalled peace agreement for Ukraine’s Donbas region” and a prisoner exchange (4). Russia is holding 24 Ukrainian sailors it captured at sea and “ dozens of Ukrainian citizens whom human rights groups have labeled prisoners of conscience” and Ukraine has arrested Russians who fought alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine (4).
Russia still claims that it is not participating in the war and that Russian fighters are volunteers protecting Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, even though Western journalists have repeatedly documented “active Russian army servicemen sent on instructions from Moscow” fighting in the region (4). The conflict has left 13,000 people dead and displaced 1.5 million more (5).
Zelenskiy’s second war, this one against corruption, is as ambitious as his first. Corruption remains a widespread problem in Ukraine, which ranks 120th out of 180 countries for corruption (1). Ukrainians elected Zelenskiy’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, for his leadership during the 2014 anti-corruption Maidan Revolution. After being elected, Poroshenko promised anti-corruption reforms but fell behind in implementing them. Consequently, the IMF froze desperately-needed aid to the country in 2017. This frozen aid presented a huge problem to the indebted country, which in 2019 “has gross external financing needs of $46 billion, about 34 percent of GDP” (3). Ukraine agreed to a new 14-month $3.9 billion stand-by arrangement package in October 2018, contingent on Ukraine “operationalizing the anti-corruption court, privatizing large state-owned enterprises, streamlining regulations, and advancing land reform” (9).
With his party’s control over “presidency, parliament, prime minister, and cabinet” Zelenskiy “will have little excuse for not pushing through a reform agenda to boost Ukraine’s deflated economy” (6). However, he will need to overcome Ukraine’s culture of corruption, “the oligarch-and-backroom-deals tradition of politicking in Ukraine” (6). As part of a 16-point reform program, Servant of the People proposed restructuring law enforcement agencies to fight this systemic corruption (11). Its anti-corruption plan also includes monetary rewards for corruption whistleblowers and confiscation of corrupt officials’ property.
Servant of the People proposed raising defense expenditures to at least 5 percent of GDP up from 3.8 percent in 2018 (7, 11). If passed, this proposal will add stress to Ukraine’s already strained economy. The added economic pressure will either strengthen Ukrainians’ resolve to defeat Russia and retake Crimea or it will alienate war-weary Ukrainians against Servant of the People. How Ukrainians decide will partly depend on the level of financial support Ukraine receives from Western powers and the success of Ukrainian-Russian negotiations. If the conflict continues as it has for the past five years, Ukraine’s economy might not withstand such high military expenditures. However, it is unlikely that Ukrainians will move to a pro-Russia stance, given Servant of the People’s clear victory and goals to end the conflict and increase Ukraine’s involvement with the European Union (EU) and NATO. But it could spell economic disaster for Ukraine, which will make fighting corruption and Russian influence all the more difficult.
Using Servant of the People’s political power, Zelenskiy needs to follow IMF suggestions to secure funding for the troubled economy. He needs to continue working to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in east Ukraine with both western and Russian leaders. The faster he finds a solution to the conflict, the sooner he can bolster the faltering economy. With a stronger economy, he will have an easier time fighting corruption as poverty will decrease. Zelenskiy and his party are positioned to make large-scale political change in Ukraine, now is their chance to make it happen.
1. “Corruption Perceptions Index 2018.” Transparency International. https://www.transparency.org/cpi2018.
2. Interfax-Ukraine. 2019. “Zelenskiy: There are two wars in Ukraine – with Russia and corruption.” May 30. Kyivpost. https://www.kyivpost.com/ukraine-politics/zelenskiy-there-are-two-wars-in-ukraine-with-russia-and-corruption.html?cn-reloaded=1.
3. Johnson, Scott. 2019. “Ukraine Vote Won’t Change Precarious Financing Position.” April 18. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-04-18/ukraine-vote-won-t-change-precarious-financing-position-chart?fbclid=IwAR2JprAtLKEQJjmYrn4Mm51TqpQzgFYre1IHdqY_ofSYcoC81xAdmIRYJuA.
4. Maynes, Charles. 2019. “Russian, Ukrainian Leaders Talk at Last.” July 12. VOA News. https://www.voanews.com/europe/russian-ukrainian-leaders-talk-last-0.
5. RFE/RL. 2019. “Volker: Moscow’s Passport Move For Donbas Residents Diverges From Peace Plan.” July 19. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. https://www.rferl.org/a/volker-moscow-passport-move-for-donbas-residents-diverges-from-peace-plan/30064104.html.
6. RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. 2019. “Big Win For Zelenskiy’s Party In Ukraine Elections Solidifies Mandate For Change.” July 23. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. https://www.rferl.org/a/big-win-for-zelenskiy-s-party-in-ukraine-elections-solidifies-mandate-for-change/30070914.html.
7. SIPRI. “SIPRI Military Expenditure Database.” Data through 2018. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. https://www.sipri.org/databases/milex.
8. @SpecRepUkraine (Kurt Volker). “Russia needs to fulfill its Minsk obligations. Expediting Russian passports for Ukrainian citizens flies in the face in the spirit of the Minsk agreements and puts at risk efforts to bring peace to the citizens of Ukraine.” Twitter, July 18, 2019, 12:15, https://twitter.com/SpecRepUkraine/status/1151933538440290305.
9. Stankova, Olga. 2018. “IMF Executive Board Approves 14-month US$3.9 Billion Stand-By Arrangement for Ukraine, US$1.4 Billion for Immediate Disbursement.” December 18. PRESS RELEASE NO. 18/483, International Monetary Fund. https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2018/12/18/pr18483-ukraine-imf-executive-board-approves-14-month-stand-by-arrangement.
10. Zinets, Natalia. 2019. “Ukraine’s president says ready to meet Russia’s Putin in Minsk.” July 8. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-russia/ukraines-president-says-ready-to-meet-russias-putin-in-minsk-idUSKCN1U310I.
11. “З якими обіцянками «Слуга народу» йде на вибори: 16 пунктів програми.” June 9, 2019. Glavcom.ua. https://glavcom.ua/country/politics/z-yakimi-obicyankami-sluga-narodu-yde-na-vibori-16-punktiv-programi-600524.html.
12. Слуга Народу. 16-point Political Platform. Facebook. June 9, 2019. Accessed July 25, 2019.